Europe Needs a Plan to Fight Putin’s Trolls

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Europe is bracing for a Russian propaganda onslaught in the run-up to this May’s parliamentary elections. The European Commission predicts the Kremlin’s disinformation operations will be “systematic, well-resourced and on a different scale to other countries.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal is to expand the Euroskeptic bloc in the next European Parliament in order to weaken EU cohesion and accommodate Russian interests.

To minimize the threat, the Commission has more than doubled its spending on counter-disinformation, to 5 million euros this year, and is enlarging its staff of analysts dedicated to tracking disinformation. But this will not be enough. To stop Russian campaign mischief, Europe will also need to prepare its own citizens, and be ready to deploy legal and diplomatic countermeasures.

Consider what Europe is up against. Russia’s Internet Research Agency alone has a budget more than double that of all EU counter-disinformation agencies combined. And that doesn’t include the 1.4 billion euros the Russian government spends annually on RT and other mass-media outlets that amplify Kremlin propaganda.

Given the disagreements among European governments about how aggressively to confront Russia, the Commission may find it difficult to appreciably boost funding for counter-disinformation efforts. But it should at least give more resources to two EU bodies, the East StratCom Task Force and the EU Hybrid Fusion Cell, which monitor fake news and coordinate governments’ responses to it.

The Commission should also push member states to sign on to its existing proposal to create a pan-European Rapid Alert System that would expose suspicious social media activity close to elections. And it should maintain pressure on social media companies to take down bot accounts and disclose the funding sources behind political ads on their platforms.

European governments should also do more to help their citizens distinguish fact from fiction. They can, for example, support fact-checking sites such as Lithuania’s, a collaboration among journalists, civil society groups and the military. And they can bolster digital-media literacy instruction in public schools, as Sweden has. Estonia, a country with a substantial minority of Russian-speakers, has gone so far as to create its own Russian-language public broadcasting channel as an alternative to Kremlin-backed media.

At the same time, European leaders should warn Russia that attacks have consequences — including the kind of sanctions and indictments the U.S. has imposed on both Russian election meddlers and Chinese corporate hackers. A first step would be to make clear that the current set of EU sanctions against Russia, imposed after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, will be automatically extended if evidence of Russian interference surfaces. In that event, Germany should also cancel the misguided Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which serves Putin’s interests more than Europe’s.

Regardless of ideology, all EU governments share an interest in protecting elections from foreign manipulation. Greater efforts to track Russia’s calumny and bolster Europeans’ awareness of it are essential — but so is reminding Putin that election interference is a form of hostile foreign aggression that cannot be ignored.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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