BRUSSELS -- Will Russian trolls, American social media giants and opportunistic fake news merchants combine to poison Europe’s political landscape ahead of May’s continent-wide election?
Brussels fears that online disinformation will fuel the populist wave officials believe skewed the Brexit referendum and carried Donald Trump all the way to the White House.
“There are external anti-European forces, which are seeking -- openly or secretly -- to influence the democratic choices of Europeans,” EU leader Donald Tusk warned recently.
This was, he claimed, also “the case with Brexit and a number of election campaigns across Europe.”
Between May 23 and 26, European voters will go to the polls to choose around 700 MEPs to sit in the Strasbourg EU parliament and oversee continent-wide legislation.
In the final weeks of the campaign, officials are on alert fearing that opponents -- including Moscow -- will attempt to spread fake news, amplified by viral social media.
This could in turn boost support for various populist insurgent parties, deepen existing divisions in the electorate and undermine faith in democracy or EU institutions.
Some go as far as to call the phenomenon a state-led attack.
“There is strong evidence pointing to Russia as a primary source of disinformation in Europe,” said EU Commission vice-president and former Estonian premier Andrus Ansip.
“Disinformation is part of Russia’s military doctrine and its strategy to divide and weaken the West,” he warned, in December.
Public trust in national and EU institutions and in the so-called mainstream media is already low, and web-users seeking cash from advertising clicks have found a market for fake news.