LONDON -- Less than two weeks before elections for the European Parliament, websites and social media accounts linked to Russia or far-right groups are spreading disinformation, encouraging discord and amplifying distrust in the centrist parties that have governed for decades.
Academics, advocacy groups and European Union investigators say the disinformation efforts share many of the same digital fingerprints or tactics used in previous Russian attacks, including the Kremlin's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
Fringe political commentary sites in Italy, for instance, bear the same electronic signatures as pro-Kremlin websites, while a pair of German political groups share servers used by the Russian hackers who attacked the Democratic National Committee in the U.S.
The activity offers fresh evidence that Russia remains undeterred in its campaign to widen political divisions and weaken Western institutions.
Russia remains a driving force, but researchers also discovered numerous copycats. Those groups often echo Kremlin talking points, making it difficult to discern the lines between Russian propaganda, far-right disinformation and genuine political debate.
Investigators are confident, however, that networks of Facebook profiles, Twitter accounts, WhatsApp groups and websites are spreading false and divisive stories about the EU, NATO, migrants and more. Conspiracy theories are peddled freely, including that last month's fire at Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral was the work of Islamic terrorists, a spy agency or an elite cabal that secretly runs the world.
Often, these messages are delivered directly by Russian news media and are repeated and amplified elsewhere. Others are more carefully cloaked: Facebook shut down a pair of pages in Italy earlier this month that were concealing far-right political messaging in what appeared to be lifestyle or sports sites unrelated to politics.
"The goal here is bigger than any one election," said Daniel Jones, a former FBI analyst and Senate investigator whose nonprofit group, Advance Democracy, recently flagged a number of suspicious websites and social media accounts to law enforcement authorities. "It is to constantly divide, increase distrust and undermine our faith in institutions and democracy itself. They're working to destroy everything that was built post-World War II."
Investigators have found hundreds of Facebook and Twitter accounts, more than 1,000 examples of WhatsApp messages sharing suspicious materials, and a hodgepodge of dodgy websites that launder varying degrees of misinformation -- whether conspiracy theories or polarized slants on the news.
Russia dismisses accusations of meddling.
"The election has yet to come, and we are already suspected of doing something wrong?" Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in March. "Suspecting someone of an event that has not yet happened is a bunch of paranoid nonsense."
Distinguishing Russian interference from clickbait or sincere political anger is difficult, even for intelligence services. But pro-Russian fingerprints exist.
In 2016, an Italian website called I'm With Putin appeared, promoting pro-Russian news and criticism of the West. The now-defunct site shared a Google tracking account with the official campaign website of Matteo Salvini, the far-right deputy prime minister.
At the time, Salvini's campaign acknowledged that a web developer sympathetic to the party had built both websites. But the campaign said it had no affiliation with the pro-Putin page.
That Google tracking number is also associated with the StopEuro website, which today promotes stories from Russian news media and Kremlin-connected websites that criticize the EU.
In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany party gets strong support from both official Russian government media and unofficial pro-Russian channels. But Jones, the former FBI analyst, said the Kremlin also appeared to amplify messages from the party's staunchest opponents, left-wing anti-fascists. That would underscore what analysts say is Russia's true interest -- sowing political discord in democracies, regardless of ideology.
Researchers say disinformation tactics are changing alongside people's digital habits, including the use of messaging platforms such as WhatsApp. In Spain, the left-leaning democracy group Avaaz identified a campaign to spread false claims that Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez had agreed to Catalan independence. In Germany, Avaaz found dozens of racially discriminatory and anti-immigration messages.
"The importance of Europe is it's a test bed," said Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab who studies disinformation in Europe. "It's really an indicator of the number of different ways people may be trying to meddle."
A Section on 05/12/2019
Print Headline: Russia, far-right groups said to target EU elections