Russian cyber threats and the European elections

Russian cyber threats and the European elections

By: iryna hnatiuk&
May 29 2024

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Russian cyber threats and the European elections

(Source: Ronnie Chua/alamy/Reuters)

By the end of this year, more than two billion people in 50 countries will go to the polls. Among them are seven of the world's 10 most populous nations, plus the U.K. and nine EU states. There are also June polls for the European Parliament. In preparation, European Union officials responsible for overseeing disinformation have been highly vigilant – not without reason, considering that the Global Risk Report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) has ranked disinformation as the second biggest risk the world will face this year.

Recently, Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, claimed that elections will be a major target for Russian disinformation. In one prominent example of this, misinformation spreaders were occupied with "finding" a Ukrainian trace in the recent attack on Slovak Prime Minister Fico. Unfounded claims circulated that the wife of Juraj Centula, the man accused of attempting to assassinate Fico, is a Ukrainian "refugee" and that she "incited" her husband to assassinate the politician and, after the incident, tried to flee to Poland when detained by the police.

Popular Russian media stated that a Ukrainian wife of Juraj Centula incited him to assassinate Prime Minister Fico. (Source: and Facts/EurAsia Daily/Screenshots)

The President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, warned that European Union voters are set to be bombarded with lies and disinformation from outside and within the bloc in the June election. Metsola listed Russia, China, and Iran as potential sources of disinformation. "We've maybe ignored that for far too long," she added. 

The European Commission has identified Russian disinformation campaigns as the EU's most significant threat because they are systematic, well-resourced, and perpetrated on a larger scale than similar campaigns by any other country, including China, Iran, and North Korea.

Earlier this year, the United States warned that Russia would conduct information operations aimed at turning public opinion against Ukraine and the whole idea of democracy before the elections in Europe. How close to the truth did their predictions turn out to be?

Russia's fingerprints across Europe

Last year, a dedicated EU task force investigated 750 incidents of deliberately misleading information being spread by foreign actors. As in previous years, Russia was the primary source, "trying to justify its war of aggression against Ukraine," according to the authors of the European Union External Action Service (EEAS) document.

Presenting these findings at the EEAS Conference, Josep Borrell, himself a frequent target of disinformation (according to Russian propagandists, he was a fascist and also stated that the war in Ukraine was supposed to "end in three months"), stated that the number one targeted country was Ukraine, followed by the United States, Germany, and Poland. Close to 150 institutions, including the EU and NATO, and media outlets like Deutsche Welle, Reuters, and Euronews were affected. The most frequent target for pro-Russian propagandists is now the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with French President Emmanuel Macron second. 

Social media users claiming and "demonstrating proofs" that Zelenskyy have bought two luxury yachts during the war, while Western Countries keep sending money to Ukraine. (Source: TikTok/X/Screenshots) 

A recent Politico investigation claims that a disinformation network, Doppelganger – a Russian-based influence operation existing since at least May 2022 – is currently thriving on Facebook and pushing pro-Kremlin narratives. Doppelganger uses multiple "clones" of authentic media (at least 17 media providers, including Bild, 20minutes, Ansa, The Guardian, and RBC Ukraine) to target users with fake articles, videos, and polls. They do this by purchasing similar domain names and copying designs. 

Doppelganger was first exposed in 2022 and later sanctioned by the EU. Nevertheless, it has continued to influence Europeans online and was flagged by French and German authorities in recent months. Research by the non-profit group AI Forensics showed that Doppelganger is active and rapidly growing, reaching up to 10 times more people than previously thought. 

EU DisinfoLab's X thread on how Doppelganger cloned legitimate media outlets from multiple countries. (Source: X)

In June 2024, a French government agency dedicated to combating disinformation described the Doppelganger network as part of the strategy "Russia is implementing to undermine the conditions for a peaceful democratic debate." According to France's minister for European affairs, Jean-Noël Barrot, France is being "pounded" by Russian disinformation in social media. In an interview with Ouest-France, he confirmed that "not a week goes by without France being the target of coordinated and deliberate maneuvers to disrupt public debate and interfere in the campaign for the European elections." 

