Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 21 March 2024


Europe battles Rus­sia dis­in­form­a­tion ‘ava­lanche’

Ahead of EU-wide elec­tions, online fake news and hybrid oper­a­tions have increased

Divisive: Star of David graffiti in Paris, allegedly painted in support of Jews but used by Russian-linked websites to split French society

The viral video clip showed a wellknown tele­vi­sion presenter announ­cing that French Pres­id­ent Emmanuel Mac­ron had can­celled a planned trip to Kyiv because of an assas­sin­a­tion plot.

The Élysée Palace and TV sta­tion France 24 debunked the video as fake, gen­er­ated by arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. But it spread, par­tic­u­larly after former Rus­sia pres­id­ent Dmitry Med­ve­dev repos­ted it, describ­ing Mac­ron as “scared of a real or pre­sumed assas­sin­a­tion”.

Offi­cials in Brus­sels and other European cap­it­als are warn­ing that more vigil­ance and tougher pen­al­ties for online plat­forms will be needed to counter Rus­sia’s dis­in­form­a­tion cam­paigns designed to weaken sup­port for Ukraine and inter­fere with European par­lia­ment elec­tions in June.

With Rus­sia-lean­ing nation­al­ist parties polling strongly in France, Ger­many and else­where, the Krem­lin is boost­ing their mes­saging, includ­ing by emphas­ising the west’s fad­ing will­ing­ness to send aid to Kyiv. Vera Jour­ova, the European Com­mis­sion’s vice-pres­id­ent lead­ing work on dis­in­form­a­tion, warned the elec­tions would be hit by an “ava­lanche of dis­in­form­a­tion”, includ­ing deep­fake videos to erode pub­lic trust in the vote.

She said a “spe­cial effort” was needed to pro­tect the EU vote from an increase in tech­no­logy and poten­tial “hid­den manip­u­la­tion and for­eign inter­fer­ence, espe­cially from the side of the Krem­lin”.

The com­mis­sion is next week expec­ted to roll out stricter online dis­in­form­a­tion rules that could fine Tik­Tok, X and other social media plat­forms if they fail to curb deep­fakes and other false news.

The EU’s dip­lo­matic ser­vice said it uncovered 750 dis­in­form­a­tion cam­paigns in 2023 in a report in Janu­ary that cat­egor­ised for­eign influ­ence cam­paigns as a “secur­ity threat”, espe­cially dur­ing this year’s elec­tions.

France has asked Viginum, a for­eign dis­in­form­a­tion watch­dog, to root out such destabil­isa­tion efforts. Viginum not only mon­it­ors Rus­sia-linked social media accounts and chan­nels on mes­saging apps such as Tele­gram but also exposes so-called influ­ence oper­a­tions.

Rus­sia has a his­tory of dis­in­form­a­tion and psy­cho­lo­gical oper­a­tions. After the Soviet Union’s col­lapse, Moscow increas­ingly relied on state TV broad­casters Rus­sia Today and Sput­nik to spread its mes­sages to for­eign audi­ences. Then, Moscow shif­ted online with troll farms, hack­ing oper­a­tions and dis­in­form­a­tion drives tar­get­ing elec­tions in Europe, the US and the UK over the past dec­ade.

The pivot online has accel­er­ated since Rus­sia’s full-scale inva­sion of Ukraine in 2022, which promp­ted the EU to ban RT and Sput­nik, said Maxime Aud­inet, a researcher at Irsem, a think-tank affil­i­ated with the French armed forces.

“It is a game of cat and mouse,” said Aud­inet. “Rus­sia has adap­ted to the new envir­on­ment since the war in Ukraine, and Europe is beef­ing up its defences in the inform­a­tional space.” He noted how Rus­sia had developed about 30 “mir­ror sites” for RT to ensure web users in the EU could access them des­pite bans.

French offi­cials say Rus­sia is turn­ing to more “hybrid” oper­a­tions com­bin­ing real actions with online pro­pa­ganda, such as in Novem­ber when Star of David graf­fiti appeared in Paris. Por­trayed by French media as part of an uptick in anti­semitic incid­ents after the Octo­ber 7 Hamas attack, the graf­fiti also evoked the abuse of Jews dur­ing the Holo­caust.

But the hun­dreds of blue Stars of David had been painted by Mol­dovan nation­als act­ing for a busi­ness­man who offi­cials in Chisinău believe to be a Rus­sian agent. Anatoli Prizenco denied that, but said he was part of a pro-Israeli net­work that com­mis­sioned the graf­fiti. “I wanted to do something to . . . sup­port Jews across Europe,” he said.

The graf­fiti was boos­ted on social media via a net­work of Rus­sian-linked bots and pro­pa­ganda web­sites, accord­ing to Viginum, to divide French soci­ety, which has the largest Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion in Europe and the biggest Muslim one.

Le Monde repor­ted that the French DGSI internal secur­ity ser­vice found the oper­a­tion was led by Rus­sian spy agency the FSB, in a cam­paign that also tar­geted Poland, Spain and Ger­many.

“Influ­ence oper­a­tions sup­por­ted by inform­a­tion war­fare and act­ive meas­ures exploited by agents of influ­ence are core com­pon­ents of Rus­sia’s uncon­ven­tional war­fare con­cepts,” a Royal United Ser­vices Insti­tute report said recently.

In France, offi­cials last month unveiled 193 web­sites dubbed Portal Kom­bat, which they said had been cre­ated by a Crimea-based com­pany to spread pro­Rus­sian news in French, Eng­lish, Span­ish and Ger­man. It could be “quickly activ­ated” dur­ing elec­tions.

Even genu­ine inform­a­tion can be weapon­ised. A wiretapped con­ver­sa­tion of senior Ger­man mil­it­ary officers dis­cuss­ing send­ing power­ful mis­siles to Ukraine was glee­fully leaked by Rus­sian state media earlier this month.

The Ger­man for­eign min­istry in Janu­ary said it had iden­ti­fied one of the largest dis­in­form­a­tion net­works deployed by Rus­sia: 50,000 bots act­ive on X that ques­tioned Ber­lin’s sup­port for Kyiv.

EU for­eign policy chief Josep Bor­rell said recently: “Dis­in­form­a­tion . . . pois­ons demo­cra­cies, because only inform­a­tion makes demo­cracy pos­sible.”

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