Europe takes bold steps to counter Russian cyber meddling

RIGA (Latvia) • As the United States grapples with the implications of Kremlin interference in American politics, European countries are deploying a variety of bold tactics and tools to expose Russian attempts to sway voters and weaken European unity.

Counter-intelligence officials, legislators, researchers and journalists have devoted years to the development of ways to counter Russian disinformation, hacking and trolling. And they are putting them to use as never before.

Four dozen officials and researchers interviewed recently were more confident about the results of their efforts to counter Russian influence than officials grappling with it in the US, which one European cyber official described as "like watching House Of Cards".

A senior US intelligence official in Europe noted: "The response here has been very practical."

In the recent French elections, newcomer Emmanuel Macron won despite being subjected to suspected Russian hacking and false allegations in Russian-sponsored news outlets.

In Germany, all political parties have agreed not to employ automated bots in their social media campaigns because such hard-to- detect cybertools are used by Russia to circulate bogus news.

Ms Claire Wardle, strategy and research director at Europe's largest social media accountability network, First Draft News, said that President Donald Trump's embrace of the "fake news" label for traditional mainstream news outlets and his own record of unabashed distortions have, moreover, energised Western Europe against the threat of disinformation.

Sweden has launched a school programme to teach students to identify Russian propaganda.

In Lithuania, 100 citizen cyber sleuths dubbed "elves" work to identify and beat back "trolls" on social media employed to spread Russian disinformation.

The European Union's East StratCom Task Force has researched and published 2,000 examples of false or twisted stories in 18 languages in a weekly digest.

France and Britain have successfully pressured Facebook to disable tens of thousands of automated fake accounts used to sway voters.

Germany's Cabinet has endorsed legislation which will fine social media companies that fail to remove posts deemed "hate speech".

Russia has not hidden its liking for information warfare. This year, the Defence Ministry announced the creation of a new cyber warrior unit. No longer able to compete in conventional military terms - the US defence budget is about eight times larger than Russia's - Moscow has emphasised this less expensive but difficult-to-thwart tactic.

"Weaponising information" involves the dissemination of factual distortions and outright lies to achieve political ends. What is undeniably new, though, is the digital sophistication that Moscow can now employ. President Vladimir Putin's apparent goal, experts say, is to weaken Western unity, restore Russia's influence in the world and, not least, shore up support at home.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2017, with the headline 'Europe takes bold steps to counter Russian cyber meddling'. Print Edition | Subscribe