correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the name of Alice Stollmeyer's advocacy group Defending Democracy. This version has been updated.
Americans don’t usually pay much attention to European Parliament elections — and it’s difficult to blame them, to be honest. While the Parliament is more important than it used to be, the governing institutions of the European Union are a bewildering bureaucratic mess. (Most Europeans can’t explain to you how the whole thing works, either.)
Yet this time around, we’d be well advised to pay close attention to what’s happening as voters in 28 countries head to the polls Thursday — because two years from now, we could be seeing a repeat of the same tactics that enemies of the open society are currently deploying across the Atlantic.
Why? Because Europe is currently awash in a flood of information pollution — distortions, propaganda and just plain lies. It should come as little surprise at least some of it is being pushed by Russia, which has a clear interest in sowing discord, discrediting democracy and undermining the European idea. One recent report by U.S. cybersecurity firm SafeGuard Cyber concluded that Kremlin-linked social media accounts have reached 241 million Europeans during the election campaign.
Yet Russia is far from the only culprit. The evidence suggests that Europeans themselves are now the greater perpetrators. Most belong to far-right populist movements, though some also come from the extreme left. Most importantly, the boundaries between domestic and foreign disinformation are growing increasingly blurred, as both foreigners and locals happily exchange memes, myths and talking points. Small wonder that European authorities are failing to cope.
“It’s a whole ecosystem,” says Alice Stollmeyer, a former digital activist from the Netherlands who now runs the advocacy group Defending Democracy. “It’s no longer just state-backed, but it’s of domestic origin as well.” Stollmeyer warns against the idea that this campaign is related solely to the European elections. “There’s a shift from misleading facts to misleading narratives — and it’s not just one article or tweet, but a tapestry that’s being woven all year long.” As one example, she cites the “Great Replacement” — the burgeoning white nationalist claim that immigrants pose an existential threat to the European identity.
A recent study in the Czech Republic dramatizes the extent of the problem. Pollsters from Nielsen Admosphere found that 28 percent of the population believe that “the E.U. is actually organizing the illegal migration of Muslim country people to Europe.” Nineteen percent of those over the age of 55 said that anti-government demonstrations in Slovakia, Hungary and their own country were “paid for by George Soros.” Though the Russians play a well-documented role in disseminating disinformation throughout the country’s social media, the Czechs themselves have proved proficient at generating misleading content — starting with the country’s own president. “The far-right populist politicians are using the same materials as the Kremlin when it’s trying to interfere with domestic affairs,” says Veronika Víchová of the European Values think tank in Prague. “Unless you understand the precise motivation, it’s very hard to tell them apart.”
So why should Americans care? Because Europe’s disinformation plague offers a preview of what we can expect in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. Our social media environment is evolving along exactly the same lines. Here, too, far-right conspiracy theories — think Pizzagate — circulate freely through Fox News and Russian-sponsored propaganda websites. (And Soros plays a boogeyman role here as well, a conceit that American right-wing trolls seem to have taken on as it became increasingly popular among their confederates in Europe.
It’s worth noting that the European Union — in contrast to the United States — has at least developed a coherent strategy, known as the “Action Plan against Disinformation,” to respond to the problem. Yet, so far, European authorities have proved strikingly ineffective at countering the threat. Piecemeal fact-checking efforts and pleas to social media platforms to act more decisively against malign users have produced few results. If, as anticipated, right-wing populists end up winning big in Europe’s parliamentary elections, unchecked disinformation will be a big part of the explanation.
We still have time to draw the necessary lessons. Just as in Europe, it is now our own people who are primarily responsible for twisting the truth on an industrial scale. And, just as in Europe, we are doing little to compel the social media platforms to clean up their act and decontaminate our information environment. And the Trump administration has still done little to develop a coherent program for addressing the problem. There is no hint of an overarching strategy for countering the online machinery of lies that has become such a part of everyday life.
We can’t say we weren’t warned. We know that social media platforms thrive on the cultivation of strong emotions, leaving them vulnerable to mischief and manipulation. We know that deepening polarization and the culture of “alternative facts” are corroding our democratic institutions. Enough of the excuses. It’s time to act.