With a bumper year for elections worldwide, including June polls for the European Parliament, European Union officials tasked with monitoring disinformation are on high alert.
A dedicated EU task force investigated 750 incidents of deliberately misleading information being spread by foreign actors last year, published in a new report. As in previous years, Russia was the primary source, "trying to justify its war of aggression against Ukraine," the authors of the European Union External Action Service (EEAS) document wrote.
Ukraine was the number one targeted country, followed by the United States, Germany and Poland. Close to 150 institutions, including the EU, NATO and media outlets like Deutsche Welle, Reuters and Euronews, were affected.
In its second annual disinformation report, EEAS wrote of continued "intentional, strategic and coordinated attempts to manipulate facts, to confuse, and to sow division, fear and hatred." A notable trend in the past year was anti-LGBTQ or gender-based disinformation.
Not a 'bomb' but a 'poison'
Presenting the findings, EU top diplomat Josep Borrell, a frequent target himself for disinformation, according to the report, described it as one of the biggest security threats of our times. "[It] is not about not about a bomb that can kill you. It's about a poison that can colonize your mind," Borrell said Tuesday evening in Brussels.
Underlining his point, he cited a recent example from France. Three weeks into Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip after October 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, Parisians woke up to see blue Stars of David spray-painted onto 250 buildings, Borrell said.
"This reminds us of the worst days of the Holocaust," Borrell said, with images spreading quickly on social media. Some commentators immediately blamed the Muslim community, but a week later, French authorities identified it as a potential Russian destabilization campaign, he continued.
In November, the French Foreign Ministry condemned the Russian network Recent Reliable News (RRN) or Doppelgänger for "the artificial spreading and initial distribution on social media of photos" of the incident. Seven Russian individuals linked to RRN were placed under EU sanctions last July.
Investigations by French authorities into the spray-painting incident continue, seeking to determine whether a foreign backer was involved.
Monitors from EUvsDisinfo, a project EEAS set up in 2015, have identified Doppelgänger as "a multi-faceted online information operation originating from Russia [that] has targeted multiple countries worldwide," often by impersonating western authorities like the French Foreign Ministry or media outlets.
Elections as 'prime targets'
Disinformation "has always existed," Borrell acknowledged. "But now we are much more vulnerable to this threat because information circulates at the speed of light."
With 50% of the world's adult population eligible to vote in some 60 elections this year, Borrell said many would "become the prime targets for malign foreign actors."
This was the case in the EU last year, like in Spain. "Russian agents, once again, imitated the official website of the Regional Government of Madrid two days before the elections," he said. These actors warned falsely "that (defunct Basque separatist terrorist group) ETA was coming back and was having a plan to attack the polling stations."
Disinformation is also a homegrown threat
In a separate report published last November by the European Digital Media Observatory, another EU-funded project, fact-checkers identified disinformation related to the electoral process in all 10 European countries it assessed, most of them in the EU.
"False narratives often aimed at delegitimizing elections through unfounded claims of voter fraud, foreign influences and unfair practices," they concluded.
But while Borrell and the EEAS were focused on Russia, such incidents also frequently come from domestic sources.
"We see a lot of disinformation coming from internal actors of the EU," Tommaso Canetta from Pagella Politica, an Italian fact-checking organization, told DW. "Disinformation is particularly harmful and dangerous when politicians and traditional media start spreading it."
Canetta pointed out that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the two EU countries with the highest vaccination rates, Portugal and Ireland, saw media and politicians stand firmly united around scientific evidence. The two with the lowest, Bulgaria and Romania, witnessed intense political polarization that affected public discourse.
While Ukraine is a frequent target, Canetta said fact-checkers also flag a lot of content linked to climate topics or migrants and refugees. For example, in his native Italy, many erroneous claims are spread about electric cars, such as that they are more likely to catch fire than combustion engines or get stuck in winter.
In Ireland, disinformation linked to refugees and housing shortages fueled recent riots in Dublin, Canetta said.
Where does it all go?
Borrell struck an alarming tone on Tuesday, referring to a "battle of narratives" that must be won and to Russian disinformation as a "full-fledged instrument of war."
But the EEAS report also warned it was crucial not to inflate the potential risk. Quick detection and proactive tackling of disinformation played a role, as did improved public media literacy.
Ahead of the EU-wide election of parliament, which in any case is regarded as less important than national elections by many citizens, Canetta said the risk wasn't so much that we would see "what happened in the United States or Brazil." Violence and disorder followed recent elections that removed Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro as presidents of their respective countries.
"I'm more concerned about disinformation ahead of the elections attacking EU recent actions like the Green Deal or the pandemic plan," he said. "The more significant risk is that extremist forces could gain the consensus changing the EU's stance on certain issues."
Edited by: Davis VanOpdorp