Open data analysisFootnote 1 – European Parliamentary Elections: Comprehensive Report

Issue: This open source data report outlines comprehensive findings by the Rapid Response Mechanism Canada (RRM Canada) related to foreign interference during and leading up to the 2019 European Union Parliamentary Elections, May 23-26, 2019. RRM Canada’s reporting is informed by in-house analysis and consolidates insights from members of the RRM network. It is important to note that RRM Canada monitors and analyzes all potential cases of foreign interference, regardless of the political party affected or political nature of any given issue.

The objectives of this report are to:

Key Findings

Challenging the legitimacy and fairness of the UK, EU and Irish democratic system

RRM Canada identified some incidents of coordinated inauthentic behaviour in relation to the artificial amplification of disinformation on social media. However, the available data would appear to indicate that this coordinated inauthentic behaviour does not stem from a foreign state, or large-scale organized non-state actor. Rather, our findings show that national and international non-state actors, likely originating from across Europe and the United States, have most notably (though not exclusively) emulated approaches from the Russian sponsored IRA Playbook used during the 2016 American Presidential Election.

Twitter, Facebook and RedditFootnote 4 accounts were used to spread divisive and false information to damage and negatively impact social cohesion and trust in democratic processes and institutions. These efforts also included the use of blogs and webpages to host disinformation, as well as coordinated networks of Facebook groups, Reddit accounts and Twitter account networks to disseminate content.

An example of these activities include false and unsubstantiated information on vote rigging, noting Counting Agents with the UK Brexit Party were barred from viewing the vote count. This was amplified through a series of inauthentic and coordinated accounts/networks onlineFootnote 5 during the voting period to challenge the legitimacy of the electoral process in Nottingham, UK, and the UK more generally.

Use of Divisive Narrative to Undermine Social Cohesion

RRM Canada identified a shift from information warfareFootnote 6 to narrative competition.Footnote 7 A key trend in the data is the dissemination and amplification of divisive issues such as: immigration, Muslims in Europe, climate change and liberal vs conservative values. What is notable is the strategic pushing of inflammatory and divisive narratives across national borders and global political contexts to engage pan-European, regional and international communities.

Migration/Immigration

An example of this would be the story of “400 African illegal immigrants stormed in the terminal of the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris”. This tweet was initially recounted by the NY Post “Footage shows hundreds of migrants occupying French airport terminal”. When this story was picked up by national and transnational alternative and Kremlin-affiliated news sites and blogs, it snow balled, being posted by Voice of Europe, Zerohedge, Westernjournal, Jihadwatch, Sputnik, Breitbart, TheBlaze, InfoWars, etc. In this instance, a transnational network of actors shared, copied and reproduced divisive content related to a minor local protest with no noted incidents. Suspicious sites picked up this content to reach a broader audience by manipulating what is called Search Engine Optimization or SEOFootnote 8 and artificially amplified it days before the EU Parliamentary Election by both a network of dubious and unreliable websites, as well as a network of inauthentic accounts on Twitter and Reddit.Footnote 9 This aided in increasing reach and traction, using near identical, divisive framing of the event, playing on anti-immigrant, anti-African and identity-based sentiment with sensationalized and inflammatory language, and referencing the original content to provide the allusion of validation in reporting.

Health and Reproductive IssuesFootnote 10

Another example is an attempt to sow division and further polarize communities around an already highly charged topic. In the Irish context, RRM Canada found national and international non-state actors manipulating and framing authentic information from the public Health Service of Ireland using inflammatory and divisive rhetoric about abortion and pregnancy “remains." This information was amplified and targeted at susceptible audiences, both local and international through coordinated activity.

This tactic is valuable in transferring a narrative from one community to another, amplifying its significance, and targeting those susceptible to inflammatory and sensationalized content in order to affect discourse around divisive issue across states, Europe and internationally. A narrative may be altered slightly for different audiences, but the core aspects of its framing and messaging are transmitted regardless of the source.

Additional Tactics and Approaches of Note

RRM Canada observed a number of noteworthy tactics employed throughout the EU. One tactic is the use of manipulated authentic information posted on untrustworthy websites, blogs, and by questionable journalists or inauthentic accounts to seed conversations. The information is then picked up and framed using a divisive and inflammatory narrative by a broader network of accounts, websites and blogsFootnote 11 referencing the original posting to substantiate their story. Finally, this information is amplified by networks of inauthentic accounts in a coordinated fashion. This information targets susceptible communities and may be translated to various languages to target broader political contexts and audiences. RRM Canada describes this tactic as “de-contextualization,” as the basis of the information is authentic content that is manipulated and distorted. A version of this tactic has been observed as being used by Kremlin-linked actors and is a known tactic of covert, malicious foreign actors.Footnote 12

A similar but notable tactic for amplifying content, and strategically translating and pushing it into new communities, was observed in our Italian case study. In this case, the initial content focused on Euroscepticism and anti-globalist sentiment and conspiracy. Using a speech by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, content was initially spread and amplified through a set of inauthentic and coordinated accounts. It was then strategically targeted at influential and well-known authentic online actors in order to have it boost engagement. Finally, the content was translated into four different languages and amplified again by systematically pushing it in these four separate communities simultaneously, in order to increase reach and prominence in ideologically similar European discussions and communities.

RRM Canada also noted a small incident of likely inauthentic accounts claiming to be progressive Muslims engaged in discussions with falsely amplified accounts opposed to immigration and multiculturalismFootnote 13, while also being embedded in an inauthentic network. What was notable about these accounts was that they used hashtags and language characteristic progressive actors, but also prominently displayed their Muslim identity and the intention for a “Muslim takeover” of the west. They were then used as examples of incendiary content by various groups opposed to immigration and multiculturalism. RRM Canada believes these to be experimentation with new tactics meant to provoke and act as a means to further and artificially aid in polarizing societies over wedge issues.

Concluding Remarks

Our findings are consistent in a number of ways with other experts in this field. Notable findings from published reports illustrate the impact of tactics like narrative competition, and the emergence of new actors using well-known information operation tactics, particularly non-state actors.Footnote 14 Some experts found instances of state-based foreign interference, including on platforms like Facebook, Reddit and Medium, while noting amongst the various findings the emergence of the tactic of planting, seeding and systematically amplifying false information across platforms and other information sources.Footnote 15 In relation to the EU Parliamentary Elections, a key insight from RRM Canada is that while no significant evidence of state-based foreign interference was observed, the digital ecosystem is ripe and ideal for exploitation by foreign malign actors.Footnote 16

Released: 18 July 2019

Disclaimer: Rapid Response Mechanism Canada monitors and shares information consistent with Canada’s privacy laws and the Ministerial Direction for Avoiding Complicity in Mistreatment by Foreign Entities. The information sharing practices of Global Affairs Canada are subject to review by the Privacy Commissioner, the Information Commissioner of Canada, the Office of the Auditor General and the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, among others.Nothing in the present document shall be construed as adding any obligation or normative commitment under international or national law for any G7 member.

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