Blog by the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice President of the European Commission Josep Borrell

Between 6 and 9 June, European voters will elect the next European Parliament. We must protect our democratic processes from foreign interference and information manipulation. Such attempts have become numerous recently, particularly from Putin’s Russia. However we have put in place tools to detect and combat them in order to preserve the integrity of our information space.

The next European elections will be a defining moment for our common future. It is a critical occasion for European citizens to discuss in particular pressing foreign and security policy issues and define the future global role they want for Europe. It is a difficult task because the EU needs to overcome at the same time many geopolitical, climate, economic and democratic challenges. Europeans, all of us, need to have the sense of urgency required to be up to the task.

“We need to protect this election process and more broadly European public debate from malign foreign actors, who want Europe to fail.”

To achieve this goal, we need to protect this election process and more broadly European public debate from malign foreign actors, who want Europe to fail. This is a security challenge, which we need to tackle seriously. Credible elections are at the heart of democratic societies. All European citizens should be able to exercise this right free from foreign interference and manipulation.

Increased information manipulation operations

After the launch of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, malign foreign actors, in particular Putin’s Russia, have further increased their already existing information manipulation operations across Europe and beyond. These operations are part of a wider set of hybrid and cyberattacks that foreign states, and in particular Russia, deploy against us and our partners.

Russian information manipulation has taken advantage of increased social media penetration and cheap AI-assisted operations. Fake bot accounts boost deceptive content and manipulate algorithms. Better machine translations facilitate larger volume and cross-language production. Russia develops in particular “Doppelganger”– websites or online profiles which pretend to be authentic news outlets but are in fact fake sites trying to lure people to believe they are seeing content from reputable journalists or politicians.

When propagandists design their campaigns they tend to piggyback on already existing hot-button political topics. Add claims of scandals or emotional content and these campaigns can travel fast and wide in the online world. Unchecked social media platforms offer Russian and pro-Kremlin operators cheap and fast tools to reach communities that would otherwise not necessarily tune into pro-Kremlin voices. Pro-Kremlin platforms are not only trying to pollute the information environment inside the European Union, but also to smear the reputation of the EU across the Middle East, Western Balkans, Africa, Latin America and in Asia. All this in more than 20 languages.

“Pro-Kremlin platforms are not only trying to pollute the information environment inside the EU, but also to smear its reputation across the globe.”

Smear campaigns against European political leaders who are critical of Putin’s Russia are being promoted by bots and other inauthentic tactics to manipulate algorithms and make them jump on the top of our newsfeeds. With other EU and Member States national leaders, I am a regular target of the Kremlin’s attacks. We are blamed for all sorts of evils. French President Macron has been particularly in the crosshairs recently with a range of false and vulgar attacksSpanish Prime Minister Sanchez likewise. A prominent example of Doppelganger attack hit recently my colleague, the German Foreign Minister Baerbock, but the German authorities took prompt steps to counter this.

These information manipulation operations are not just online, they also take place in real life. Since the beginning of the year, French authorities suspect that Russian services have sought twice to increase polarisation and spread hatred in France by organising anti-Semitic actions in Paris, painting David stars on the walls of certain buildings and red hands on a Shoah memorial.

A serious security threat

These malign activities pose a serious security threat. This is why, two years ago, the Strategic Compass, the EU’s security and defence strategy, made countering foreign information manipulation and interference (FIMI) one of its main goals.

Russian state-sponsored campaigns to flood the EU information space with deceptive content is a threat to the way we have been used to conducting our democratic debates, especially in election times. To address this challenge we need to invest in four areas: situational awareness, societal resilience, foreign policy instruments and regulatory tools.

Across the EU, Member States have put in place the necessary systems and resources to conduct the European elections to the letter. While we do not need to fear them, we need to be aware of the ill intentions of these foreign state actors. Exposure of facts to citizens is the best instrument to counter all sorts of deceptions and conspiracies. By exposing the malign tactics, techniques and procedures of our adversaries, we limit the impact of these attacks on our democratic decision-making.

“Exposure of facts to citizens is the best instrument to counter all sorts of deceptions and conspiracies and limit their impact.”

Over recent years, the EU has put into place measures and systems to detect and respond to foreign malign interference, disinformation, cyberattacks and data breaches. We have stepped up our already close cooperation between the EU institutions and Member States to be ready to mount a collective response, should need be. We are also working together with the G7 and its Rapid Response Mechanism, to bolster our collective defence and response arsenal.

We have worked regularly with academia, civil society organisations and journalist communities, tech companies and platforms in the EU and beyond to better understand and fight foreign information manipulation and interference. We make our work available to the public, in particular via the EUvsDisinfo platform, which, among other things, has the world’s largest publicly available database of pro-Kremlin disinformation cases.

In the field of regulation, we need to always preserve a delicate balance between freedom of speech and fighting disinformation. Our democracy needs in particular the watchful eye of the free and independent press. The recently adopted EU Digital Services Act (DSA) gives us new and enforceable possibilities to deal with the social media platforms to ensure accountability and transparency, while preserving freedom of speech. This is a crucial element in our toolbox, even if we need others, too.

Also a personal responsibility

It is however also a personal responsibility of each of us to help fight information manipulations by foreign actors. As consumers of news we should take a pause regularly to run a little ‘sanity check’ of our information diet. Like our consumer diet, is it diverse and healthy enough? Is it checked, edited and issued by reputable publishers, who follow professional standards and can be held accountable? Just as we should not live on junk food alone, so should our information diet be built on quality and reputable content.

Finally, time to vote for the European Elections is nearing. I would like to use the opportunity of this blog post to encourage all EU citizens, in the EU and abroad, to go out and vote. The act of going out and voting is in itself an important step in the defence of our democracies against authoritarian and imperialist powers. If you don’t decide yourself, others will do it for you.

Blog bz HR/VP Borrell