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Disinformation campaigns likely to undermine EU elections, experts say

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Attempts to delegitimise the upcoming EU elections in June and discourage the public from voting are expected “to be very much prevalent”, the European Parliament and experts have warned.

With the EU elections to be held in about 85 days (6-9 June), European institutions aim to outdo 2019’s voter turnout of 50.66% – the highest since 1994.

However, not everyone would like to see Europeans enthusiastically heading to the voting booths — and analysts say malign actors are working to make sure that does not become a reality.

There has been “an emerging focus on disinformation that targets and has a clear focus in undermining the idea of election integrity,” Carlos Hernández-Echevarría, Chair of European Fact-Checking Standards Network and Associate Director of anti-disinformation platform Maldita.es said.

Speaking at the event “Safeguarding Democracy” dedicated to the role of media on Tuesday (12 March), Hernández-Echevarría said he expects this narrative to be “very much prevalent during the next European parliamentary elections”.

The overarching message of these expected campaigns is that the European elections are not democratic and therefore do not matter, in order to discourage the public from voting at all.

The technical equipment or the online voting system has also been questioned in the disinformation efforts, Delphine Colard, deputy spokesperson of the European Parliament told journalists on Tuesday (12 March).

Already targeted

This playbook has been seen in recent national elections in the EU, Colard said.

In Slovenia, Spain and Finland, a similar disinformation narrative was spread during their respective general elections last year. The narrative suggested that disappearing ink would be used in these elections to invalidate ballot papers, Colard explained.

“Foreign interference in election processes has become increasingly prevalent, exacerbated by new technologies and widespread social media use and increased geopolitical rivalry,” the European Parliamentary Research Service recently stated.

The usual suspects in these campaigns are foreign actors. As such, the European Parliament has called for increased cooperation in disinformation, raising concerns particularly over Russian and Chinese interference.

At the same time, threats coming from European soil are growing. “We have seen a coordinated effort by domestic actors on this through the years, and it gets stronger every election. Three months [before] the election we’re already seeing it again,” Hernández-Echevarría told Euractiv.

For the fact-checker, it is clear “that the delegitimisation of democratic procedures […] has a strategic value for several actors that might be interested in amplifying this narrative”.

Limited toolbox

The days leading up to the elections are a key battleground. At that point, there is little time for fact-checkers to effectively combat most disinformation narratives, said Hernández-Echevarría.

Europe’s main tool to fight disinformation is the Digital Services Act, which aims to improve the transparency and accountability of online services. It set out rules on how online platforms should deal with illegal or harmful content by making them accountable for content moderation.

Most online platforms rely on automated systems for content moderation, including disinformation. However, for these systems, it is “extremely difficult, if not impossible, to catch sarcasm [and] criticism”, Hernández-Echevarría explained. In cases where the language of the content is not English, the platforms are in an even worse position for online moderation.

According to Vladimír Bilčík (EPP, SK), a member of the Special Committees on Foreign Interference, the previous self-regulation did not work and is the reason why the DSA is now in place. However, the “platforms have long ways to go [in implementing the act] and a huge responsibility”.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

Read more with Euractiv

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