BRUSSELS — The European Union launched an ambitious effort earlier this year to combat election interference: an early-warning system that would sound alarms about Russian propaganda. Despite high expectations, however, records show that the system has become a repository for a mishmash of information, produced no alerts and is already at risk of becoming defunct.
Indeed, even before the European Parliament elections this spring, an inside joke was circulating in Brussels about the Rapid Alert System: It’s not rapid. There are no alerts. And there’s no system.
Europe’s early struggles offer lessons for other nations, including the United States, where intelligence officials expect Russia to try to interfere in next year’s presidential election. In many ways, the European Union has been more aggressive than Washington in demanding changes from social media companies and seeking novel ways to fight disinformation.
But doing so has pushed the bloc into thorny areas where free speech, propaganda and national politics intersect. Efforts to identify and counter disinformation have proven not only deeply complicated, but also politically charged.
The new Rapid Alert System — a highly touted network to notify governments about Russian efforts before they metastasized as they did during the 2016 American elections — is just the latest example.
Working out of a sixth-floor office suite in downtown Brussels this spring, for example, European analysts spotted suspicious Twitter accounts pushing disinformation about an Austrian political scandal. Just days before the European elections, the tweets showed the unmistakable signs of Russian political meddling.
So European officials prepared to blast a warning on the alert system. But they never did, as they debated whether it was serious enough to justify sounding an alarm. In fact, even though they now speak of spotting “continued and sustained disinformation activity from Russian sources,” they never issued any alerts at all.
The European Union has portrayed its efforts to combat Russian disinformation as a high-profile success, with officials declaring that they helped protect the elections and deter Russian propaganda. But interviews with more than a dozen current and former European officials, as well as a review of internal documents, reveal a process hamstrung by disagreements like the one that killed the Austrian alert.
Most countries did not even contribute, records show, and the network became a jumble of unanalyzed information, some of it potentially useful, some not.
Now, even officials who believe deeply in the effort say the bloc’s claim to have deterred Russian attacks is significantly overstated. Without changes, they warn, the alert system could quickly become obsolete.
President Trump with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Japan last month. Mr. Trump has downplayed the significance of Russian interference in elections.
“Reality is very different,” said Jakub Kalensky, the European Union’s former top disinformation analyst. He said internal politics and a resistance among some European leaders have left the system too sluggish to respond to the Russian threat.
“It’s a Potemkin village,” said Jakub Janda, who writes on Russian disinformation as the executive director of European Values, a Czech-based policy organization. “People in the know, they don’t take it seriously.”
Senior European officials in charge of the counter-disinformation effort strongly reject that notion and say the bloc is forging into new territory. They said the new alert system had already become an important clearinghouse for experts and officials across the bloc.
They point out that their commitment to the issue began in 2015, with the creation of a task force of analysts who scour the internet and who have publicly debunked Russian disinformation. The alert system — a private computer network in which any country can contribute intelligence or blast alerts — was created early in 2019 as an attempt to build on that effort.
“To be very clear, there is no similar operation going on anywhere in the world,” said Johannes Bahrke, a spokesman for the European Commission.
Mr. Bahrke said officials stand by the analysis in the Austrian case. Lutz Güllner, one of the top European officials overseeing the counter-disinformation campaign, said the absence of an alert had been a reflection of his team’s caution. “We agreed we need to be careful,” he said. With each new piece of propaganda, he added, analysts ask “What do we do with this? How do we define it?”
Russia’s use of European websites and social media accounts, and the rise of far-right political parties, whose messages often converge with Russia’s, have only complicated such calculations. Suspected Russian operatives, for example, have used ostensibly Irish Facebook accounts to try to inflame tensions in Northern Ireland, researchers recently found. And far-right copycats in Italy have aligned themselves with Kremlin talking points.
Yet those campaigns are effectively off-limits to European analysts. They are prohibited from calling out or debunking propaganda produced by European websites or media, a limitation that is intended to guard against creeping infringements on free speech. Instead, they are restricted to tracking official Russian media sources and issuing regular reports debunking claims about Europe.
“They don’t even have the ability to highlight far-right propaganda,” said Mr. Kalensky, who now studies disinformation for the Atlantic Council.
Even the reports reflect internal political pressures.
When editing one recent report on pre-election propaganda, for example, officials stripped out all references to Russia’s support for European political groups on the far right and left, according to three officials familiar with the process. Those references were replaced with a general warning about “malicious sources, both within and outside” the European Union.
European officials say those edits reflect the unique politics of the European Union, a 28-country bloc in which Portuguese Socialists, French centrists and Hungarian right-wingers have equal voice. It is one thing for analysts to call out Russian stories about Ukraine as disinformation. When those exact claims are repeated by the Hungarian government, however, things get complicated.
Josep Borrell, Spain’s foreign minister, has been nominated to become the European Union’s top diplomat.
The United States faces some of the same challenges. American officials have filed criminal charges and sanctions against Russian propagandists and government officials. But creating a European-style program to identify and debunk propaganda would bump up against the constitutional right to free speech — and also bump into President Trump, who promotes conspiracy theories himself and who has downplayed the significance of the Russian election attack.
Similar disputes are common in Europe. Former members of the Eastern bloc like Lithuania, backed by allies in the United Kingdom, have argued for a firm posture against Russia, while France and Germany have favored closer relationships and diplomacy. One reflection of this divide: The disinformation task force was created specifically to address Russian disinformation, yet it omitted any reference to Russia in its written objectives.
“Europe has a nice way of trying to believe, or say, that in the dialogue you will reach agreement,” said Jovita Neliupsiene, Lithuania’s ambassador to the European Union. “Naming and shaming is not a very European way of doing things.”
Ms. Neliupsiene said she was heartened by recent progress. The European Union has explicitly called for continued vigilance against the Russian threat. The task force, which was unfunded for years, now has money and a staff.
But some of the biggest supporters of the effort are also its biggest critics. They say Brussels is deliberately masking problems. Last month’s report on the elections, for instance, gave the union credit for deterring Russian propaganda. Yet the same report also says instances of Russian disinformation doubled this year.
“This is the E.U. advertising — that it’s doing great on this issue, when it’s really not,” Mr. Janda said.
European officials privately acknowledge that they have no evidence that their efforts specifically deterred Russian propaganda. But they say that calling out disinformation is unquestionably good for democracy.
Senior officials add that they have received good feedback on the system and say they are constantly working to improve it.
The immediate benefit of the Rapid Alert System is not actually the alerts, said Mr. Güllner, the senior counter-disinformation official. “The real benefit is to link up all the 28 member states on a common platform,” he said. The website allows officials to share information and spot trends, he said.
In practice that effort has been spotty. Only a third of European nations actually contributed to it before the elections, according to an internal report from the Czech government. Those who did contribute often simply uploaded news clippings or reports from nongovernmental organizations. No standards exist and nobody is in charge of analyzing the information to spot trends, the report said.
“The R.A.S. is at risk of becoming defunct,” the Czech report read. The report called for defined standards on what information to share and a clear plan for analyzing those materials. “If we want more than to spend resources on maintaining a platform to occasionally share studies by N.G.O.s or invitations to conferences,” it added, “we need to rethink our strategy.”
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