Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Russia “spreading disinformation” ahead of EU elections

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Governments point to broad campaign to destabilise Europe

Reuter's graphic.
Reuter’s graphic.

PARIS – European governments say Russia has embarked on a major campaign of disinformation in the run up to the European Union’s elections to the European Parliament from June 6-9.

They say the actions of Moscow and pro-Kremlin actors are part of a wider campaign of interference designed to discredit European governments and destabilise the EU. Moscow rejects the allegations.

What does alleged Russian interference look like?

Allegations of Russian interference in EU affairs in the run-up to the election include:

– Disinformation, with alleged manipulation of the truth ranging from amplifying already-existing conspiracy theories to deepfake videos and the publication of falsehoods on ‘doppelganger’ sites created to look identical to bona fide sites, experts say.

– The Czech Republic said news website voiceofeurope.com had been leading a pro-Russian influence operation in Europe. A pro-Russian Ukrainian politician and businessman, Viktor Medvedchuk, covertly financed the Voice of Europe’s influence operations, it said.

– Belgium said Russian officials had paid European Parliament lawmakers to promote Russian propaganda in Europe.

What is Russia’s response?

Russia denies spreading disinformation. It says the West is involved in a full-scale information war involving fake claims designed to destroy Russia’s reputation and cast it as an enemy. Russian officials say the West has become so intolerant that it refuses to accept any view that contradicts the prevailing dominant narrative and has banned distribution of some Russian state media outlets such as RIA Novosti news agency and newspapers Izvestia and Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

‘Deepfake’ and ‘doppelganger’ sites

Deepfakes are synthetic media in which a person in an existing image or video is replaced with someone else’s likeness using AI (artificial intelligence) techniques. Deepfakes can be highly realistic. This has led to the spread of disinformation and propaganda. In Slovakia’s 2023 election, a voice recording emerged of Michal Simecka, leader of the Progressive Slovakia party, apparently discussing rigging the vote. The recording was fake.

Doppelganger is the name attributed to a disinformation campaign that involves the creation of fake websites that very closely resemble the appearance of existing news sources. Websites targeted include daily newspapers Le Figaro and Die Welt as well as the French foreign ministry and German interior ministry. An article on a cloned French foreign ministry website alleged that France was preparing a tax to help Ukraine’s war effort. Some 200 Facebook accounts were created to disseminate the information.

Russian ‘echo chamber’

European officials accuse Russian state-controlled media, officials and it diplomatic network of being an echo chamber for fake news by raising the profile of unproven information to lend it credibility. Russia’s defence ministry alleged in January that France had sent mercenaries to Ukraine. The unsubstantiated allegation spread quickly through pro-Russian outlets and was pushed by Russia’s parliament as a fact despite vigorous denials by Paris.

What  EU leaders say about it

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said Europe faces a stark choice: be strong or submit to authoritarians. “Do we want a strong Europe that fights for our values and our democracy? Or, on the other hand, do we let our democracies be hijacked by the proxies and puppets of authoritarians?,” she said.

Regulation of social media 

The EU’s new Digital Services Act demands the swift removal of illegal content and more information on how content is aggregated and other practices related to deceptive advertising and deceptive political content. Facebook parent Meta Platforms, YouTube parent Google and TikTok have announced measures including the creation of teams to counter disinformation, AI abuse and covert influence relating to the European Parliament elections.

In April, the European Commission, the EU executive, launched an investigation into Meta Platforms’ Facebook and Instagram over concerns the company was failing to do enough to counter disinformation. 

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