Has Russian disinformation caused Europe’s lurch to the right?

While the outcome of the 2024 election is yet to be finalised, results at the time of writing show that Eurosceptic conservatives are on course to win an extra 14 seats (taking them to 83), while right-wing nationalists will gain nine seats (to 58). Overall, the right, including centre-right politicians of the European People’s Party grouping, has done well, largely at the expense of the liberal and green party groupings. With just five nations out of 27, including Italy and Estonia, remaining to publish their final results, the overall picture is unlikely to change dramatically.

The move to the far right is evident across Europe. France, which elects 81 members to the European Parliament (EP), was perhaps where this was most evident. Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party is projected to receive around 31-32% of the vote, against President Macron’s centrist party, which is estimated to reach around 15% of the vote. Macron was so concerned about his party’s poor showing that he has called an election in the country. Belgium’s prime minister also handed in his resignation after the nationalist New Flemish Alliance emerged as the big winner after regional, national and European Parliament elections were held in the country on Super Sunday.

In Germany, Eurosceptic parties are projected to secure over 16% of the EP vote. The AfD tripled its support from voters under 24 from 5% in 2019 to 16% and gains six seats to reach 15. The Greens lost nine seats from 21 last time around. Austria’s far-right Freedom Party gained nearly 26% of the vote, gaining three seats, while in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’s anti-immigration Party for Freedom gained six seats with 17% of the vote. A similar story played out in Poland, Spain, Greece, Bulgaria and Croatia.

But what is driving Europe’s veer to the right?

There is some evidence that the success of the far right comes from millennial and Gen Z voters shifting towards these parties. A third of French voters under 34 and 22% of young German voters favour their country’s far right, while in the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom has become the largest party among under-34s.

Young Europeans, mainly those aged 18-29, overwhelmingly rely on social media for daily news consumption. In Italy and Denmark, nearly three-quarters of young adults use social media for news daily (74% and 75%). A recent German youth study found that 57% of youth prefer social media for news and political updates.

There is growing concern that external actors, particularly from Russia, may have influenced the elections.

Media reports reveal that EU leaders were so concerned about foreign interference in the elections that they set up rapid alert teams to manage any serious incidents. Officials told the Guardian that disinformation has reached “tsunami levels.”

The evidence points to Russia.

Last December, France’s VIGINUM group, which is tasked with protecting France and its interests against foreign digital interference, published a report revealing a network of nearly 200 websites with addresses of the form pravda-xx.com or xx.news-pravda.com, where xx is the country identifier.

The sites, which generate little new content themselves, instead amplify existing pro-Russian content from state sources and social media, including posts from military blogger Mikhail Zvinchuk. Pro-Russian content relating to the Ukraine war is a particular favourite.

Thirty-four fact-checking organisations in Europe, showed that the Pravda network had spread to at least 19 EU countries. Fact-checking organisation Greece Fact Check, in cooperation with Pagella Politica and Facta news, has since noticed that the Pravda network has been attempting to convey large amounts of disinformation and pro-Russia propaganda to sway EU public opinion.

The organisation said that “minor pro-Russian politicians who run for the elections are quoted by state media such as Ria and then further amplified by the Pravda network, in what seems an attempt to magnify their relevance”.

A report by EDMO on EU-related disinformation ahead of the elections found that it was at its highest ever level in May 2024. Ministers for European affairs from France, Germany, and Poland cautioned about efforts to manipulate information and mislead voters. Across the EU, authorities observed a resurgence in coordinated operations spreading anti-EU and Ukraine narratives through fake news websites and on social media platforms Facebook and X.

Among the false stories that emerged and covered were reports that EU President Ursula Von der Leyen had links to Nazism and had been arrested in the European Parliament.

In Germany, there were stories circulating that the country’s vote was being manipulated, ballot papers with holes or corners cut were invalid and that anyone voting for the far-right party AfD would follow stricter rules. Other stories attempted to trick voters into multiple voting or signing their ballot papers, practices that would invalidate their votes.

