About five months ahead of the EU elections, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell Fontelles, called disinformation and foreign interference “one of the most significant threats of our time”. 

“2024 is a critical year to fight against FIMI [Foreign Information Manipulation and Interference] because we have a lot of elections,” Borrell said in a speech in Brussels on January 23, adding that half of the world’s population will be called to the ballots this year with a total of 60 elections. 

According to Borrell, “manipulation and interference have become an industrial activity” and he warned that Russia and others had already “built an extensive infrastructure for lying, manipulating and destabilising.” He emphasised  that the war in Ukraine not only targets “us, but our partners in the Western Balkans”.

About three weeks later, on February 13, the French government warned that disinformation attacks from countries like Russia were “likely to intensify” before European elections in June.

According to the second FIMI report by the European External Action Service (EEAS), Ukraine is the country which is most targeted by disinformation. The survey analysed 750 incidents between December 2022 and November 2023. 

Russian disinformation on the rise ahead European elections

On February 23, European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová told the Czech News Agency CTK that the biggest risks are in Central and Eastern European countries. “As far as Russian influence is concerned, because it is dominant, we are in an information war with Russia that we did not start but unfortunately we have to respond to it,” she said.

“In every country we see different types of sore spots that can be attacked to make people believe misinformation or get into a certain vortex of panic or fear. Unfortunately, this is all exploitable in election campaigns and I think we should prevent it.”

European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová

The widespread use of pro-Russian disinformation has impacted elections in Europe, with fear mounting ahead of the European Parliament’s June elections. 

“There will be disinformation operations on Ukraine (and) on a whole host of current European issues to promote a conservative or nationalist agenda,” said Valentin Châtelet, research associate for security at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab).

From December 2023 onwards, a vast “pro-Russian disinformation campaign” in Germany created over 50,000 fake X-accounts (formerly Twitter) to stir up anger about the country’s support for Ukraine, according to German weekly magazine Der Spiegel. 

The Russian Ministry of Defence claimed it had “eliminated” around 60 fighters, mainly “French mercenaries”, in a strike in northeastern Ukraine’s Kharkiv in January.  

In the wake of these accusations, several lists, including one claiming to reveal the identity of around 30 “dead French mercenaries”, were broadcast by Telegram channels and pro-Kremlin activists. French volunteers in Ukraine denied the allegations, three of them directly to AFP. 

France, Germany and Poland to defend themselves against Russian disinformation

The Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and Poland announced on February 12 that they wanted to work together to tackle disinformation efforts as they had fallen victim to the Russian destabilisation strategy.

The three countries have agreed on a joint warning mechanism against Russian troll attacks, French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné said after the meeting with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and his Polish colleague Radosław Sikorski.

“Russia is trying to destroy European unity,” Séjourné said after the tripartite meeting, adding that almost 200 fake news sites have been discovered. “I call for the utmost vigilance,” Séjourné said in a direct address to the public, adding that such information attacks could increase in Europe over the next few weeks. 

“In five months’ time, our continent will vote in the European elections, and each of our countries will be a target for foreign powers”, Séjourné said in a video posted on X (formerly Twitter) on February 13. 

Kremlin propaganda network detected in France

The French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné said that Viginum, a French government agency, charged with defence against foreign online threats, had discovered a network of Russian websites designed to spread Kremlin propaganda in the West.

Viginum said the “structured and coordinated” network was targeting Europe and the United States.

Code-named “Portal Kombat”, the network comprises 193 websites, Viginum reported after investigating between September and December of last year.

The aim of the sites, “most of which are dormant, is to spread fake news and views that serve Russia’s interests”, Séjourné said. “They spread false information about Ukraine, divide public opinion and stir up hatred,” he added.

The Russian government has ramped up efforts to promote the Kremlin narrative since President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022.

Political analysts knowledgeable about Russian disinformation narratives said Moscow might seek to exploit political tensions in Europe where far-right parties are on the rise ahead of the elections on June 6-9.

In France, the right-wing National Rally (RN) is already the largest opposition party in France’s National Assembly and leads President Emmanuel Macron‘s alliance by nearly ten percent in European election polls.

A woman casts her vote at a polling station at a rural parish for parliamentary elections in Portugal.
A woman casts her vote at a polling station at a rural parish for parliamentary elections in Portugal. Photo: Cristian Leyva/ZUMA Press Wire/dpa

False online political ads circulate in Portugal

Another example regarding the growing reach of online disinformation comes from Portugal, where researchers from ISCTE’s (University Institute of Lisbon) MediaLab have detected, for the first time, “signs of external interference in elections in Portugal” with online adverts. One of them accused the PS (Socialist Party, S&D) of corruption.

A check carried out by the ISCTE researchers, using Google’s own screening tools, points to a company apparently based in the US state of Delaware, called Nekoplay LLC. According to public data from Google’s Ads Transparency Centre, it is mainly dedicated to ads linked to the gaming industry.

In total, the “‘sponsored posts’ may have reached more than two million Portuguese, around 22 percent of the population with electoral capacity”, says the MediaLab report, which was the result of a project, in partnership with the Portuguese news agency Lusa, about elections on social networks and the processes of disinformation in the pre-election phase for the legislative elections that took place on March 10.

This article is part of the enr’s EU Elections Spotlight: Disinformation in Europe. The content is based on news by agencies participating in the enr.