New players are exploiting internet lawlessness to disrupt democracy at this week's European elections, says a new report that points a finger at far-right populists and cyber militias.
With the vote running from May 23-26, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) investigated the role of covert digital propaganda in Britain, France, Germany, Italy Spain and Poland.
"New actors are taking advantage of the lawlessness of the internet, often aligned with hostile states such as Russia, as well as American special interests, but also creating their own, pan-European campaigns," said the report released Friday.
Populist parties, far-right cyber militias and religious groups are "adapting the tactics more notoriously used by states", the London-based think tank said.
- 'Out of the Putin playbook' -
Covert Kremlin campaigns in the 2016 US election may have inspired European actors who "have taken some pages out of the (President Vladimir) Putin playbook and are using deceptive and automated Twitter accounts to boost their causes and attack their opponents."
The connection to political parties was often opaque and kept at enough distance to maintain deniability.
"We also see ... personalised attacks and intimidation of opponents ... part of an increasingly coherent right-populist playbook to gain and keep power, sow confusion, undermine faith in independent democratic institutions and promote extremist mindsets."
Fearing a wave of disinformation the EU's External Action Service has set up a rapid alert system, with a dozen staff, to closely watch social media and warn of possible risks of interference.
But European officials told AFP this week there had not yet been any disruptive activity to justify a pan-European alert, and no indications of a flood of fake news or disinformation.
In Spain, ISD found a "coordinated network of Twitter accounts boosting anti-Islam hashtags and amplifying support for the right-populist party VOX".
This included bots and inauthentic accounts, with over 4.4m of the posts in the past year concerning VOX, which denies links with the swarms of accounts boosting its campaign and attacking critics.
In Britain, support for most major parties was being boosted by suspected bots on Twitter.
"Forty-two percent of the most active accounts supporting official party Twitter handles show signs of bot-like hyperactive posting rates," it said.
"However, the Brexit Party is well ahead of the pack when it comes to benefiting from suspected inorganic amplification."
In Poland, ISD identified a "suspected coordinated network of pages, accounts and groups on Facebook used to promote nationalist party Konfederacja and to amplify anti-Semitic and pro-Kremlin content".
In Rome, US-based campaign group Avaaz reported 23 Italian pages with a total of more than 2.46 million followers which were spreading “false information and divisive content” over issues such as migration and vaccines as well as anti-Semitism.
- 'Hate-speech election' -
In Germany, the far-right AfD dominates Facebook conversation around the elections through hyperactive levels of engagement. The report highlighted the AfD labelling teenage Swedish green activist Greta Thunberg as a "child manipulated by 'eco-fascists.'"
ISD also found concerted attacks on the professional media in Germany and France.
It branded the 2019 vote the "hate-speech election" as digital discourse is "weaponised ... online mobs instigated by one party against another -- with evidence of automated digital militias specially programmed to spew anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic messages".
ISD identified over 365 pages, accounts and groups on Facebook, over 1,350 accounts on Twitter and over 100 channels and videos on YouTube that promote hate speech, disinformation or extremist content.
Common patterns emerged that "go beyond the copying of the latest electronic tactics and which together constitute a 'playbook' for a full-scale campaign against constitutional democracy".
Tech companies were struggling to keep up, it said, despite the EU and member states passing new regulation to curb viral deception and hate speech.
They were "failing to fulfil their many promises to safeguard the integrity of elections".
Facebook has taken down nearly 80 pages spreading fake news or using tactics that appeared aimed at unfairly influencing the vote, an NGO reported Wednesday.
Avaaz said it had alerted Facebook to more than 500 pages and accounts suspected of fuelling disinformation campaigns.
The ISD, which "seeks solutions to extremism", used social media mapping, undercover online reporting, media monitoring and policy analysis to track the campaigns.