According to the most recent European Commission (EC) Report on the implementation of the Action Plan Against Disinformation, “available evidence has not allowed to identify a distinct cross-border disinformation campaign from external sources specifically targeting the European elections. However, the evidence collected revealed a continued and sustained disinformation activity by Russian sources aiming to suppress turnout and influence voter preferences.”
Similar findings were reported by Democracy Reporting International and in the most recent GLOBSEC report on European Parliamentary (EP) Elections in the Visegrad Group (V4), which concluded that no robust disinformation campaigns have occurred on the monitored social media channels with the sole exception of Hungary.
This can be attributed to several factors, such as the effectiveness of the measures taken to protect democratic electoral processes. Many feared the 2019 EP elections could be the next large potential target of Russian disinformation and propaganda campaigns. Another reason may be that EP elections are not as attractive a target as national parliamentary elections may be, particularly in those countries where voter turnout for EP Elections is notoriously low, such as Slovakia. Investing significant time, effort, and resources into in such cases may not be very cost-effective.
Whatever the reasons, celebrating the end of the disinformation era would not be only premature but also naïve. None of the above-mentioned reports claim that the recent EP elections where free of any interference attempts. Quite the contrary. What has changed is that the methods have become more sophisticated and information operations are no longer limited to exclusively foreign actors. Such operations now include a plethora of home-grown players who seek to profit from growing societal polarization, either financially or politically, with or without any links to the Kremlin. In other words, they have learned the Kremlin’s tactics and are now seeking to exploit them to the fullest extent.
Efforts need to be concentrated on studying how disinformation operations adjust to the information space and on ascertaining how best to identify and counter such infiltration attempts. Strategies of this sort would serve researchers and activists better than the convoluted and time-consuming efforts to attribute specific operations to particular malicious actors.
In the context of the 2019 EP elections, information operations involved more sophisticated methods of narrative amplification and skillful manipulation. These methods replaced the intense deployment of disinformation, as was the case in the Slovak presidential election campaign. In one instance during that race, a picture of presidential candidate Zuzana Čaputová was digitally altered to suggest that she had Semitic features.
Among the countries in the V4, Hungary is the only outlier to this new trend of more sophisticated information operations. Pro-government media, in tandem with disinformation channels, actively promoted a number of disinformation and conspiracy theories. One of these theories claimed that a “secret” study by the EC outlines how 3.8 billion foreigners can be resettled into Europe.
Migration was also the subject of fearmongering in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where those spreading disinformation have portrayed the issue as an existential threat. However, in these countries the approach differed. The divisive topic of migration was selectively framed through a continuous stream of one-sided posts, which captured, for example, the alleged criminal activities of the migrants. The channels then claimed that the mainstream media deliberately overlooked such stories. Some of these posts also attracted much higher number of shares compared to the above-mentioned Hungarian conspiracy theory. While this post was shared only 142 times, one of the manipulative anti-immigrant posts addressed to Slovak audiences was shared over 5,100 times. This means that deliberate promotion of a certain narrative through factual manipulation may not only be much more difficult to disprove but also more efficient in terms of its audience reach as it plays directly into preexisting popular fears and stereotypes. The fact that illegal migration to Slovakia is almost a non-existent issue does not seem to impede the spread of this alarmist messaging.
Europe has perhaps breathed a sigh of relief as the populist Eurosceptic bloc was not as successful as predicted in the European Parliamentary elections. However, many of the Eurosceptic parties directly profited from active promotion of narratives such as the “dictate of Brussels” and “migration as an existential threat” through the various disinformation and propaganda channels. In Slovakia, the extreme far-right ĽSNS-Kotleba party managed to secure 3rd position in the elections precisely on this agenda.
As democratic societies are learning to counter the effects of information operations on a massive scale, the methods used in this information war constantly evolve and adjust to the measures designed to limit their impact. Countering information operations at this stage requires moving beyond a narrow definition of disinformation to one that recognizes its increasing complexity and sophistication.