EU parliamentary elections are seen as vulnerable to disinformation, but some countries are policing false stories.
The six continually updated screens in front of Sergeant Tomas Ceponis’ desk in Lithuania’s defence ministry do not transmit conventional military data. On one, he can monitor the most popular stories in the Russian language. Another display shows how content is being shared via social media, while a third tracks trending online news about several countries including neighbouring Belarus. “I believe in the 21st century we have to be ready not only to fight in kinetic wars, but in information wars, too,” says Sgt Ceponis, whose work at the Lithuanian army’s strategic communications department makes him part of an unusual military-civilian network in Lithuania to police alleged “fake news”. “We think if you can connect intelligence guys with psychological operations guys, it’s probably the best.” Lithuania sees itself as being on the frontline of a Russian offensive to sow misinformation in the western world. European politicians have become increasingly spooked by the spread of conspiracy theories, such as recent stories that President Emmanuel Macron planned to hand the French regions of Alsace and Lorraine to neighbouring Germany. That follows claims of Kremlin-backed meddling in the 2016 US presidential poll and the UK’s Brexit referendum the same year, as well as the row over the poisoning in the UK of Sergei Skripal, the former spy — in which the two men accused by London claimed on Russian television that they were tourists.
“People realised, ‘Holy shit, this is like something out of a cold war thriller,” says an EU official from another formerly Soviet-occupied state about the Skripal incident. “The Russians have weaponised disinformation. It’s another side of the same coin as bringing the Ukraine electricity grid to a halt.” For the EU, one of the biggest sources of dread is the potential for such manipulation to play a role in the European parliamentary elections due in May. These elections have taken on greater importance this year because of the rise of far-right and anti-establishment parties — many with a pro-Russian bent — challenging the status quo across the continent. They are also uniquely vulnerable to outside interference. A combination of low turnout and protest voting means successful propaganda campaigns could reap high returns as small groups of motivated voters can have a major influence on the results. Lithuania, like other neighbours shaped by Soviet-era Communist domination, has long pushed for a tough approach to disinformation both at home and at an EU level. Vilnius’ strategy is notable for the way it relies on close co-operation between groups in society — such as the media and the military — which in other respects have a more adversarial relationship. “Ten years ago there was no way to discuss these issues at all, because [EU] colleagues thought ‘it is not our business, it’s freedom of speech and that’s it’,” says Linas Linkevicius, Lithuania’s foreign minister. “It took time to convince them that lies are not freedom of speech.” The question is how much the experiences of this country of fewer than 3m people, formed by a very particular history with Russia, could — or should — be scaled up to a multilingual bloc of hundreds of millions, especially given the risk that opponents could brand government anti-disinformation work as censorship.
So far, European efforts to guard against misinformation have been modest. They have also been dogged by legitimate concerns over how much state authorities should be involved in defining, still less tackling, the wide range of outright factual falsehoods and contested narratives often grouped under the unhelpful shorthand of fake news. The idea of involving institutions such as the military in combating disinformation — as Sgt Ceponis is doing in Lithuania — causes deep anxiety in parts of the EU. “There is a cultural issue here,” says one diplomat from a western EU state. “Do you come in really heavily and slam down the full weight of the state to expose this? Or do you expect that this is part of having a free media space?”
Drive for transparency
The EU’s desire to fight back against disinformation has increased as more and more member states have experienced problems. In one case in 2016, Germany saw a barrage of claims by Russian media and politicians that foreign immigrants had abducted and raped a 13-year-old ethnic Russian girl named “Lisa” in Berlin. The authorities were criticised for being slow to discredit the story, though defenders of the German handling of the case say the need to check facts and preserve “Lisa’s” privacy made it hard to move quickly and decisively. In Spain, the government has accused Russia of spreading disinformation in an effort to deepen the crisis that erupted in 2017 over Catalan secession (Moscow has denied the claim). In December, EU leaders branded the spread of “deliberate, large-scale, and systematic disinformation”, including as part of hybrid warfare, an “acute and strategic challenge for our democratic systems”.
They called for an “urgent response that needs to be sustained over time” including to safeguard the integrity of the European elections. The EU response ranges from investing more in debunking false information to pressing social media companies to do more to curb their circulation. In late January, the European Commission said Facebook and others businesses needed to hire more independent fact-checkers and take down more fake accounts. Facebook announced that ahead of the European elections it would create a public database to show who was paying for politically driven advertisements and how often they were viewed. Julian King, the EU’s security commissioner, stresses that Brussels wants to see more action on disinformation but has no plans to be a “fake news” referee. “We are not saying whether particular pieces of information are true or false, or good or bad,” he says. “What we are trying to do is find way of increasing transparency and provenance so an audience has a way of contextualising the information they are given.”
