EU leaders to warn of cyber, fake news threat to May elections

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders will sound the alarm this week over the threat of EU elections in May being undermined by a coordinated campaign of fake news and disinformation by foreign powers.

FILE PHOTO: European Union flags fly outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

A draft statement seen by Reuters on Wednesday, ahead of a leaders’ summit to take place in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, said they would call on governments to do more to protect the upcoming polls.

The draft statement is the latest sign of concerns over growing evidence, particularly since the U.S. presidential elections, that Russia has sought to sow division in Europe.

“Many of our nations, including France, have already been targeted by campaigns, attacks or manipulation,” an Elysee official said. “We have to increase our efforts at the European level ... today our forces are scattered and not yet enough.”

The bloc’s heads of state will urge governments to share information on threats via a new warning system, launched by the bloc’s executive. They will also call for online platforms such as Facebook and Google to do more to remove misleading or illegal content.

So far efforts at the EU level have been limited by different election rules in each member state and qualms over how far regulators can go in responding to misleading content online, especially originating in its own member states.

The early warning system launched this month aims to help educate and speed responses by national authorities. Brussels has also set up its own fact-checking website.

“This is a societal challenge we are dealing with, it’s not a quick fix,” an EU official said, adding that the bloc’s mandate is to focus on threats from foreign actors.

A senior diplomat from an EU member state in the former Soviet bloc said nations bordering Russia have long been aware of the threat of disinformation but that other EU nations were finally waking up to the danger.

“It is now a priority to address the fragilities that our democratic systems may have,” the diplomat said.

Meanwhile a heated dispute between Brussels and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban over a media campaign EU officials have labeled fake news has raised concerns about the bloc’s ability to tackle outside threats when its own house is not in order.

Despite EU efforts, it will ultimately be up to national authorities to safeguard the elections, EU officials say.

Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel, Alastair Macdonald and Jean-Baptiste Vey; Editing by David Holmes