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Russia is targeting Europe’s elections, as are far-right copycats

Disinformation efforts resemble those before the 2016 US presidential campaign

  • Published 12.05.19, 3:28 PM
  • Updated 12.05.19, 3:28 PM
  • a min read
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Fringe political commentary sites in Italy, for instance, bear the same electronic signatures as pro-Kremlin websites Picture by Shutterstock

Less than two weeks before pivotal elections for the European Parliament, a constellation of websites and social media accounts linked to Russia or far-right groups is spreading disinformation, encouraging discord and amplifying distrust in the centrist parties that have governed for decades.

European Union investigators, academics and advocacy groups say the new disinformation efforts share many of the same digital fingerprints or tactics used in previous Russian attacks, including the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 US presidential campaign.

Fringe political commentary sites in Italy, for instance, bear the same electronic signatures as pro-Kremlin websites, while a pair of German political groups share servers used by the Russian hackers who attacked the Democratic National Committee.

The activity offers fresh evidence that despite indictments, expulsions and recriminations, Russia remains undeterred in its campaign to widen political divisions and weaken Western institutions. In addition to Russia, researchers say, numerous copycats often echo Kremlin talking points, making it difficult to discern the lines between Russian propaganda, far-right disinformation and genuine political debate.

“The goal here is bigger than any one election,” said Daniel Jones, a former FBI analyst and Senate investigator whose non-profit group, Advance Democracy, recently flagged a number of suspicious websites and social media accounts to law enforcement authorities. “It is to constantly divide, increase distrust and undermine our faith in institutions and democracy itself. They’re working to destroy everything that was built post-World War II.”

The European Parliament elections, which will be held between May 23 and 26, are regarded as a test of rising populism in the European Union. Populist leaders, many of them sympathetic to Russia, have loosely joined together in hopes of expanding their influence in the Parliament and, in turn, redirecting or subverting policymaking in Brussels.

Intelligence officials have not publicly accused the Kremlin of backing specific candidates in Europe in the way that US authorities say that President Vladimir Putin sought to promote Donald Trump in 2016. But researchers suggest that swinging elections is a stretch goal for this kind of campaign: The primary point is to muddle the conversation, make people question what is true and erode trust.

Russia dismisses accusations of meddling.