Some officials in Vilnius and other central and eastern European capitals view the problem in starker terms. They see a landscape of ever-growing propaganda, including in Lithuania’s case via television stations that broadcast heavily in Russian. One government official says she can watch Russian language programmes on as many as 10 TV stations, which often buy Russian content because it is cheaper than EU programming and can be shown without translation. She says the output mixes “really nice to watch” shows on fashion and science with programmes that extol the supposed benefits of Russian imperialism and chip away at the growing weaknesses in the west. “They are using issues like Brexit and the tensions in the US as examples of really bad things happening in the west — like the west can’t manage itself,” the official says. Lithuania has growing legal means to tackle alleged sources of disinformation — although officials insist these are aimed at stopping blatant factual fabrications and standardising broadcast rules, rather than stifling legitimate debate.
Authorities can order electronic communications providers such as servers to shut down for 48 hours without a court order if they are used to mount a “cyberincident”, such as a disinformation attack. Edvinas Kerza, vice-minister of national defence, says a strong approach is needed because of what he says is a broad pro-Kremlin information assault. He points to how information attacks are being integrated with cyber attacks, including a case last year in which hackers used a breach of a TV station to publish a false story about the defence minister and then publicise the article in an emailed press release embedded with malicious code. “They put next-generation software in a Word document,” Mr Kerza says. “Everything seems to be so real — it’s even sent from a news portal’s email server.” ‘It was time to do something’ Another striking point about Lithuania’s counter-disinformation campaign is how far it stretches into wider society. The best known examples of that are the so-called “elves” — volunteers who set out to combat Russian trolls. Their constantly shifting membership numbers in the thousands and includes journalists, IT professionals, business people, students and scientists. “It’s a movement, not an organisation,” says one elf, an ecommerce manager who uses the name Hawk because he fears being targeted if he uses his real name. “There was an understanding that it was time to do something, not just sit on the sofa and watch TV.”
In a coffee shop in Vilnius, Hawk describes how the elven ideal is to expose and combat false claims and contested narratives as fast as possible. There are different types of elves — some are debunkers of false information, others run “blame and shame” online campaigns against pro-Kremlin trolls. He says his adversaries have become smarter, focusing more and more on “finding the weak points in Lithuanian society” — sometimes chiming in on both sides of an issue to stoke controversy. “In Lithuania we work in one direction, even the media which are competitors,” he says. “When we need to defend our country against propaganda and fake news, we are united.” Another innovation is the website Demaskuok.lt — also known as Debunk.eu — created by a collaboration of the military, journalists and civil society. It has been funded by Google Digital Innovation Fund and the Baltic media outlet Delfi. It scans an estimated 20,000 articles a day from more than 1,000 sources against a database of trigger words and narratives, including that Lithuania is a failed state or is being reoccupied by Nato.
Flagged content is then physically reviewed for potential further action, which could include aggressive debunking. Vaidas Saldziunas, Delfi’s defence editor, scrolls through example stories tackled by the site. These include false reports that a Nato vehicle knocked a boy of his bike and killed him, tales of biological weapons tests in the Baltic states, and claims of a UFO being shot down over Lithuania. “A lot of people don’t really read beyond the headlines,” he says. One group of hackers managed to smuggle a false story of a Nato plan to invade neighbouring Belarus into a news organisation’s feed for a week. The site already works in Lithuanian and Russian and is expanding into English — and perhaps other EU languages. Mr Saldziunas plays down concerns about conflicts of interest as journalists collaborate closely with institutions they report on in other spheres. “We can write a critical story about the military — and still have co-operation with the military,” he says. “This is the topic that everybody drops everything for.” However, this level of co-ordination makes some fellow EU states uneasy. Countries such as the Netherlands have historically been suspicious that government involvement in anti-disinformation might compromise media independence and freedom. “We have to be careful,” says a diplomat from another western European country. “You can’t translate one solution the Baltic states have found to other situations. You can’t have one size fits all.”
Coming round to the Vilnius view Some critics see the focus on disinformation as a way to avoid dealing with the political reasons for the rise of anti-establishment parties. The extent of influence of Russian propaganda is inherently unknowable, which makes it a convenient bogeyman and can allow EU politicians to avoid responsibility for their own political mistakes. The idea of aggressive rebuttals of pro-Kremlin narratives is also contentious if it involves governments appearing to take sides on the way the media talks about contested versions of history. The EU is also an unwieldy institution to tackle disinformation. It does not have its own intelligence service. It has beefed up its East Stratcom task force, whose EUvsDisinfo debunking site received more than 600,000 visits last year, but the operation still only has 16 people. EU diplomats say the site has received extra resources to “further professionalise” it after it was forced last year to retract three inaccurate accusations of disinformation against Dutch news media, in a case that spawned outrage in the Netherlands. It emerged that one piece was mistranslated by non-Dutch speakers at a Ukrainian NGO, while another was satire that the complainant mistakenly took at face value.
Another EU initiative — for a pan-bloc “early warning” channel for member states to raise the alarm about emerging disinformation threats — is still at an early stage. But its creation is a sign of fear about disinformation has pushed the balance of views in the bloc closer to Lithuania’s outlook — especially as the European elections approach. Sgt Ceponis says he sees the country’s growing anti-disinformation architecture as a “temporary measure to solve a specific problem”, but warns that he does not think it will be solved any time soon. “We are living in this information conflict time,” he says. “So we should not pretend this is not happening.”