Europe battles ‘avalanche of disinformation’ from Russia

Online fake news and hybrid campaigns increase in advance of European elections

The viral video clip showed a well-known TV presenter announcing the alarming news that French president Emmanuel Macron had cancelled a planned trip to Kyiv because of an assassination plot.

The Élysée and the TV station concerned, France 24, quickly debunked the video as fake and AI-generated. But they were not able to contain its spread, particularly after former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev reposted the video, 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 EU-wide elections in June.

With Russia-leaning nationalist parties polling strongly in France, Germany and elsewhere, the Kremlin has an interest in boosting their messaging, including by emphasising the West’s fading willingness to send aid to Kyiv two years after Moscow’s full-scale invasion.


Vera Jourova, the European Commission’s vice-president spearheading work on disinformation, has warned that the European Parliament elections in June will be hit by an “avalanche of disinformation”, including deepfake videos designed to erode public trust in the vote.

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

The EU commission next week is expected to introduce stricter online disinformation rules that could impose fines on TikTok, X and other social media platforms if they fail to crack down on deepfakes and other false news.

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

France in particular is fighting back. It has tasked Viginum, a foreign disinformation watchdog founded in 2021 and staffed by a team of 50, with rooting out such destabilisation efforts. Viginum not only monitors Russia-linked social media accounts and channels on messaging apps such as Telegram, but also exposes influence operations publicly to raise awareness.

Russia has a long history of disinformation and psy-ops, going back to the cold war. In the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow increasingly relied on state-backed television broadcasters Russia Today and Sputnik to spread its messages to foreign audiences.

With the advent of the internet, Moscow shifted online, with troll farms, hacking operations and disinformation campaigns targeting elections in Europe, the US and the UK over the past decade.

The pivot to online campaigns 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, like during the Cold War when both sides were locked in an invisible battle.”

As an example, he noted how Russia had developed roughly 30 “mirror sites” for RT to ensure that web users in the EU can still access them despite bans.

French officials say Russia is turning to more “hybrid” operations combining actions in the real world with online propaganda, such as an incident in November when Star of David graffiti appeared on buildings in Paris.

Initially portrayed by French media as part of an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents after the October 7th Hamas attack, the graffiti also evoked memories of the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust.

But it turned out that hundreds of blue Stars of David, a symbol of Israel and the Jewish faith, had been painted by several Moldovan nationals acting on behalf of a businessman who officials in Chisinau believe to be a Russian agent.

Anatoli Prizenco denies being on the Kremlin’s payroll, but said he was part of a wider pro-Israeli network that commissioned the graffiti. “I wanted to do something to support Jews across Europe,” he told the Financial Times.

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

The French DGSI internal security service found that the operation was led by the Russian spy agency, the FSB, according to Le Monde newspaper, as part of a broader 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,” wrote the Royal United Services Institute in a recent report.

In France, officials in February unveiled a network of 193 websites dubbed Portal Kombat, which they said had been created by a Crimea-based company to spread pro-Russian news in French, English, Spanish and German. It amounted to a “dormant system” that could be “quickly activated to saturate the informational space” during elections.

Policymakers warn that even genuine information can be weaponised. A wiretapped conversation of senior German military officers discussing a sensitive debate over sending powerful missiles to Ukraine was gleefully leaked by Russian state media earlier this month and has driven home how aggressive the Kremlin can be.

The German foreign ministry in January said it identified what it believed to be one of the largest disinformation networks deployed by Russia: 50,000 bots active on X that questioned Berlin’s support for Kyiv. The network was notably more sophisticated than past operations, Foreign Office officials said.

“The constant stream of lies is meant to plant the notion that all information is unreliable and not trustworthy. To make us suspicious about everything,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in January. “Disinformation weakens the social fabric, poisons democracies, because only information makes democracy possible.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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