Internet and social media are the primary tools used by many actors, domestic and external to influence the decision-making processes of individuals undermining the democratic processes all around the world.
Bots and trolls on the march
The word “post-truth” has been overused in the last year in order to describe the complexity of the impact social media had on our societies. We live in the age of (dis)information in which armies of ideologically motived opponents, radicalised citizens, paid trolls and automated bots exchange online salvos of posts, likes and comments. Some are genuine expressions of political preferences, but in many cases, a part of broader effort to promote particular narratives or political candidates and wage discretization campaigns against their opponents.
Specifically, the ever-increasing activity of bots in online political campaigns is a matter of growing concern. The disproportionally huge use of automated bots was possible to observe in connection with elections in various countries starting with the US presidential elections in 2016, Dutch referendum on Ukraine accession treaty, as well as in both rounds of French presidential elections in April and May 2017. One could say that the importance of particular election or a referendum can be measured by the attention it receives from online trolls and disinformation media – the higher activity of automated bots and the higher number of false narratives spread online, the more important election.
French election as a case study: Macron vs. LePen
In case of French presidential election, there has never been any doubt who has been the favourite candidate of websites spreading false information and skewed narratives - Marine Le Pen, the far-right anti-EU pro-Russian candidate. Such narratives were possible to observe even in Central European countries, far away from France where “the campaign” was targeted. While the “world’s elite, mainstream media and Soros’s agents” were supposedly panicking over the fact that Marine Le Pen got into the second round of the French presidential election, outlets reporting distorted and false facts just intensified their anti-Macron and pro-Len Pen narratives.
Marine Le Pen was depicted by disinformation outlets as the candidate who would stop migration, increase the border controls, close-down the mosques and fight terrorism. Among other things, she would protect the French citizens also against the European Union and its dictate.
On the contrary, Emanuel Macron was presented as a “puppet of Brussels and Berlin”. Macron’s possible victory of the French presidential election was labelled the “German occupation of France”. The outlets reported that campaign against Le Pen was conducted by “61 French ‘pseudo-NGOs’paid by George Soros and Brussels”.
Emmanuel Macron has been highly critical of Vladimir Putin and banned Russian state-funded outlets RT and Sputnik from his events. As the centrist, pro-EU and pro-democracy candidate he represents values and narratives directly countering those of disinformation websites in Central Europe.
The importance of political developments in France is demonstrated by the fact that the disinformation campaign continues even after Emmanuel Macron won the second round of presidential elections. The French parliamentary election is right behind the corner and both far-right representatives of Front National as well as automated bots have been spinning anti-EU narratives.
Following the pattern of aggressive bots, it is possible to conclude that elections and referendums as tools of direct democracy have been hijacked. However, information confrontation of foreign actors in not limited only to the spread of false and misleading information and hoaxes. Subversive influence of foreign actors includes acts of espionage, economic bribery, cyber-attacks, support of particular political candidates and quasi-NGO groups.
For example, Marine Le Pen’s visit to Moscow, her meeting with President Putin in March 2017, as well as her party’s loan from a Moscow-based bank dating back to 2014, clearly indicate who was Moscow’s favourite candidate and the first choice for the winner of the French presidential election. This was supported by Russian media coverage of the French election campaign.
How to respond?
Enemies of liberal democracy at home and from abroad are effectively utilizing the biggest accomplishments of the West – its democratic process, openness and fundamental rights and freedoms – to undermine our institutions and processes. Democratic countries should acknowledge their vulnerability and increase the barriers to protecting their core democratic values and institutions. However, it is not only the state authorities who need to do more. Ordinary people too should be equipped with tools and skills enabling them to make a distinction between facts and fakes.
There is a mounting evidence that individuals and institutions trying to raise awareness on these threats, informing the public about the shady networks of foreign agents, uncovering connections between domestic and foreign actors attacking democratic societies are often targets of armies of online trolls, cyberattacks, lawsuits, denial-of service attacks or hacking. Therefore, governments, using appropriate measures, should provide support to such people or institutions since they serve as immune system for the whole society. Protective measures for victims of disinformation or cyberbullying should be an integral part of state countermeasures developed to target hostile foreign influence.
This document was published in the framework of projects run by the GLOBSEC Policy Institute and supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.