It’s almost a tradition: As soon as elections take place, usually in Western countries, warnings of possible Russian influence make the rounds. This is also the case in the elections to the European Parliament, says an article in Sputnik Deutschland.
It’s not a tradition. It’s a legitimate concern, deriving from the fact that the Kremlin has a track record of interference in numerous elections around the world. Disinformation campaigns were observed across Europe, too, with the leading role of the Internet Research Agency reaching as far as the United Kingdom (Brexit referendum), Greece and Bulgaria, to name just a few examples. Bots were activated in discussions around the unofficial Catalan referendum, anti-migrant messages were spread in Italy and Germany, lies about a presidential candidate multiplied in France; false historical narratives and accusations of Russophobia are continuously directed at Poland and the Baltic states, respectively.
Of course, the evidence from recent years, even as substantial and coming from so many different sources as it has, doesn’t have to indicate future events. And even if we have not seen a massive blackout or a hacking attack targeting servers all across Europe, it’s definitely too late to say that nothing at all has happened in the run-up to the EU elections. EUvsDisinfo has continuously reported about pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives surrounding these elections. Continuously, little by little, constant pro-Kremlin dropping is trying to wear away a stone. Some question the existence of EU institutions, their democratic legitimacy, their influence on EU’s future and their independence. Others underline that being in the EU equals losing sovereignty. These messages were spread in at least eight languages, serving the Kremlin’s aim to weaken Europe.
How do pro-Kremlin outlets react to evidence and cold, hard facts?
Strategy number 1: who, us?
It’s almost a tradition: The Kremlin denies every accusation of meddling and pro-Kremlin outlets follow suit. There is no evidence. Whenever an article appears in the media or claims are made by either a research institution or a prominent politician, pro-Kremlin outlets use their websites and social media accounts to underline that there is no proof of interference. If experts know something about Russian interference, why don’t they show it? Well, here is the proof (and it’s been here for a while!).
Strategy number 2: hahaganda
Pro-Kremlin actors like to have some fun from time to time. They are only human, after all (well, sometimes they’re bots; but bots don’t have fun). They apply the ‘haha’ approach frequently: when confronted with compelling evidence or arguments, they joke. And they have done it to deny interference in the EU elections, too. Just recently, in reaction to an article by The New York Times, RT published several amusing GIFs and mocking reports, showing, for example, people pretending to be hackers. RT’s tweet, “NYT says Russian hackers are meddling in the upcoming European Parliament elections. Just don’t ask for proof” spread across different languages in the Twittersphere.
Strategy number 3: whataboutism
What about Brexit? What about the migration crisis? What about the democratic deficit? EU politicians and journalists are trying to stoke fear of Kremlin meddling in order to drive people’s attention away from the EU’s own problems. This is why they are accusing Russia of disinformation and interference. But they are unsuccessful, because – we didn’t do anything, anyway (see strategy number 1). Whataboutism – which basically is an attempt to change the subject – is another classic strategy of pro-Kremlin outlets. It’s true that the EU has to deal with various challenges, as indeed does every country in the world; but it doesn’t mean that there is no pro-Kremlin disinformation.
Strategy number 4: just keep going
Since you’re not doing anything, you may as well continue (not) to do it. The newest disinformation cases that we collected in the EUvsDisinfo database confirm the patterns already discovered and described. The aim of discrediting EU institutions is carried out by narratives about the European Parliament having no influence over the decision-making process and chief appointments in other EU institutions. Those institutions are said to be undemocratic and unaccountable. The European project is questioned by narratives about its servility to the United States and russophobic attitude (also seen by pro-Kremlin outlets in the form of the Eastern Partnership programme). The EU has also been portrayed as immoral and without values, and threatening national sovereignty. A pretty long list of disinformation cases for somebody who claims to have nothing at all to do with disinformation.
As we have already written several times, disinformation campaigns are a long game. They neither start nor stop on election day. One of the aims of disinformation in the election period is to discourage citizens from voting. If this attempt is successful and the election turnout is low, pro-Kremlin outlets will then try to discredit the new EU leadership by questioning its credibility and legitimacy (based on turnout numbers). And so the disinformation cycle will regenerate once again. But EUvsDisinfo will be there to check facts, respond and make sure you know disinformation when you see it. In the meantime, make sure you know how to defend yourself against it.