The European Union launched an ambitious effort earlier this year to combat election interference: an early-warning system that would sound alarms about Russian propaganda. Despite high expectations, however, records show that the system has become a repository for a mishmash of information, produced no alerts and is already at risk of becoming defunct.
Yet those campaigns are effectively off-limits to European analysts. They are prohibited from calling out or debunking propaganda produced by European websites or media, a limitation that is intended to guard against creeping infringements on free speech. Instead, they are restricted to tracking official Russian media sources and issuing regular reports debunking claims about Europe.
Europe’s early struggles offer lessons for other nations, including the United States, where intelligence officials expect Russia to try to interfere in next year’s presidential election. In many ways, the European Union has been more aggressive than Washington in demanding changes from social media companies and seeking novel ways to fight disinformation.
But doing so has pushed the bloc into thorny areas where free speech, propaganda and national politics intersect. Efforts to identify and counter disinformation have proven not only deeply complicated, but also politically charged.
The new Rapid Alert System — a highly touted network to notify governments about Russian efforts before they metastasized as they did during the 2016 American elections — is just the latest example.
Working out of a sixth-floor office suite in downtown Brussels this spring, for example, European analysts spotted suspicious Twitter accounts pushing disinformation about an Austrian political scandal. Just days before the European elections, the tweets showed the unmistakable signs of Russian political meddling.
So European officials prepared to blast a warning on the alert system. But they never did, as they debated whether it was serious enough to justify sounding an alarm. In fact, even though they now speak of spotting “continued and sustained disinformation activity from Russian sources,” they never issued any alerts at all.
The European Union has portrayed its efforts to combat Russian disinformation as a high-profile success, with officials declaring that they helped protect the elections and deter Russian propaganda. But interviews with more than a dozen current and former European officials, as well as a review of internal documents, reveal a process hamstrung by disagreements like the one that killed the Austrian alert.
Most countries did not even contribute, records show, and the network became a jumble of unanalyzed information, some of it potentially useful, some not.
“Reality is very different,” said Jakub Kalensky, the European Union’s former top disinformation analyst. He said internal politics and a resistance among some European leaders have left the system too sluggish to respond to the Russian threat.
“It’s a Potemkin village,” said Jakub Janda, who writes on Russian disinformation as the executive director of European Values, a Czech-based policy organization. “People in the know, they don’t take it seriously.”
Senior European officials in charge of the counter-disinformation effort strongly reject that notion and say the bloc is forging into new territory. They said the new alert system had already become an important clearinghouse for experts and officials across the bloc.
Indeed, even before the European Parliament elections this spring, an inside joke was circulating in Brussels about the Rapid Alert System: It’s not rapid. There are no alerts. And there’s no system.
Russia’s use of European websites and social media accounts, and the rise of far-right political parties, whose messages often converge with Russia’s, have only complicated such calculations. Suspected Russian operatives, for example, have used ostensibly Irish Facebook accounts to try to inflame tensions in Northern Ireland, researchers recently found. And far-right copycats in Italy have aligned themselves with Kremlin talking points.