Malicious actors sought to promote extreme views and polarise local debates, said Julian King, the British commissioner in Brussels.
Pro-Kremlin social media accounts spread false claims that the EU has Nazi roots, the European commissioner for security has said in the first analysis of disinformation acts aimed at influencing last month’s EU elections.
Although there were no “spectaculars” such as the major email hacks that tarnished the 2016 US presidential election, social media accounts promoting a pro-Russian narrative were active in amplifying divisive content on the internet, King said.
Countries targeted by bots and fake accounts in the run-up to the elections at the end of May included the UK, Poland, Latvia, Spain and France.
King said: “There was an issue in Poland where false reports by the Russian state news agency Sputnik, which – let’s be polite, let’s call it as pro-Kremlin outfit – was reporting that the EU had made Poland poorer than it was under communism.
“Another story they were running was that President Emmanuel Macron wants to expel some current member states from the EU, therefore making any suggestion that others might join redundant.
“There was use of a fake account twitter account that is linked to Russia, and at the same time a pro-Russian Facebook group, to push an old report, a 2016 report, by the Katehon thinktank, claiming that the EU has Nazi roots. And that was accelerated and spread widely in the run-up to the elections.”
The Katehon thinktank, a Christian rightwing outfit, claimed three years ago that the Nazi vision of a “united Europe” had formed the basis for the foundation of the EU.
A report published by the commission found “a continued and sustained disinformation activity by Russian sources aiming to suppress turnout and influence voter preferences” during the election.
“These covered a broad range of topics, ranging from challenging the union’s democratic legitimacy to exploiting divisive public debates on issues such as of migration and sovereignty,” the report added.
King said there was an increasing trend for social media accounts with a pro-Russian government line to use a “customised and carefully targeted approach … to amplify divisive content that is already out there to try and have an effect locally”. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t think we should accept that as the new normal,” he said.
The EU’s East Stratcom Task Force, which monitors disinformation, had identified 1,000 cases linked to Russian sources since January, equating to a more than twofold increase on the same period in 2018.
King said: “It is not necessarily about breaking the law, but it is about attempting to mislead, and that is what we want to try and push back.”
Asked whether a link to the Russian government could be proven, King said the commission was careful not to overclaim in its analysis. He said: “We are clear that we are talking about – particularly East StratCom when they produce their reports – pro-Kremlin narratives.
“We are not an intelligence agency, so we are not seeking to make assertions that go beyond what we can see to other links.”
A surge by populist parties, feared by many in Brussels, failed to materialise during the European elections, although both Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France and Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party in Italy made gains.