Combating disinformation and foreign interference in democracies: Lessons from Europe

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they meet in Helsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC19BE6D3090
Editor's note:

This post is part of “Cybersecurity and Election Interference,” a Brookings series that explores digital threats to American democracy, cybersecurity risks in elections, and ways to mitigate possible problems.

Cybersecurity & Election InterferenceEuropean democracies have been coping with foreign interference for longer than the United States, and the primary threat to European democracies comes from Russia. Following consolidation of his power within Russia in the early 2000s, President Vladimir Putin turned his attention to the former states of the Soviet Union and the former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. His goal was to peel those countries away from Western-style democracy and return them to Russia’s coercive sphere of influence. Later, Putin turned to weakening the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU)—bringing Western European democracies and the United States squarely into his sights. Russian disinformation campaigns are used to discredit politicians and democratic institutions like elections and independent media.

Putin is not coy about his views. Ahead of the June 2019 G20 summit in Japan, Putin said “the liberal idea”—the dominant western ideology since the end of World War II which includes things like multiculturalism, the rule of law, and respect for human rights—has “become obsolete” and “outlived its purpose.” He has embraced and cultivated nationalist groups in Europe to disrupt Western-style democracy and create like-minded political allies. In making these points and engaging in actions designed to undermine that idea, Putin has multiple goals. One is to weaken Western unity in order to achieve policy changes on issues like economic sanctions on Russia. Another is to revive Russia’s role as a global power. Ultimately, Putin seeks to ensure his survival at the helm of his kleptocratic mafia state by dissuading ordinary Russians from aspiring to Western-style democracy.

For people pondering the potential effects of foreign interference in the 2020 elections here in the United States, it is worth understanding what other democracies are doing to confront the same problem and what lessons can be learned from their experiences.

Putin is using many tools at his disposal to realize the goal of weakening Western democracy. As a 2018 report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee put it:

For years, Vladimir Putin’s government has engaged in a relentless assault to undermine democracy and the rule of law in Europe and the United States. Mr. Putin’s Kremlin employs an asymmetric arsenal that includes military invasions, cyberattacks, disinformation, support for fringe political groups, and the weaponization of energy resources, organized crime, and corruption.

That analysis—which covers both consolidated democracies (like the Nordic states, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Italy, and three Baltic states) and semi-consolidated democracies (like Ukraine, Georgia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Hungary)—provides a baseline for understanding the diverse types of challenges other countries face and how they are addressing them. Each country in Europe has its own distinct vulnerabilities as well as reactions to interference, so it is difficult to generalize about Europe as a whole. But the four countries I highlight below (Sweden, France, the United Kingdom, and Hungary) represent different illustrations of foreign influence and how various countries have responded.

Sweden: A Pound of Prevention

In January of 2017, Sweden’s most authoritative foreign policy institute issued a comprehensive study finding that Sweden had been the target of “a wide array of active measures” from Russia using fake news, false documents, and disinformation as part of a coordinated campaign to influence Swedish public opinion and decision-making. Foreign interference in Swedish elections is aimed at reducing public confidence in the electoral process and dividing Swedes on top social and political issues. In addition to damaging Sweden’s democracy, the Kremlin seeks to deter the prospect of Swedish membership in NATO.

In response, Sweden has invested heavily in a comprehensive approach to combating foreign interference in their democracy, and their efforts have largely been successful.  Long before their September 2018 election, Sweden created a comprehensive strategy based on a clear understanding of the threat, learned lessons from other targeted elections (including the United States), and developed a whole-of-society defense strategy that includes its media and citizens. The Prime Minister set the tone by making clear that foreign interference in the September election would not be tolerated. A high-level interagency coordination forum serves as a national platform for election planning, preparation, and protection. Local elections workers were trained to identify and resist such influence. Major media outlets collaborated to combat fake news. A “pop-up” newsroom of students, international journalists, and fact-checkers tracked sources of disinformation ahead of the election and published a daily newsletter addressed to news organizations. Media literacy efforts aimed at school children have been expanded to the broader population with the goal of increasing citizens’ resilience to disinformation, propaganda, and hate speech online. Indeed, digital literacy is included in Sweden’s national strategy for a strong democracy. In their totality, these efforts have gone a long way towards mitigating Russian disinformation efforts.

France: Leadership from the Top

France successfully prevented Russian interference in, and Putin’s attempts to divide French society during, France’s 2017 elections.  Since then, French President Emanuel Macron has sent a relatively strong message of deterrence and has sought to lead efforts within the EU to protect democracy from Russian interference.

