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Russia: meddling while Europe votes

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Russia: meddling while Europe votes

‘Putin has found disinformation a cheaper and arguably more effective route to influence than tanks or foreign investments’

For Europeans, today’s America serves a useful function: a model for how not to run your society. The US has already demonstrated how easy it is to lurch into plutocracy, or to split a country into two hostile tribes. Now it is offering another cautionary lesson: how to let Russian interference succeed by turning it into a partisan issue. Most Republicans are acting as if the problem isn’t Russian meddling in the 2016 election but the FBI’s handling of it.

Russia now has big ambitions for Europe. In the Italian elections on March 4, if you add up the predicted votes of the pro-Kremlin Five Star Movement and the Northern League, plus Vladimir Putin’s chum Silvio Berlusconi, you get to about 58 per cent. Possibly too late, officials around Europe are frantically building defences against Kremlin meddling.

People who warn about Russian disinformation are often accused of hysteria, so I’ll start with some caveats. True, Russia wasn’t the biggest factor in the US election. True, the US (like the UK) has an oversupply of homegrown fake news that dwarfs the quantity made in Russia. True, Hillary Clinton was a bad candidate. True, liberals need to understand the popular anger that Donald Trump embodies.

Still, given that Trump’s winning margin was 77,744 votes spread over three states, it’s plausible that Russia’s hack of Democratic emails — broadcast by the useful idiots of WikiLeaks and mainstream journalists — made the difference. Even if it didn’t, any election-meddling by a hostile power is a serious matter

Putin’s Kremlin began focusing on disinformation in 2008, after losing the international “information war” over its invasion of Georgia. It scaled up disinformation in 2014, during its proxy war in Ukraine. In 2016, it increased its targeting of western countries. A regime that once feared social media has now mastered it. Russia has found disinformation a cheaper and arguably more effective route to influence than sending in tanks or making foreign investments.

Broadly, the Kremlin aims to split the EU and Nato. A quick way to do this is to bolster populist movements such as Brexit or Five Star. So every time there’s a terrorist attack in Europe, pro-Kremlin media, Russian diplomats and trolls spread conspiracy theories that it was an inside job by the host government. Some other favoured storylines: George Soros masterminded the refugee influx; Nato is scheming to invade Russia; the west is lying about Russian doping and wars, and is blaming all its problems on Russia. 

The Russians constantly adapt their disinformation, depending on what works where. In Nordic countries, the Kremlin-controlled Sputnik media flopped and soon closed, but trolls on social media had success in intimidating Nordics, who weren’t used to their brand of verbal aggression. Georgians are told that the EU wants to turn them into gay people or paedophiles. But targeting can be micro too: Nato soldiers in Lithuania and their spouses get text messages from Russia, as do Ukrainian soldiers fighting Russian separatists.

Angela Merkel has displaced Hillary Clinton as the chief target of Russian disinformation, especially in central Europe, where suspicion of Germany is easy to arouse. Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic each host dozens of pro-Kremlin media outlets. Many Balts get their news from Russian-language media, and the two million or so Russian speakers in Germany are also deluged with Kremlin propaganda. In Greece, Kremlin-linked oligarchs own stakes in local media.

Pro-Kremlin public figures across Europe (and Russia keeps lists) can amplify Russian messages. Take France’s Front National, which borrowed €9.4m from the Kremlin-linked First Czech Russian Bank in 2014 while Russia was annexing Crimea. During last spring’s French elections, pro-Front National Twitter accounts that spread certain rumours — such as Emmanuel Macron being gay — were also the most likely to spread Russian disinformation, says Alexandre Alaphilippe of EU Disinfolab, an NGO. Similarly, Five Star’s network of websites and social-media accounts takes many items from “Kremlin-controlled media”, reports the Atlantic Council. 

All this activity creates the psychologically important belief that pro-Kremlin views are more widely shared by the general public than they are. And fake-news items create distrust of all media. This damages a European information ecosphere that, for now, remains healthier than the US’s: most people in most of western Europe still trust public broadcasters. (That’s why the Kremlin aims to persuade Britons that the BBC lies.)

What can European governments do? Warn people to be sceptical of what they read on social media or certain websites, recommends Stephan Lewandowsky, psychologist at Bristol University. Use big data to track which groups of people are susceptible to pro-Kremlin messaging, and reach them first, advises Michel Rademaker of the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. And he urges mainstream media not to repeat Kremlin narratives, not even to refute them. 

The European Commission’s East StratCom task force has about six staffers (three of them full-timers) countering Russian disinformation. That’s not many. The Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg — a “troll factory” where paid trolls dream up constant news stories — just trebled its workspace to 12,000 square metres. 

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