BRUSSELS—Cyber experts have warned that social media accounts that pump out state-sponsored disinformation may have influenced up to half of all Europeans in the runup to this month’s European Union elections.
In a new report, the technology firm SafeGuard Cyber unearthed evidence of 6,700 “bad actors” linked to the Russian government, who have posted enough content to reach as many as 241 million users across the bloc.
The researchers highlighted that networks of “bots” spreading fake news are becoming more sophisticated, with messaging now tailored for individual EU countries and delivered in multiple languages.
Researchers found accounts linked to the Kremlin have been actively adding to the Brexit “confusion” in the UK, while simultaneously “pushing and amplifying content within other EU member states encouraging other exits.”
The report recommends that the EU fund a new “center of excellence staffed with analysts” in response to emerging disinformation threats.
“The report underlines the dangers of disinformation online. Malicious actors, whether they be state or non-state, will not hesitate to use the internet to attempt to influence and interfere in our democratic processes,” said Julian King, the EU’s security commissioner.
European politicians have repeatedly raised fears that Europe-wide elections, which will take place May 23–26, are vulnerable to meddling on an industrial scale from Russia and other global rivals like China.
Senior EU officials are locked in an ongoing battle with social media giants, including Facebook, Google, and Twitter, over what they perceive as an inadequate response to the spreading of fake news and terrorist content.
Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the pan-European liberal grouping, warned that there would be legislative repercussions for technology giants if disinformation does affect the outcome of the EU elections.
“Disinformation is part of Putin’s war against European democracies, our security and our way of life,” the former Belgian prime minister said, in response to the report. “This perverse assault on our values cannot continue. The big internet platforms must be held to account for any failings at the 2019 European elections.”
In March, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for new laws to “enable a robust response” to state-sponsored propaganda, including harsh punishment for social media firms that fail to speedily remove such content.
In their report, MEPs explicitly criticized Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea for increasingly aggressive attempts to “undermine the foundations and principles of European democracies.”
However, some conservative politicians and free speech campaigners have raised fears that the rush to combat the spread of disinformation is leading to bad legislation that will open the door to censorship of some views.
“All too often, legislation focuses on the trees, not the forest. It’s quite likely to end up being irrelevant, or even to exacerbate the root causes of the fake news phenomenon,” said Alberto Alemanno, a professor of EU law at HEC Paris business school, according to The Guardian.
British politician Nigel Farage, who was one of the key figures campaigning for Brexit, has warned that the conversation around fake news is being exploited to shut down right-wing views on social media.
Addressing Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg at the EU Parliament in 2018, he said: “I’m talking about people who have majority mainstream opinions, and frankly, I feel they are being willfully discriminated against.
“What interests me is, who decides what is acceptable? … I’m not usually someone who calls for legislation on the international stage. I’m starting to wonder if we need a social media bill of rights to basically protect free speech.”