On the 20th June, EU DisinfoLab hosted its monthly webinar.

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During the last webinar organised by the EU DisinfoLab with Jakob Guhl, Research Coordinator at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), we discussed the most interesting cases of propaganda and digital campaigning in the EU elections based on the ISD’s Interim Briefing. The final report on the EU elections will be published in coming months by ISD Global.

The elections period over the last years has been continuously influenced by the mainstreaming of extremist and polarising ideas. The EU elections analysis unit of ISD Global uncovered various disinformation campaigns targeting the EU elections in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Poland, and the UK.

The research project conducted by ISD focused on three main elements:

  1. The role of convert digital propaganda campaigns in the European elections.
  2. Actors behind the malign influence operations, the techniques they use and the response of tech companies.
  3. The differences and similarities with regard to malign influence operations between the EU elections with the 2016 US elections.

In terms of methodology, the Institute mainly concentrated on digital ethnography, social media listening and analysis, open source investigation tools, media monitoring, polling data, and legal mapping. The researchers worked with political analysts to compare political discourses that data analysts were seeing online with the discourses of politicians. The research tools used by ISD were Crimson Hexagon, GrowdTangle and Graphika.

As for the results of the analysis, Mr. Guhl mentioned that there was a big difference between the polling results and the dominance of right-wing populist parties on Facebook. For instance, in Germany there are many more AfD-pages and posts than pages and publications of other parties. Consequently, the given party received more engagement on social media.

One of the main findings is that the Russian online tactics used to influence the 2016 US elections were copied by the European populist parties, using automated accounts and bot-like behaviour during the EU elections campaign. This trend of deceptive tactics of automated accounts was noticed in Spain, Poland and in the UK in different scales.

In the UK, the Brexit Party had the largest number of likely automated bot accounts supporting them. Here, we can refer to eight out of the top ten most active accounts showing the signs of automation, and seven of these bearing the branding of the Brexit Party.

In Spain, until a few months ago, a network of likely sock puppet and bot Twitter accounts were tweeting and amplifying the messages of the Venezuelan opposition politician Alberto Franceschi Gonzalez. These bots turned towards promoting anti-Muslim hate speech hashtags, and the far-right pro-Vox content during the EU elections period.

Some measures by Tech-firms to combat disinformation may have also led to unintended consequences. On Twitter, users could freely flag the potential disinformation context, leading in some cases to the takedown of contents expressing legitimate political opinions. Many have suspected that Twitter advised its monitoring team to take down more content than necessary rather than being faced with fines or growing pressure.

Generally, the ISD witnessed an increasing shift away from outright disinformation to a narrative competition covering issues such as immigration, religion, multiculturalism, and the role of democratic institutions. Hate speech was weaponised in a targeted and coordinated way to attack specific groups of people.

Lastly, during the monitoring, the ISD was able to identify hundreds of pages, accounts and groups on Facebook, over 1000 accounts on Twitter and about a 100 channels and videos on Youtube, which collectively transgressed the terms of service of these platforms. This was based on the mapping of policies of platforms that the ISD undertook as part of the electoral analysis project. As mentioned above, some measures put into place could even lead to backfire effects (for example in Germany).

The post-project output of the ISD is a larger analysis of tactics and campaigns of disinformation, the key themes that parties wanted to push, and the campaigns’ performance.

Jakob Guhl is a Research Coordinator at ISD. Jakob’s experience includes research and programme coordination including work with the Online Civil Courage Initiative, a project that aims to improve and promote civil society reactions to hate speech and extremism on the Internet. Jakob has also co-authored research reports on reciprocal radicalisation between far-right extremists and Islamists, coordinated trolling campaigns, hate speech and disinformation campaigns targeting elections. More recently Jakob has worked as a German data analyst within ISD’s Election Analysis Unit.