Online trolls are already actively disseminating pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives, and these inauthentic networks will likely try to influence the 2024 European parliamentary election. Pro-Ukraine forces must combat these efforts both rhetorically and legislatively.

An investigation by Correctiv recently revealed the existence of a pro-Russian fake account network in Germany working on spreading misleading narratives favourable to the Kremlin via Facebook ads and links to disinformation sites, fake government documents, and content by the politicians of the German far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party.

One such ad accused Ukrainians of burning churches based on a video taken in Russia over a decade ago. Even though the video did not depict what was claimed, it was allowed to spread freely on social media.

Troll networks were also revealed to be spreading pro-Russian disinformation narratives regarding the war in the V4 and Germany, Italy, or Romania by Political Capital based in Hungary. 

The methods exposed by the Hungarian institute were pretty basic: potentially fake and real accounts on Facebook started copy-pasting the same texts into a broad range of discussions on Facebook, including under posts made by mainstream media outlets, ensuring that even users who do not seek disinformation can see their misleading claims.

The Hungarian ruling party Fidesz has also used online trolls to disseminate its propaganda narratives. One of the first known instances of this network being engaged abroad is when they tried to discredit former MEP Judith Sargentini for her leadership in a report criticising Hungary’s rule of law record. 

This is proof that Fidesz itself could also be able to try influencing EU public opinion, including views concerning Russia and the war. The ruling party has often expressed their desire to unite the European right, particularly the far-right Identity and Democracy, and the soft Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformers party groups. 

While the success of such plans seems somewhat impossible – due to, among others, differences in Russia – it is possible that Fidesz will use its troll network to attempt to shore up support for these forces.

What the troll networks want

Despite Facebook regularly trying to stop these troll networks, they always come back, as the social media company had previously halted the one uncovered by Correctiv – but they only succeeded temporarily.

The troll networks on Facebook and other social media outlets will be active during the 2024 European Parliament elections. The far-right is currently having substantial success in the polls. Finland’s Finns party (PS) came second in the Finnish general election, allowing it to form a government with the centre-right National Coalition. 

The new government has just survived the racism scandal of PS leader and Minister of Finance Riikka Purra.

The Austrian far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) has led the polls since November 2022, gaining an increasing advantage over the center-left SPÖ and the center-right ÖVP. In Germany, the AfD has overtaken the ruling SPD as the second-most-popular party in polls, and they are on the rise.

There is no doubt that, similarly to the situation in Germany, pro-Russian troll networks will be supporting these parties in the 2024 European elections, hoping that it will lead to a new parliament more moderate in its criticism of Russian actions in Ukraine, as the current crop of MEPs has called for EU countries to “reduce diplomatic relations with Russia and keep them to the absolute minimum necessary.” 

Even if the European Parliament has no power in managing the Union’s foreign policy, it would benefit the Kremlin if one of the EU’s critical legislative institutions reduced pressure on the European Commission and member states to act tough on Russia.

The widescale troll activity expected during the election campaign will try to ride Europe’s perceived wave of war fatigue. While Europeans are clearly in favour of most decisions the European Union has made regarding the war in Ukraine, there are some weak points in the bloc

The latest Eurobarometer survey revealed that only 36 per cent of Cypriots support the EU’s sanctions policy vis-á-vis Russia, while 56 per cent oppose them, and in Bulgaria, those in favour are only a slim majority. 

There are 15 member states out of the 27 where at least 20 per cent of respondents said they disagree with the sanctions, so there is clearly a broad electoral base open to pro-Kremlin manipulation.

Pro-Ukraine actors must be ready

It cannot be said that the European Union is not attempting to moderate the disinformation prevalent on social media sites. Its signature legislation on social media platforms, the Digital Services Act, obliges these platforms to assess and address systemic risks such as the “intentional manipulation of their service, including using inauthentic use or automated exploitation of the service.” 

However, this legislation is still in the early stages of implementation, and its actual effects will only be seen well after Europeans go to the polls in 2024.

Parallelly, the voluntary Strengthened Code of Practice on Disinformation signatories agreed to bolster policies to address mis- and disinformation and agree on understanding manipulative behaviors, such as coordinated inauthentic behaviour. 

This commitment will also become an obligation due to the DSA, but the steps taken by signatories so far indicate that the code will yield only a short time.

Overall, pro-EU, pro-Ukraine actors, and—in parallel—social media sites must be ready for a tough fight during the 2024 European election campaign, where malign actors will seek to lay the foundations of a more Russia-friendly European Parliament. 

This must be combatted both rhetorically by explaining to people what practical benefits supporting Ukraine brings and through legislation aimed at inauthentic networks. 

Originally published here