Nathalie Loiseau, head of the Renaissance (Renewal) list for the European elections, holds a European flag at the end of a political rally with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, in Strasbourg, France, on May 11, 2019. Picture: REUTERS/VINCENT KESSLER
Nathalie Loiseau, head of the Renaissance (Renewal) list for the European elections, holds a European flag at the end of a political rally with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, in Strasbourg, France, on May 11, 2019. Picture: REUTERS/VINCENT KESSLER

Brussels — Russian online outlets spread disinformation in an effort to sway voters in last month’s EU elections, the bloc said on Friday in a report calling for social media firms to do more to counter such efforts or face regulation.

The EU review said there was evidence that both Russian and European online sources had sought to promote extreme views and polarise debate on divisive issues like migration and religion.

“The evidence revealed a continued and sustained disinformation activity by Russian sources aiming to suppress turnout and influence voter preferences,” it said.

Moscow has consistently denied it is targeting elections.

However, the EU report said some 1,000 such cases were detected by a dedicated task force, whose staff was more than doubled to 16 ahead of the European Parliament election. The unit monitors and fact-checks reports by foreign groups but is not equipped with the tools of an intelligence agency to investigate cyber campaigns.

Online platforms

EU leaders will discuss the review by the bloc’s executive and its foreign service at a summit next week. A final report is due later in the year after which EU officials said they will consider further regulations of online platforms.

The EU said online platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, whose help it enlisted in the review, must do more to combat disinformation, including sharing data on their efforts.

Ahead of last month’s polls, which were the world’s second-largest, domestic political actors also used misinformation tactics to undermine the bloc’s democratic institutions, the report said.

“It’s not necessarily about breaking the law, but it is about attempting to mislead,” EU security commissioner Julian King said. Bots and fake accounts were used to amplify these efforts, King said, with one such network promoting anti-Islam hashtags.

Despite voluntary steps taken by Facebook, Twitter, Google and other platforms to counter malign actors, the conclusions of the EU's review piles pressure on them to go further.

It calls for them to develop tools to vet websites hosting ads, ramp up co-operation with fact-checking organisations, increase transparency by giving researchers access to data and governments information on the malign actors, the report said.

And stricter rules governing paid-for political advertising implemented by Facebook should be improved and rolled out to upcoming national elections across the bloc.

While EU officials say they may expand recent rules requiring greater efforts by online platforms in policing content, EU justice commissioner Vera Jourova said voluntary co-operation had brought progress.