Trolls can influence voters in polls. Is Europe ready?
The EU has asked Facebook, Google, Twitter, Mozilla and online advertising trade associations to "swiftly and effectively" act on pledges to fight disinformation.
By Jon Van Housen & Mariella Radaelli (Euroscope)
Published: Sat 26 Jan 2019, 7:32 PM
Last updated: Sat 26 Jan 2019, 10:00 PM
As the US House of Representatives continues to battle US President Donald Trump and the UK struggles with Brexit, many in Europe are concerned about looming European Union parliament elections in May.
Even though there is no absolute proof as yet of Russian meddling in the US presidential elections or of Russians stoking misinformation on social media to influence support for Brexit, there is widespread suspicion to believe otherwise. If Russia's role is proven, all we say is that its goal of sowing division and disarray certainly worked.
Now Europe is on watch for similar activity. But mounting a concerted defense could prove difficult.
The core principle of independence among EU member states means each of the 27 member states - the number if the UK leaves at the end of March - is in charge of its own vote. The EU role could be limited to organising stress tests and more robust communication in member state responses.
The fear of interference already appears to have some substance. Take the case of the Germans, for instance. Upon their return to work after the New Year break, hundreds of German politicians learned their personal data had been hacked. Only those representing the far right Alternative for Deutschland appeared exempt, raising suspicions of a foreign actor at work.
The news came at a time when high level alerts were already in place. A survey by Eurostat, Europe's statistics agency, last fall found six in 10 people were concerned about cyberattacks manipulating the result of elections.
"As we know and as we've seen, the adversary is rather opportunistic and patient," says Lisa Past, the chief research officer at the cybersecurity branch of the Estonian Information System Authority, who coordinated security preparations across Europe last year. "In 2016 we stopped being naïve. Since then we have tested national systems for the security environment as we now know it. But the last European election was 2014 and that system hasn't been tested in this new security environment."
In response, the EU has rolled out a bloc-wide alert system and is pressuring internet giants like Facebook for more help.
"We need to be united and join forces to protect our democracies against disinformation," says Andrus Ansip, the EU vice-president for the digital single market. "We have seen attempts to interfere in elections, with evidence pointing to Russia as a primary source of these campaigns."
Set for implementation in March, the new EU alert system will enable members to share data on suspected propaganda campaigns. The commission's budget to tackle disinformation will rise to ?5 million from the previous ?1.9 million, with the increased budget paying for more staff and equipment in Brussels. Few days ago, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini said the action plan against disinformation "is subject now to common work for the implementation that requires stronger determination and inputs also from our member states."
The EU has also asked Facebook, Google, Twitter, Mozilla and online advertising trade associations to "swiftly and effectively" act on pledges to fight disinformation. Their efforts are supposed to ensure transparency in political advertising, closure of fake accounts and flagging messages spread automatically by 'bots'.
"We will impose huge pressure on them to do what they promised to do," EU justice commissioner Vera Jourova told reporters.
With the challenge evolving rapidly, even defining what constitutes fake news had proven difficult for a bureaucracy as massive and multifaceted as the EU. "Hate speech is illegal," says Jourova.
"But fake news is another category. Lying is not illegal. We cannot easily define the line between fake news that can harm the society and fake news that is innocent."
The EU finally adopted its own definition of disinformation as verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public and may cause public harm. "We need member states to realise it's not business as usual," Jourova says. "We want them to take all necessary measures to be ready to face the risk of cyberattacks, to face up to the risk manipulation and address it."
The EU strategy could leave smaller, underfunded member states more vulnerable to meddling. With the percentage of those who actually vote low in some small countries, efforts needed to affect the outcome are relatively modest compared to previous Russian efforts.
Russia's Internet Research Agency alone is thought to have an annual budget of $12 million and more than a thousand workers active around the clock to push out propaganda to disrupt and influence political debate around the world. "If you have lower turnout, it's much easier to focus on specific electoral groups favouring the far right and mobilise them," says Jakub Janda, executive director of the European Values think tank in Prague that maintains a Russian monitoring programme.
Just months out from the election, the EU has yet to really mobilise, says Janda. "They are starting very slowly," he says. "I wouldn't have any high expectations."
Estonia's research officer Past says disinformation campaigns are "not really out to penetrate or corrupt any particular technical systems to disrupt elections, but rather to de-legitimise the whole democratic process. They'll use any and all approaches and tools available."
Whatever the outcome, the EU elections in May will be closely watched worldwide. The time of unconcerned online companies and undefended counties is past. Whether or not proactive steps are effective, all are aware we live in a new era.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are editors at www.luminosityitalia.com news agency in Milan