LONDON — The European authorities on Friday blamed Russia for a misinformation campaign designed to depress voter turnout in last month’s European Union elections, and warned that new rules might be needed to force internet platforms to do more to stop the spread of false news.
A preliminary review of the parliamentary elections by the European Commission and the bloc’s foreign policy and security arm found an effort by Russian-linked groups and other nonstate actors to undermine credibility in the European Union through social media. The initiative tried to spread misinformation about divisive topics such as immigration and major events like the cause of the Notre-Dame fire in Paris.
“The evidence collected revealed a continued and sustained disinformation activity by Russian sources aiming to suppress turnout and influence voter preferences,” the report said. “There was a consistent trend of malicious actors using disinformation to promote extreme views and polarize local debates, including through unfounded attacks on the E.U.”
European officials did not provide details about what groups in Russia or elsewhere were behind the campaigns. The report also stopped short of assessing whether the efforts had an impact on how people voted, although turnout in the elections reached a 25-year high. Instead, the report largely cited the findings of outside researchers who had been tracking the European elections.
Independent investigators had warned that the region remained vulnerable to misinformation campaigns ahead of last month’s vote. Reports highlighted efforts by Russia-linked groups and those in favor of far-right policies to use Facebook and Twitter to spread false information and exaggerate political divisions.
Facebook blocked more than 1,700 pages, groups and accounts engaged in inauthentic behavior targeting European Union countries during the first three months of 2019, the report said. Voters in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain were among those targeted.
The report said new internet regulations might be needed rather than relying on the companies to abide by a voluntary code of conduct. The European Commission said it would complete a review by the end of the year that could result in new laws.
“More needs to be done by the platforms to effectively tackle disinformation,” the report said.
Facebook said it took several steps to protect the integrity of the European elections, including entering into partnerships with local fact-check organizations, adopting new rules to show who is buying political ads on its platform, and dedicating teams of employees to monitor election interference.
“The fight against false news will never be over,” Facebook said in a statement in response to the European Commission report. “That is why we are making significant investments to remove fake accounts and clickbait and to promote high-quality journalism and news literacy.”
Twitter and Google did not respond to requests for comment.
Last month’s vote was seen as a referendum on the direction of Europe. On one side were nationalist and populist groups skeptical of the European Union’s influence on national affairs; on the other were those seeking more integration and cooperation. The final results were mixed, with far-right groups performing well in some countries, and liberal parties doing better in others.
The election demonstrated a broader shift in strategy for those engaged in misinformation. The report said the efforts were smaller and more localized than Russia’s widespread effort seen during the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States. Far-right groups and other nonstate actors have also adopted the techniques, the report found.
“Instead of conducting large-scale operations on digital platforms, these actors, in particular linked to Russian sources, now appeared to be opting for smaller-scale, localized operations that are harder to detect and expose,” the report said.
An emerging challenge for governments and social media platforms is that groups are not sharing outright false information, making the content harder to detect and remove. Instead, social media posts tend to take highly politicized views on news events of the day.
The report pointed to stories that said the collapse of the government in Austria was the result of the “European deep state.” Other posts said that the European Parliament is controlled by lobbyists, and that the Notre-Dame fire in Paris occurred because of a decline of Western and Christian values.
The shift raises thorny free speech questions for governments and internet platforms trying to police online content. It can be difficult to distinguish between malicious misinformation campaigns and legitimate, if extreme, political views.