Two days before the final round of French presidential elections, data hacked from Macron’s presidential campaign team were released online.  Due to a combination of incompetence on the part of the hackers and the informed response of various actors in French society, the dump had little impact. One advantage was that the French government had studied the earlier cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns in the Netherlands, the UK, and the United States. It also relied on government-created independent, nonpolitical entities to intervene and take measures to respond to interference attempts. One such entity raised public awareness about interference and organized an open workshop for political parties on cybersecurity. The government also put pressure on Facebook to remove fake accounts, and approximately 70,000 French Facebook accounts were suspended in the days before the election.

As President, Macron has not been shy about addressing Putin directly on these issues.  Putin faced a “frontal attack over Moscow’s meddling in western politics” from Macron on a visit to Versailles Palace in May of 2017. At a press conference, Macron treated a visibly irritated Putin to some in-your-face accusations that Russia’s Sputnik and RT networks of  being “propaganda organs” of the Russian government.  His lack of follow-through was criticized in 2018, but Macron re-emerged in 2019 as a leader clearly seeking ways to preserve and protect democracy in the EU.  In March, ahead of the EU Parliamentary elections, he published a manifesto for a European “renaissance” in 22 languages and 28 newspapers across Europe.

One of his recommendations is to create a new agency to protect European democracies and their electoral processes against cyberattacks and fake news. Whether such an entity will be successful is another question, of course. The EU’s attempt to share information and spot trends through an early-warning system about Russian propaganda has produced no alerts and is struggling to be relevant. One of the reasons is the tricky intersection of free speech, propaganda and national politics.

Despite relatively strong leadership, significant challenges remain for France. For example, incomplete restrictions on foreign funding of domestic political campaigns—witness the shady 9.4 million-euro loan from a Russian bank to the far-right, pro-Putin candidate Marine Le Pen in 2014—provide foreign governments and related entities an easy way to influence, and diminish public confidence in, French elections. Russian interference continues in other forms as well. In December of 2018, French authorities opened an investigation into possible Russian interference behind the country’s “Yellow Vest” protests following reports that social media accounts linked to Moscow have targeted the movement.

United Kingdom: Distracted by Brexit Chaos

In the aftermath of the 2016 vote in the UK to leave the European Union (EU), the UK government has struggled to deal with concerns that the Kremlin influenced the very close vote. The UK government’s efforts to combat electoral interference have been spotty and uncoordinated, even while the Kremlin’s disinformation assaults ramp up around Brexit and other divisive issues. Brexit is a major part of Putin’s portfolio, as he and his compatriots seek to destroy the EU, an institution he views as a force for imposing democratic values on countries with which Russia shares borders and which were once part of the Soviet Union or in the Soviet sphere of influence.

There is evidence that the now-infamous Internet Research Agency—indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in February of last year for its role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election—also targeted the Brexit vote. According to the UK Parliament’s report on “Disinformation and ‘fake news’” issued in February of 2019, more than 150,000 Russian social media accounts posted pro-Brexit messages just before the referendum. In addition, British businessman and Brexit supporter Arron Banks is under investigation by the National Crime Agency over suspected criminal offenses based on the sources of his £8 million in contributions to the “leave” campaign. Banks has denied the allegation that much of this money was funneled from Russia.

Prime Minister Theresa May recognized the threat from Russia in a November 2017 speech accusing the Kremlin of attempting to undermine free societies and sow discord in the West by deploying its state-run media organizations to plant fake stories. “I have a very simple message for Russia,” she said, “We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed.” In January of 2018, the UK government set up a “dedicated national security communications unit” charged with “combating disinformation by state actors and others.” But it is not clear whether the unit’s efforts have borne any fruit.

Theresa May is gone following the failure of her Brexit negotiations with the EU, and the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, will likely be consumed with Brexit difficulties—potentially at the expense of meaningful efforts to combat foreign influence in the UK. Prime Minister Johnson could be a target ripe for Russia’s destabilizing influence as Putin looks for a post-Brexit, anti-EU alliance with the UK.

While the UK struggles politically, the Kremlin continues its efforts to spread chaos in the UK, most notably using social media to exacerbate tensions in Northern Ireland. For example, the unresolved question of the border between the UK and Ireland has become a key issue in the Brexit negotiations. In June, news reports indicated that Russian intelligence is suspected of spreading false information, including about interactions between Northern Irish politician Arlene Foster and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator. The purpose of the campaign is to “exacerbate the already raw divides in Ireland and the United Kingdom,” and it is believed to be its first disinformation campaign targeting divisions in Ireland.

Hungary: Democracy Downgrade

In February, Freedom House downgraded Hungary from “free” (as it has been categorized since it became a democracy in 1990) to “partly free”—joining Pakistan, Singapore, Ukraine, and Zimbabwe. This category means that elections are still held, but the ruling party manipulates those elections, skews media coverage, abuses state resources, and harasses political opponents to ensure victory. In 2018, a German research group found Hungary was “nearing” the threshold of autocracy. The experience of Hungary showcases what happens when sustained foreign interference succeeds in capturing key domestic political actors. The assault on democracy essentially ‘goes native’ and democratic institutions suffer.

