Fear of Russian Meddling Hangs Over Next Year's EU Elections

(Bloomberg) -- European Union officials are bracing for attempted meddling by Russia-backed operatives and their copycats ahead of the bloc’s elections in the spring, where far-right parties are set to make gains.

That’s led the bloc to bolster its defenses against cyber-attacks and pressure tech platforms to ramp up the fight against misinformation.

“Today’s cyber bullets are getting harder to spot and harder to stop,” said EU Security Commissioner Julian King at a conference Monday in Brussels on election interference. “The need for action on this is urgent –- doing nothing risks our democratic processes being undermined.”

Elections to the European Parliament will be held in late May next year, amid a surge in support for populist parties that oppose further integration in the bloc and want to end sanctions against Russia. European officials are concerned that Russian-backed campaigns -- mostly through social media platforms -- could boost support for parties that are more sympathetic to Moscow.

EU governments are set to pledge to further strengthen deterrence and resilience against cyber and other threats at a gathering of leaders in Brussels this week, according to a draft of the conclusions seen by Bloomberg. The U.K., the Netherlands and other EU governments have pushed the bloc to expand the scope of its sanctions regime to target individuals and organizations behind cyber-attacks, potentially including activities that seek to interfere in elections.

Leaders will call for measures to “combat cyber and cyber-enabled illegal and malicious activities and build strong cybersecurity,” and “protect the Union’s democratic systems and combat disinformation, including in the context of the upcoming European elections,” according to the latest draft of their Summit’s conclusions. The draft communique is subject to revisions until EU leaders finish their meet in Brussels on Thursday.

Manipulating Voters

Officials in Europe are concerned about potential attacks targeting voting technology but especially those designed to try to manipulate voting behavior, for instance by leaking documents, hacking or spreading fake news articles or misleading information.

Large tech companies have faced intense pressure over the past year from lawmakers in the U.S. and Europe after intelligence services concluded that Russia spread disinformation across their platforms to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the U.K.’s Brexit vote.

“Platforms can do better when it comes to fake news and manipulation,” Eva Maydell, a center-right Member of European Parliament, said at the Brussels conference. "What we are afraid of is that this information actually only helps, to put it very simplistically, populist parties and politicians."

She said politicians also have to do more to ensure they address voters’ concerns.

Transparency Rules

Under pressure from the European Commission, Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and other tech and advertising companies recently agreed to a joint code of conduct, pledging to fight the spread of “fake news” online in Europe.

As part of the code, Google and Facebook committed to bringing transparency tools for political ads in Europe after recently rolling them out in the U.S. Those changes require administrators of Facebook pages that promote political parties to get authorized and provide copies of their IDs to Facebook. Any sponsored content also needs to display disclaimers stating who has paid for the ad.

The commission says it will assess the implementation of the code by the end of the year before deciding whether any legislative action is needed. But many of the tech firms’ efforts around transparency for political ads in Europe may only be fully visible starting next year when political campaigning begins.

The code is "a good start but to be effective it needs to go much further, much faster," King said.

New Threats

Russia isn’t the only threat in the upcoming elections. Now, the risk is that other bad actors could try to copy the Russian playbook used in the last U.S. elections.

Ahead of Macedonia’s referendum to determine the country’s name, researchers at The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab found a live video of a campaign rally targeted by what appeared to be a Vietnamese “like” farm – where a drove of users with Vietnamese names and profiles responded by clicking the angry emoji in response.

The EU in September put forward new measures aimed at protecting the bloc’s elections and quickly detecting potential threats. The measures urge EU countries to form national election cooperation networks made up of authorities from electoral, cybersecurity, data protection and law enforcement agencies. The EU is also calling on each member state to appoint a dedicated point of contact to participate in a European-level cooperation network on election issues.

At their gathering later this week, EU member states are expected to jointly state that the commission’s measures deserve rapid examination and operational follow-up by the competent authorities.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.