LONDON — European authorities blamed Russian groups Friday for disinformation campaigns designed to depress turnout and sway public opinion in last month’s European Union elections, an official accounting that underscored how Russian interference has not abated and that Facebook and tech platforms remain vulnerable to meddling.
The preliminary review by the European Commission and the bloc’s foreign policy and security arm found that Russian-linked groups and other nonstate actors had worked to undermine credibility in the European Union through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Officials said regulations might be needed to force internet platforms to do more to stop the spread of deliberately false information.
“The evidence collected revealed a continued and sustained disinformation activity by Russian sources aiming to suppress turnout and influence voter preferences,” the report said.
The report was the first official substantiation by the European Commission of the role that Russians and other groups played in disinformation in the May elections, which many investigators, academics and advocacy groups had warned about. It was a reminder of how active Russians and others continue to be in spreading divisive content online to inflame and stoke electorates all over the world, a strategy that the Kremlin had pioneered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Since then, Facebook, Twitter and others have vowed to clamp down on foreign interference and have worked on new technology and other methods to stop outside meddling during elections. But the report highlighted how much work the platforms needed to do to stay a step ahead of disinformation networks. The report has implications for American officials ahead of the 2020 presidential election, with an increasing number of smaller, harder-to-detect domestic groups adopting Russia-like strategies to influence voters.
“The genie’s out of the bottle,” said Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab who has been tracking disinformation efforts in Europe. “What we’ve seen over the past few years is an increasing number of actors, both state and nonstate, using similar methods online to interfere in democratic processes.”
European officials did not draw a direct link in the report between the disinformation campaigns and the Kremlin or provide details about what groups in Russia or elsewhere were behind the efforts. The report also stopped short of assessing whether the tactics had an effect on how people voted, with turnout in the elections having hit record levels. The report largely cited the findings of outside researchers who had been tracking the European elections.
“There was no Big Bang moment. There was no new Facebook-Cambridge Analytica case that we know of,” Vera Jourova, a European commissioner, said during a news conference in Brussels. Yet “the European elections were not free of disinformation.” She added that the continued online meddling was “something we cannot accept.”
Facebook said it had taken steps to protect the integrity of the European elections, including entering into partnerships with fact-checking organizations, adopting new rules to show who was buying political ads on its platform and dedicating teams of employees to monitor election interference.