Viktor Orbán has been Prime Minister since 2010 (he was also Prime Minister from 1998 to 2002). Orbán passed a new constitution and reshaped Hungary into, as he describes it, an “illiberal democracy.” His government has eroded judicial independence, turned state-owned media into a propaganda machine, and helped loyal oligarchs buy up most independent media. For more than a decade, Putin has done everything in his power to help Orbán succeed and encouraged a process that RT (the Russian state propaganda network), calls “the Orbánization of Europe.” Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has enthusiastically embraced Orbán including a coveted visit to the Oval Office.  But as Brookings scholar James Kirchick has said, “the United States should be isolating the Hungarian prime minister, not embracing him,” because he is working against America’s interests in Europe.

Lessons from abroad

Sweden is doing everything it can to safeguard its democracy and is, for now, succeeding. Its reliance upon digital literacy campaigns and trusted civil society organizations were crucial to its effective response to Russian disinformation. France is surviving a sustained assault largely because of principled and well-coordinated governmental leadership. The UK is struggling to fend off foreign influence while it works through its own political chaos—which may have been caused in part by foreign influence. Hungary did not protect its democracy, and foreign interference tactics were picked up and adapted by domestic political actors and parties.

Foreign adversaries have been waging disinformation campaigns in the United States for decades.[1] New internet applications and other digital communications make interference efforts cheaper, and more difficult to detect, because there are multiple inexpensive ways to directly reach and influence large numbers of individuals. On Facebook, disinformation appears as shared content as well as through paid advertising. Twitter is highly vulnerable to disinformation because accounts are not verified and it is easy to generate and spread false content. The Kremlin’s election interference in Western democracies began in earnest around 2014 and took advantage of these new technologies.

Online foreign influence efforts are a threat that is here to stay. At least 24 countries worldwide have been targeted, with Russia being by far the most active aggressor; but evidence suggests Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia are also engaging. Social media companies like Twitter and Facebook are making some progress, but as Arya Goel, Diego Martin, and Jacob N. Shapiro point out, the best outcome is a “gradual marginalization by the combination of internet platform self-policing…and government actions that raise the expected costs for attackers.”

The challenge for the United States is not only to learn from the past and the experiences of other countries but also anticipate and respond to emerging challenges. The foreign interference threat is constantly changing. For example, Russian disinformation efforts in parts of Europe have become less overt over the past three years, and governments must adapt to protect against new forms of assault. The coming wave of disruptive technologies, like artificial intelligence and decentralized applications, will require new methods for responding to and disrupting disinformation campaigns.

Americans must be attuned to the risks to our democratic institutions when influential political actors in the United States use the tactics of disinformation, originally perfected by the Kremlin, to advance and sustain political power. The key lesson from abroad is that disinformation is most effective when it plays on existing tensions within society. Amplifying and exacerbating those tensions can be all that is needed to destabilize a democracy.

President Donald Trump is deploying some of the same disinformation tactics Vladimir Putin used to consolidate his own power in Russia. When Putin first came to power, he moved quickly to dominate the media landscape in Russia, putting state media as well as privately owned broadcast media under the Kremlin’s influence. Trump calls news outlets he does not like the “enemy of the people” on a regular basis. He hired advisers from the country’s most popular news outlet and dispatches former advisers to influential conservative news outlets. He invited Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro to praise him onstage at a political rally. He talks with Fox’s Sean Hannity multiple times a day.

The Kremlin uses conspiracy theories to mobilize the Russian public and destroy the reputation and legitimacy of political opponents. President Trump used a conspiracy theory (that Barack Obama was not born in the United States) to raise his political prospects. He has deployed them regularly against his political opponents. He uses them to inspire fear about the integrity of elections, and to try to influence the outcome of the 2018 mid-term elections.

Whether these tactics will ultimately have the impact of permanently degrading the United States’ democratic institutions is an open question. To avoid a democracy downgrade in the United States, the key is to take actions to preserve our democratic institutions before anti-democratic and autocratic forces take hold. At the heart and soul of a functioning representative democracy is a political process that should constantly be working to reconcile, or at least ameliorate, divergent views and societal tensions—all in the service of an ever more perfect union that serves the people rather than those in power. When that political process is disrupted by foreign adversaries or other political actors pursuing their own aims, it risks becoming captured by those interests and no longer serves the people. That is our most crucial task leading into the 2020 elections.

[1] For example, in 1983, Soviet propagandists created and disseminated the conspiracy theory that U.S. government scientists created the AIDS virus as a biological weapon. Such conspiracy-theory oriented efforts did not gain much traction, however.

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