Among prominent examples is the fake quote, "There will be French troops in Ukraine," shared as a verbatim line from Macron by numerous social media accounts posting about the Russia-Ukraine war. A fake army recruitment website, a video, and other claims appeared, fooling people into thinking they were genuine. 

The official account of the Ministry of the Armed Forces of France published a disinformation alert about a fake army recruitment website. Source: X)

Russian influence is also very strong in Slovakia, where its activities gained momentum in the pre-election period before National Council elections on 30 September. Reset, a London-based non-profit, said it had registered more than 365,000 election-related disinformation posts on Slovak social media in the first two weeks of September. 

Recently, Russia began to conduct another propaganda campaign simultaneously with an attempt on the life of Slovak PM Robert Fico. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy condemned such acts of aggression, but Russian propagandists and Telegram channels began to look for a Ukrainian trace in the incident.

Margarita Simonyan, Russia Today's editor-in-chief, "The Slovak Prime Minister is injured. The one who said that the war began as a result of rampant Ukrainian neo-Nazis and Putin had no other choice. That's how they work." (Source: Telegram/Screenshot)

Another part of this disinformation campaign appeared to be bot accounts linked to the Doppelganger network, as uncovered by Antibot4Navalny, a group of anonymous Russian researchers who have been tracking the campaign for years. 

Similarly to the Doppelganger network, Logically Facts previously discovered "news websites" created specifically for spreading fake narratives and propaganda. Russian media later used them as primary sources to deliver these fakes to massive amounts of their readers on Telegram.

In October last year, the U.S. sent a declassified intelligence assessment to more than 100 governments accusing Moscow of using spies, social media, and sympathetic media to spread disinformation and erode public faith in the integrity of election outcomes. The German Foreign Affairs Ministry later disclosed that its security agencies had exposed an extensive pro-Russian disinformation operation orchestrated using thousands of fake social media accounts, especially on X (formerly Twitter). 

Analysts in the Department of Strategic Communications at the German FA Ministry used specialized software to examine a vast dataset on X from 20 December 2023 to 20 January 2024. Over that month, analysts identified over 50,000 accounts that did not belong to real people and engaged in coordinated information campaigns in German. On some days, these bots generated around 200,000 tweets per day. 

A prevalent narrative in these posts suggests that Germany neglects the interests of its population to support Ukraine. Bots expressed opinions, such as finding it strange that the government does more for other countries than its citizens. The FA Ministry analysts believe that this campaign, backed by Russia, started in 2022. 

Additionally, according to Annalena Baerbock, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany, there are indications that a large part of the campaigns is now automated. In an analysis of 4,000 user accounts controlled by Russia, the experts show that they posted German-language content simultaneously and at the same rate, apparently algorithmically controlled. Such a discovery fuels fears that digital disinformation campaigns could be fueled by artificial intelligence.

Voice of Europe?

Politico also reported another similar Russian propaganda tool, Voice of Europe, which was initially perceived as a regular media platform before being unmasked by authorities in the Czech Republic and Belgium. The outlet, which prominently featured interactions with Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), particularly targeted those with far-right affiliations. Sixteen MEPs engaged with the outlet, participating in content that often undermined the EU's unified stance towards Ukraine.

The MEPs involved with Voice of Europe openly dismissed the prospect of Ukraine joining the EU and highlighted the nation's internal challenges, such as corruption and military struggles. Politico writes that this narrative starkly contrasted with the EU's pro-Ukraine position, reflecting the Voice of Europe's role in promoting Russian strategic interests. 

Voice of Europe was reportedly linked to Russian leader Vladimir Putin through Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch and a longtime friend of Putin, who was reported to be one of the executives behind the outlet. Despite Voice of Europe's modest YouTube subscriber base, its influence was magnified on other social media platforms, where it managed to reach a broader audience.