The report also noted that around 4% of such disinformation articles have been created using AI tools.

The tsunami of disinformation looks unlikely to fade away any time soon. The Guardian says that the EU’s rapid alert teams have been asked to continue their work for weeks after the election.

A senior official told the paper, “The expectation is that it is around election day that we will see this interruption of narratives questioning the legitimacy of the European elections, and in the weeks around it.”

Banned By Beijing

BANNED BY BEIJING THE CHINESE COMMUNIST PARTY'S SUBVERSION OF FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IN EUROPE With China becoming an increasingly dominant world power, there is growing evidence that an emboldened Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is employing a range of tools aimed at...

Major new global free expression index sees UK ranking stumble across academic, digital and media freedom

A major new global ranking index tracking the state of free expression published today (Wednesday, 25 January) by Index on Censorship sees the UK ranked as only “partially open” in every key area measured.

In the overall rankings, the UK fell below countries including Australia, Israel, Costa Rica, Chile, Jamaica and Japan. European neighbours such as Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Denmark also all rank higher than the UK.

The Index Index, developed by Index on Censorship and experts in machine learning and journalism at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), uses innovative machine learning techniques to map the free expression landscape across the globe, giving a country-by-country view of the state of free expression across academic, digital and media/press freedoms.

Key findings include:

  • The countries with the highest ranking (“open”) on the overall Index are clustered around western Europe and Australasia – Australia, Austria, Belgium, Costa Rica, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland.

  • The UK and USA join countries such as Botswana, Czechia, Greece, Moldova, Panama, Romania, South Africa and Tunisia ranked as “partially open”.

  • The poorest performing countries across all metrics, ranked as “closed”, are Bahrain, Belarus, Burma/Myanmar, China, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Eswatini, Laos, Nicaragua, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

  • Countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates performed poorly in the Index Index but are embedded in key international mechanisms including G20 and the UN Security Council.

Ruth Anderson, Index on Censorship CEO, said:

“The launch of the new Index Index is a landmark moment in how we track freedom of expression in key areas across the world. Index on Censorship and the team at Liverpool John Moores University have developed a rankings system that provides a unique insight into the freedom of expression landscape in every country for which data is available.

“The findings of the pilot project are illuminating, surprising and concerning in equal measure. The United Kingdom ranking may well raise some eyebrows, though is not entirely unexpected. Index on Censorship’s recent work on issues as diverse as Chinese Communist Party influence in the art world through to the chilling effect of the UK Government’s Online Safety Bill all point to backward steps for a country that has long viewed itself as a bastion of freedom of expression.

“On a global scale, the Index Index shines a light once again on those countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates with considerable influence on international bodies and mechanisms – but with barely any protections for freedom of expression across the digital, academic and media spheres.”

Nik Williams, Index on Censorship policy and campaigns officer, said:

“With global threats to free expression growing, developing an accurate country-by-country view of threats to academic, digital and media freedom is the first necessary step towards identifying what needs to change. With gaps in current data sets, it is hoped that future ‘Index Index’ rankings will have further country-level data that can be verified and shared with partners and policy-makers.

“As the ‘Index Index’ grows and develops beyond this pilot year, it will not only map threats to free expression but also where we need to focus our efforts to ensure that academics, artists, writers, journalists, campaigners and civil society do not suffer in silence.”

Steve Harrison, LJMU senior lecturer in journalism, said: 

“Journalists need credible and authoritative sources of information to counter the glut of dis-information and downright untruths which we’re being bombarded with these days. The Index Index is one such source, and LJMU is proud to have played our part in developing it.

“We hope it becomes a useful tool for journalists investigating censorship, as well as a learning resource for students. Journalism has been defined as providing information someone, somewhere wants suppressed – the Index Index goes some way to living up to that definition.”