Russia and Europe’s far-right political parties are using the same fear tactics to influence crucial European Parliament elections to be held May 23 to 26. The New York Times reports that servers used to launch attacks against the Democratic National Committee in the 2016 U.S. elections are now hosting websites used by far-right parties in Germany and Italy.
European parliamentary elections are especially important in the Brexit age, when leaders will be looking to establish new Europe-wide regulations on immigration and Russian sanctions—issues which have traditionally divided the bloc. Russia benefits when leaders who are interested in lifting sanctions gain power in Brussels.
The Russian manipulation websites are focused on sowing fear about migration and over-regulation by Brussels. Most are linked back from social media misinformation posts that push anti-immigrant and nationalist stories across Europe. The Times reports that Russia is “undeterred” in the spread of misinformation with the intent to influence European elections despite recriminations after meddling in the 2016 US Presidential elections.
“Russia remains a driving force, but researchers also discovered numerous copycats, particularly on the far right,” the Times reports. “Those groups often echo Kremlin talking points, making it difficult to discern the lines between Russian propaganda, far-right disinformation and genuine political debate.”
In Italy, disinformation sites are linked to the country’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. The Daily Beast confirmed that the websites I’m With Putin and Stop Europe were developed by the same person in charge of Salvini’s online campaign before he shot to power in 2018. Salvini is an ardent supporter of Donald Trump, even visiting him at a campaign rally in Philadelphia in 2016. He is also close to Vladimir Putin, whom he recently visited in Moscow.
Salvini’s spokesman has denied to The Daily Beast that he supports Russian meddling in the upcoming elections, for which he is also a candidate.
Similar sites exist and are being pushed by far-right parties in France, Spain and Poland.
The Times quotes the left-leaning watchdog group Avaaz, which says it has identified more than 100 Facebook pages pushing far-right propaganda and populist agendas to undecided voters. Some of those have been directly linked to Salvini and the Five-Star Movement, which shares power in Italy’s current populist coalition. Avaaz says that the network of disinformation sites had 18 million followers and 23 million interactions in the last three months alone, essentially since the European Parliamentary campaign officially kicked off.