More than half of Europeans may have seen some form of misinformation promoted by Russian actors on social networks ahead of the parliamentary election later this month, according to an analysis reviewed by POLITICO.
The report — by SafeGuard Cyber, a U.S.-based cybersecurity firm — coincides with criticism that tech companies, notably Facebook, are not doing enough to thwart false reports and that European voters may be subject to efforts to manipulate their views on immigration and the European Union.
With the bloc-wide election on May 23-26, researchers found a vast network of automated social media accounts, allegedly controlled by Russian actors, that foment extremist views by amplifying content produced by the hard-right Alternative for Germany, as well as various supporters of the United Kingdom leaving the EU.
The goal of such efforts, according to the analysis, is to amplify divisive issues in European countries to undermine democratic institutions and create domestic tensions in a way that ultimately favors the Russian state.
“Theyve created narratives in all of the countries specifically about the European elections,” said Otavio Freire, co-founder of SafeGuard Cyber, the firm that carried out the analysis across the EU over a ten-day period ending on May 10.
He said topics like opposition to the European Union and to leaders like Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, as well as around controversial topics like Brexit, had garnered particular attention from Russian-backed automated social media accounts.
“From a tactical perspective, they have been successful in spreading these messages,” Freire said.
POLITICO was unable to verify independently if the social media accounts outlined in the analysis were linked to Russia, and SafeGuard Cyber did not provide a list of the users that it said were tied to Russia. Independent researchers questioned if the cybersecurity company would be able to accurately verify if these accounts were associated with a foreign influence campaign.
Freire, the SafeGuard Cyber executive, said that his team had used more than 50 identifiers, including the location from which the social messages had been sent and their previous activity linked to Russian interests, to verify that the accounts were tied to Russia. The group had compiled a database of some 500,000 so-called troll or bot accounts that participated in the efforts.
“Creating something out of nothing is really hard. Its a lot easier to amplify existing content” — Ben Nimmo, Atlantic Council analyst
“The origin is in Russia tied to influence campaigns,” he added.
As part of a misinformation campaign, these Russian-backed social media accounts have amplified domestic messaging from extremist groups — from both the left and right — to sow dissent, according to the analysis.
This represents a strategic shift from the 2016 U.S. presidential election when Russian groups created original content, often pretending to be local American voters, around topics such as the “Black Lives Matter” movement or support for gun rights to sow discord.
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As social media companies and governments became more aware of such tactics, foreign actors shifted toward promoting existing content from inside countries — a tactic that is more difficult for the companies to track and hard to legislate against.
“Creating something out of nothing is really hard,” said Ben Nimmo, a disinformation analyst at the Atlantic Council, who was not associated with the SafeGuard Cyber analysis. “Its a lot easier to amplify existing content.”
In total, roughly half of the European population, or around 240 million people, may have been exposed to some form of Russian-backed misinformation campaign, according to SafeGuard Cybers analysis. That is based on the potential reach of a series of amplification efforts across Twitter, Facebook and Googles YouTube that was reviewed between May 1 and May 10.
“Facebook is a good way to mobilize your voters. But in the end, its hard to shift peoples political opinions” — Alexander Sängerlaub, head of the disinformation project at Stiftung Neue Verantwortung
The focus of these activities has primarily been Europes largest countries, based on the number of politicians in the European Parliament. But smaller countries perceived to be within the Russian sphere of influence like the Baltic states also garnered high levels of social media misinformation.
In France, for instance,