In response to these exposures, YouTube took down numerous videos from Voice of Europe for violating its deceptive content policy. Furthermore, a Munich court opened a preliminary probe into allegations of bribery involving MEPs and the outlet, specifically investigating the Alternative for Germany party's candidate, Petr Bystron, after accusations surfaced that he had received bribes.

Why does Russia interfere in global democracies?

Russian disinformation is noticeably and especially prevalent during election seasons. Around the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the 2019 European Parliament elections, before key referendums such as the 2016 vote on Brexit, and during large-scale protests such as the ones in Catalonia in 2017 for independence and in France in 2018–2019 with the yellow vests. Russia expert Edward Lucas, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said that "in the U.K., people who were in favor of Brexit refused to believe that Russia had anything to do with the referendum result, and people who were against Brexit believed it was all cooked up by Russia."

Most often, the narratives question the democratic legitimacy of the EU and play up sensitive topics in the public debate, undermining the trust in institutions and political elites across European societies.

Western nations have repeatedly accused Russian operatives of using social media and web channels to spread false or misleading information in an attempt to change public opinion in their countries. France, Poland, and Germany accused Russia of putting together an elaborate network of websites to spread pro-Russian propaganda to undermine their governments.

Over recent years, Russia's Internet Research Agency (IRA) has created troll farms and armies of bots to redistribute and amplify its messages. These campaigns give politicians, journalists, and others the impression that the views espoused are genuinely those of a majority of their country's public.

Jon Roozenbeek, an assistant professor in the Department of War Studies at King's College in London, told Logically Facts, "Russia believes that it benefits from electoral gridlock, and if pro-Russian parties gain a larger foothold. This has long been the case, for example, in its past support for candidates such as Marine le Pen in France and Viktor Orban in Hungary. At present, Russia's only concern is the war in Ukraine, and so it tries to ensure that political parties seeking to delay, reduce, or even eliminate aid to Ukraine get as many votes as possible. For Russia, meddling in European elections thus has clear strategic goals; if nothing else, getting Europeans to believe that Russia is powerful enough to mess with our electoral process is a goal in its own right."

Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of "Goodbye Globalization," agrees, telling Logically Facts: "It's a common misunderstanding that Russia wants to get certain candidates elected. No. They just want to sow doubt among citizens that their countries are working, that the election system is working, and that democratic institutions are working."

U.K. Labour MP Ben Bradshaw told Global Government Forum, "Russia's strategic goals have been pretty clear for some time. It is to do whatever they can to weaken, destabilize, question, and cause division in democratic countries."

But how does weakening the West strengthen Russia? For Russia, it's a zero-sum game: any actions it can take that damage the West are fundamentally good for Russia. As Nina Jancowicz, vice president of the Centre for Information Resilience and former director of the U.S. government's Disinformation Governance Board, explains, Russia's work to influence public opinion is "not just about sowing distrust and confusion; it's in particular about pitting people in Western democracies against one another. And that serves Russia in a couple of ways."

First, she explains that growing public anger and disorder make democracies look bad in the eyes of ordinary Russians, squashing domestic demand for greater accountability or transparency. Jancowicz adds, "When protests or riots occur in the West, Russian leaders can point to them and say to their own people, 'You think the Western democracies are so great? Well, look what they've got going on! They're beating up journalists, they're putting protesters in jail. Not so democratic, is it? Aren't you glad you live in a predictable society like Russia?'"

The case of Voice of Europe exemplifies the sophisticated nature of Russian disinformation campaigns that influence EU politics. This incident highlights the ongoing vulnerability of democratic institutions to external manipulation and the continuous need for vigilance and robust countermeasures to safeguard electoral integrity and democratic processes.

"One of the most significant threats of our time is not about a bomb that can kill you; it's about a poison that can colonize your mind and how to address it," Borrell said in his speech. Officials in Brussels and other European capitals are warning that more vigilance and tougher penalties for online platforms will be needed to counter Russia's disinformation campaigns designed to interfere with the June EU-wide elections.

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