Threat of trolls, bots and fake news in the EU elections

Following accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and online meddling in the Brexit referendum in Britain that year, many fear that the European Union elections in May could be the next target.
From May 23 to 26, the citizens of all EU member states can vote for the next European Parliament. Opinion polls suggest that radical, eurosceptic parties will do well, potentially hampering the bloc’s work for the coming five years.
EU officials fear that malign actors — such as Russia — could magnify this trend through disinformation and election meddling.
“We must not be naive: there are those who want to disrupt European elections and their tools are sophisticated,” European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans said in September.
“We have seen attempts to interfere in elections and referenda, with evidence pointing to Russia as a primary source of these campaigns,” his colleague Andrus Ansip added in December.
Disinformation and fake news works by tapping into people’s emotions, according to Ben Nimmo, an expert on disinformation with the Atlantic Council think-tank.
“It’s about hitting them [voters] with lots and lots of scary stories until they feel so afraid or so angry that they make a bad decision,” he said.
A lot of this work is carried out by trolls, who Nimmo describes as “a nasty human being who is posting stuff to cause trouble,” and bots — small software programmes that retweet messages en masse to make them look popular.
But how can voters protect themselves from being manipulated? Nimmo has some simple advice: slow down.
“Before you share a post, particularly if it’s a post that makes you angry or afraid, start thinking: ‘Why is somebody trying to make me angry or afraid?’” he noted.
However, politicians also have a role to play, according to Nimmo, since disinformation tends to target groups with genuine grievances,such as jobless people without prospects who feel ignored by the elite.
“Politicians need to keep on considering the problems of disinformation but they also need to look at disinformation as a red flag,” he said, noting that they should ask themselves why certain groups feel disaffected. “It’s only then that you are actually going to solve the problem,” he said. — dpa