Voters all over Europe go to the polls this week in what is usually a sleepy little contest to choose members of the European Parliament — and that’s part of the problem. While much of Europe dozes, its far-right nationalist parties are newly energized this election season. And happy to stir this toxic stew of anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, racist sentiment are those with the most to gain from Europe’s divisions.
Yes, somewhere Vladimir Putin is smiling.
The long-documented odd couple relationship between Europe’s populist leaders and the Russian regime is all too familiar to those of us on this continent who remain bewildered by the ongoing warmth of President Trump’s relationship with the former KGB head. (Trump still refers to the “Russian Hoax,” notwithstanding some 200 pages of the Mueller report documenting Russian interference in the 2016 election.)
Italy’s Matteo Salvini has made no secret of his fondness for Putin, sporting a Putin-emblazoned T-shirt at a meeting of the European Parliament. There were those loans from a Russian state bank to the far-right party of France’s Marine Le Pen. And last week that embarrassing video surfaced of Austria’s vice chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache , of the Freedom Party, considering a business deal with a woman he believed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch with close ties to Putin. At least Strache had the good grace to quit his post the day after the video aired.
But buying politicians one by one is expensive — and not particularly effective unless the Russians can also impact the election itself. So they have had to revert to their tried and true methods — methods well-honed during the 2016 US election.
Even for those Americans who don’t care a whit about who gets to occupy any of those 751 European Parliament seats in Brussels, there are lessons to be learned from this election — lessons about what the United States can expect in 2020 and lessons from the Europeans about countering disinformation campaigns.
The Kremlin has been relentless in making use of what amounts to its mainstream propaganda outlets like the Sputnik news agency and RT (formerly Russia Today), its broadcast arm. Nothing covert about it: Both have been none-too-subtly skewed in support of Europe’s populist candidates, those committed to destroying the European Parliament from within. And nothing much to be done about it, except educating voters that they are indeed tuning into propaganda.
While this is not the full-scale social media onslaught anticipated earlier by the Europeans, still plenty of sites have been shut down. This month alone Facebook said it took down 16 Russian-linked accounts and one Instagram account targeting users in seven European Union countries and Ukraine.
The EU, under its relatively new privacy reforms known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), has given every indication it will use its powers to halt disinformation wherever and whenever it can. Not surprisingly, Facebook has set up an operations room in Dublin to monitor possible election-related disinformation. Twitter is attempting to halt activity by those notorious bots — Russian and otherwise. And European politicians have become far more savvy about protecting their own data than the Democratic National Committee was in 2016. Security does indeed begin at home.
The Kremlin, however, is hardly sitting on its hands while Europeans go to the polls — as every US intelligence service has already warned American voters, the Russians will be just as active during the 2020 election. Vigilance — by governments and by voters — is key. So is holding major social media companies like Google and Facebook accountable for their lapses. The European elections will be a test of how Russia is honing its disinformation and propaganda tactics — and whether Silicon Valley has finally developed serious safeguards globally. But it is ultimately voters who must be their own first defense against those who use fake news to manipulate their views and their votes.