A meeting on disinformation at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels on December 5, 2018

Brussels (AFP) - The EU took steps Wednesday to protect upcoming elections against disinformation campaigns from suspects like Russia, launching a bloc-wide alert system and pressuring internet giants like Facebook for more help.

Officials said their campaign will try to blunt the hatred and divisions fuelling the rise of right-wing and populist parties in a number of European countries.

“We need to be united and join our forces to protect our democracies against disinformation,” said Andrus Ansip, the EU’s vice president for the digital single market.

“We have seen attempts to interfere in elections and referenda, with evidence pointing to Russia as a primary source of these campaigns,” Ansip added.

European Union officials said they are taking steps to protect democracies and public debate ahead of elections in May to the European Parliament as well as before dozens of elections in member countries through 2020.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the 28-nation bloc, called for a system in which EU bodies and member states alert each other to disinformation in real time.

Set for March, the system will allow members to share data and analysis on propaganda campaigns and promote what the bloc says will be objective communications about its values and policies.

The plan will boost the Commission’s budget to tackle disinformation and raise awareness from 1.9 million euros to five million euros next year.

This will allow for an increase in staff and equipment in Brussels and among EU delegations to third countries. EU member countries are also urged to try to match the efforts.

The Commission also asked Facebook, Google, Twitter and Mozilla as well as online and advertising trade associations to “swiftly and effectively” act on pledges made last month to fight disinformation.

- ‘Very big pressure’ -

These include ensuring the transparency of political advertising, closing active fake accounts and flagging messages spread automatically by “bots”.

They also include cooperating with academic researchers to detect disinformation campaigns and making fact-checked content more visible and widespread.

The Commission said it will work with European regulators of audio-visual media services to constantly monitor whether the pledges are being carried out fully.

“We will impose very big pressure on them to do what they promised to do,” the commission’s justice commissioner Vera Jourova told reporters in Brussels.

The Commission warned it could take “regulatory” action if the online platforms fail to honour the pledges they signed in a code of practice last month.

Facebook set up a “war room” in October to fight against misinformation and manipulation by foreign actors trying to influence elections worldwide.

It was responding to accusations it had done too little to prevent misinformation efforts by Russia and others in the 2016 US election.

In line with US intelligence assessments, the EU officials highlighted in particular the threat of disinformation from a newly assertive Russia.

“Disinformation is part of Russia’s military doctrine and its strategy to divide and weaken the west,” Ansip, a former prime minister of Estonia, told reporters.

- ‘Troll factory’ -

Ansip, whose country is especially wary of Moscow after decades under Soviet rule, said Russia spent 1.1 billion euros a year on pro-Kremlin media.

He also referred to “a troll factory” in Saint Petersburg, the so-called “Internet Research Agency”, which a US court says tried to influence the 2016 presidential election, and to Russian “bot armies”.

In Europe, Britain is investigating whether Russia tried to influence the vote for Brexit in 2016.

In France’s 2017 presidential elections, a Moscow-backed news site ran allegations aimed at discrediting Emmanuel Macron against right-wing rival Marine Le Pen.

“Healthy democracy relies on open, free and fair public debate,” the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said.

“It’s our duty to protect this space and not allow anybody to spread disinformation that fuels hatred, division, and mistrust in democracy,” she said.