Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Brussels — EU officials are bracing for attempted meddling by Russia-backed operatives and their copycats ahead of the bloc’s elections in the spring, where far-right parties are expected to make gains.

That has led the bloc to bolster its defences against cyber-attacks and pressure tech platforms to ramp up the fight against misinformation.

"Today’s cyber bullets are getting harder to spot and harder to stop," said EU security commissioner Julian King at a conference on Monday in Brussels on election interference.

"The need for action on this is urgent … doing nothing risks our democratic processes being undermined," he said.

Elections to the European Parliament will be held in May 2019, amid a surge in support for populist parties that oppose further integration in the bloc and want to end Russian sanctions.

Russian-backed campaigns

European officials are also concerned that Russian-backed campaigns — mostly through social media platforms – could boost support for parties that are more sympathetic to Moscow.

EU governments are set to pledge to further strengthen deterrence and resilience against cyber and other threats at a gathering of leaders in Brussels this week, according to a draft of the conclusions seen by Bloomberg.

The UK, the Netherlands and other EU governments have pushed the bloc to expand the scope of its sanctions regime to target individuals and groups behind cyber-attacks, potentially including activities that seek to interfere in elections.

Leaders will call for measures to "combat cyber and cyber-enabled illegal and malicious activities and build strong cybersecurity", and "protect the union’s democratic systems and combat disinformation, including in the context of the upcoming European elections", according to the latest draft of their summit’s conclusions.

Officials are concerned about potential attacks targeting voting technology but especially those designed to try to manipulate voting behaviour, for instance by leaking documents, hacking or spreading fake news articles.

Large technology firms have faced pressure over the past year from legislators in the US and Europe after intelligence services concluded that Russia spread disinformation across their platforms to influence the 2016 US presidential election and the UK’s Brexit vote.

"Platforms can do better when it comes to fake news and manipulation," Eva Maydell, a centre-right member of the European Parliament, said at the Brussels conference. "What we are afraid of is that this information actually only helps, to put it very simplistically, populist parties and politicians."

Under pressure from the European Commission, Alphabet’s Google, Facebook, Twitter and other tech and advertising companies recently agreed to a joint code of conduct, pledging to fight the spread of "fake news" online in Europe.

As part of the code, Google and Facebook committed to bringing transparency tools for political adverts in Europe after recently rolling them out in the US. Those changes require administrators of Facebook pages that promote political parties to get authorised and provide copies of their IDs to Facebook. Any sponsored content also needs to display disclaimers stating who has paid for the advert.