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European elections face growing threat of organised social media manipulation

Submitted by on 07 Jan 2019 – 11:36

With a new batch of MEPs, a new president of the European Council and European Central Bank, as well as new commissioners due to take up their posts in 2019, European elections face growing threat of organised social media manipulation. With each passing election, there is a growing body of evidence that national leaders, political parties, and individual political candidates are using social media platforms to spread disinformation. Government Gazette looks at the preparations ahead of upcoming elections


Although the 2016 presidential election might have attracted the greatest media enquiry, the US is far from being the only target; Russia is actively exporting its interference platform to other countries, including in Europe.

Despite efforts by governments in many democracies in introducing new legislation designed to combat fake news on the Internet, the problem is growing at a large scale, according to a new report from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII). The number of countries where formally organised social media manipulation occurs has significantly increased, from 28 to 48 countries globally.

With each passing election, there is a growing body of evidence that national leaders, political parties, and individual political candidates are using social media platforms to spread disinformation. Professor Phil Howard, co-author and lead researcher notes that authoritarian regimes are increasingly using ‘task forces’ created to combat fake news as a new tool to legitimise censorship.

In May, 2019 up to 350 million voters across the European Union will take to the polls to elect 705 MEPs. There isn’t any particular piece of intelligence saying that somebody is going to target the European Parliament elections, or indeed one of the series of elections that is due to take place across the continent.

But if you look at the track record, you have to say that there is a chance – some might call it a likelihood – that someone will seek to do just that and small groups of vulnerable voters are bound to be beleaguered. EU Justice Commissioner VěraJourová recently pointed to Russia as the “most cited source of activities interfering with elections in Europe.”

Reportedly, more campaigns are using automated bots, junk news, and disinformation to polarise and manipulate voters. While automated bot accounts continue to be a well-used tactic, online commentators and fake accounts are used to spread pro-party messages, as well as being used to strategically share content or post using keywords to game algorithms and get certain content trending.

They are also being used to report legitimate content and accounts on a mass scale, causing them to be taken down temporarily. According to OII, there is growing evidence that disinformation campaigns are moving on to chat applications and alternative platforms.

In October, the European Commission announced that Facebook, Twitter, Google and others have agreed to wipe out fake news on the web, with detailed individual roadmaps containing concrete actions showing how these tech platforms plan to extend their tools against disinformation, ahead of the EU elections.

In the build-up to elections, Facebook has pledged to train all political groups at the European Parliament on election integrity and use of Facebook as a campaigning tool. In addition to offering in-person security training to the most vulnerable groups, who face increased risks of phishing attacks, Google has promised to announce the introduction of new political advertising transparency tools, including a new process to verify EU election advertisers to make sure they are who they say they are.

In a statement proposing the new rules, VěraJourová said: “We need to draw lessons from the recent elections and referenda.”

“We want to minimise the risk in the upcoming elections, ranging from non-transparent political advertising to misuse of people’s personal data, especially by foreign actors. I want Europeans to be able to make a free decision when casting their vote. To ensure this, the online anarchy of election rules must end.”

Besides providing guidance on the application of the EU data protection law, the European Commission also presented a slew of preventive measures, including a recommendation on election cooperation networks, online transparency, protection against cybersecurity incidents and fighting disinformation campaigns.

As the European elections of May 2019 will take place in a very different political and legal environment compared to 2014, the European Commission has called on member state authorities and political parties to assume greater responsibility to protect the democratic process from foreign interference and illegal manipulation.

To equip Europe with the right tools to deal with cyber-attacks, the European Commission proposed in September, 2017 a wide-ranging set of measures to build strong cybersecurity in the EU. This included a proposal for strengthening the EU Agency for Cybersecurity, as well as a new European certification scheme to ensure that products and services in the digital world are safe to use.

The European Commission also issued a recommendation in February, 2018 which highlights key steps to further enhance the efficient conduct of the 2019 elections.

It was Abraham Lincoln, of course, who said that: “the ballot is stronger than the bullet”. We have to make sure that remains true, even though today’s cyber bullets are getting harder to spot and certainly harder to stop.