Russia is trying to influence the outcome of several key elections in European countries this year with fake news, a special task force set up by the European Union has warned.
The EU is reportedly allocating more funds to its East StratCom task force to counter the disinformation, amid fears Russia will target elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands.
“There is an enormous, far-reaching, at least partly-organised, disinformation campaign against the EU, its politicians and its principles,” a source close to the task force told Germany’s ‘Spiegel’ magazine.
It is “highly likely” Russia would try to influence European elections “as it did in the US”, the source said.
The number one target is Angela Merkel, who has been subjected to a “bombardment” of fake news over her refugee policy and support for economic sanctions against Russia.
Disinformation is “part of state policy” and a “military tool” for the Kremlin.
A report by US intelligence agencies earlier this month found that President Vladimir Putin personally “ordered an influence campaign aimed at the presidential election”.
German intelligence warned last year that Russian hackers may seek to influence the country’s elections in September.
But fears are now growing over the effect of fake news, after a completely false story spread claiming that Germany’s oldest church had been burnt down by 1,000 Muslims chanting “Allahu Akbar”.
East StratCom, set up by the EU in 2015 to counter Russian propaganda and disinformation, says it has already found evidence of a massive fake news campaign targeting European countries.
The unit’s experts found more than 2,500 examples of “stories directly contradicting public facts” in 18 different languages over just 15 months.
The stories were repeated on a daily basis and reproduced in multiple languages.
Fake news stories uncovered by the task force range from conspiracy theories over who shot down Flight MH17 over Ukraine to claims the EU is planning to ban snowmen as “racist”.
They also include a fake terror video threatening attacks in the Netherlands if the country supported an EU association agreement with Ukraine.
Russia has been accused of launching an “influence campaign” to help Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US election
“There is no doubt that the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign is an orchestrated strategy,” the task force, which is part of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s diplomatic service, says on its website.
“The aim of this disinformation campaign is to weaken and destabilise the West, by exploiting existing divisions or creating artificial new ones.
“Often, outright lies are deployed, aimed at denigrating a particular person, political group or government.
“Another strategy is to spread as many conflicting messages as possible, in order to persuade the audience that there are so many versions of events that it is impossible to find the truth.”
Most Russian disinformation in the EU was spread by “domestic actors” who independently repeated talking points that first appear on Russian state news outlets because it suits them ideologically, said Jakub Janda, a deputy director of the European Values think tank in Prague. It monitors suspected Russian disinformation efforts and works closely with the EU task force.
He singled out Milos Zeman, the Eurosceptic president of the Czech republic, as an example of a high-ranking European politician who “copy and pastes Russian messaging and helps Russian foreign policy by repeating its talking points on Syria and Ukraine”. (© Daily Telegraph, London)