The question of whether our democracy is under attack has been posed many times in the last number of years, stemming from targeted disinformation campaigns by both state and non-state foreign actors. Concerns around disinformation are viewed distinctly from misinformation, the latter supposes a lack of understanding rather than a purposeful and malicious intent to sow doubt, confusion and ultimately erode confidence in democratic institutions. Looking at the ballot boxes around Europe, allegations of external interference run rife, from Brexit to the French presidential election and now the Italian elections – the onslaught is relentless, and it is targeting the key political and economic drivers of the union.
But what is meant by foreign interference and what form does it take? Disinformation, electoral interference, financial corruption and foreign investment that seeks to control critical technologies or infrastructure1 are all clear examples of third country actors working to create discord, division and undermine the integrity of the EU. During the pandemic the issue of disinformation became more acute with the barrage of new information for citizens to absorb, as well as the increase in online activity and consumption of new media resulting from lockdowns. Information warfare efforts have further intensified since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. "Malicious disinformation is an essential part of modern warfare, intended to distort the public debate and undermine democratic elections in Europe2".
In 2020, the European Parliament set up a special committee to investigate, amongst other things, malicious foreign interference by state and non-state actors and transparency in campaign financing especially from third-country sources. The committee's mandate was to come up with ways to counter these attacks and to assess how to limit political funding from foreign actors. The committee was created based on Parliament's awareness of this hybrid warfare strategy carried out by authoritarian foreign state and non-state actors, such as Russia, China and others3. The goal is to mislead and deceive citizens and affect their voting behaviour. They seek to sow distrust in national governments, public authorities and the liberal democratic order and to destabilise European democracy.
Not all members of the committee were in agreement that this was an accurate representation of what has been happening. In an example of what has come to be known as the red-brown alliance, the left along with the far right elements in the committee voted against the report but were too few in number4 to successfully vote it down.
The initial INGE5 committee ran for eighteen months until March 2022 and a second committee was set up directly after, ING26, both being chaired by French socialist MEP Raphael Glucksman. The final report acknowledged that there is a general lack of awareness among many policy-makers, and citizens in general, of the reality of these issues. Another key criticism levied against the European Commission's approach to tackling disinformation campaigns is the lack of measurable outcomes and KPIs and while there is a Code of Practice on Disinformation, it has no enforcement mechanism7.
The objective of foreign interference in the democratic processes of the EU is to falsely represent facts, to discredit information which in turn degrades political discourse leading to a loss of confidence in the electoral system and the democratic process. Furthermore methods have become ever more sophisticated through the widespread use of artificial intelligence(AI) which helps to erode attributability. This is especially pertinent at the time of writing, early September 2022 as we head into the final weeks of campaigning for the upcoming elections in Italy after the fall of the most recent government headed by Mario Draghi.
At Council level, the reinforcement of the democratic institutions has been flagged but the current Czech council presidency as a key priority8, without this unified political will to strengthen the resilience of our institutions, the risk of these efforts being successful is even greater. According to the European Court of Auditors "Any attempt to maliciously and intentionally undermine or manipulate public opinion represents a grave threat to the EU itself" 9.
The warnings of the gravity of the situation have been sounded, but are the institutions quick enough to react? With the evolution of technology and platforms at such a rapid rate, legislators and EU bodies need to be more effective and timely in their reactions and in adapting their approaches to external disinformation threats.