Battle of the Bots Germany muscles up to take on Russian trolls

Berlin and Brussels are piling on resources to counter Russian meddling in next year's EU elections. The extra cash is peanuts compared to Moscow’s disinformation machine.
Quelle: picture alliance / Ikon Images/T
What's the Russian for "hands off"?
(Source: picture alliance / Ikon Images/T)

The German government is beefing up its defenses against cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns orchestrated by Russia as fears grow that the EU parliamentary election next May could be swayed by bot-driven fake news made in Moscow.

The German foreign ministry’s “Strategic Communications” department is getting more resources. Handelsblatt has learned that it launched a social media tool in October to scour the web for disinformation and help the government counter it. An EU agency will also get more money and staff to expose Russian disinformation.

Germany’s office for information security, known domestically as the BSI, is stepping up preparations for the European elections as well by increasing IT defenses. It has also been approached by political parties seeking advice on IT security, according to Arne Schönbohm, its boss.

He said the European vote was less vulnerable to targeted manipulation than national elections, partly because the campaigns will run in several languages. It is also harder to hack email accounts or electoral authorities, because IT infrastructure varies from one country to the next.

Nevertheless, authorities across Europe are on high alert, not least due to the scale of Russia’s web propaganda machine, freshly evident in state media coverage of the seizure by Russia of three Ukrainian naval ships off the coast of Russia-annexed Crimea.

RT and Sputnik called the incident an “irresponsible provocation” by Ukraine that was steered by the US. Bots, or automated social media accounts, distributed this version of the events on a massive scale in German and many other languages.

European leaders fear the EU elections will turn into a bot battleground. The vote is potentially decisive for Europe’s future as it is shaping up to be a clash between nationalists and pro-Europeans.

Moscow has close links with European nationalists such as Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France or Austria’s Freedom Party and wants them to do well in the vote, because a surge in nationalist influence in the EU parliament would weaken the 28-nations bloc.

The election of Donald Trump, Britain’s Brexit referendum and the French presidential election in 2017 have all heightened fears of Russian meddling.

Lawmakers instructed the Commission and the EU’s foreign service to work on a counterstrategy. Initiatives have already uncovered 4,500 cases of pro-Kremlin disinformation. EU sources told Handelsblatt that the East Strat Com Taskforce, a unit in the EU foreign service that seeks to identify and monitor Russian disinformation, will get more cash and more staff.

The unit currently has 15 and is to be expanded to 50 in the medium term. Its funding will increase from €1.9 million ($2.2 million) to €5 million in the run-up to the elections, and the agency will be linked to national authorities via an early warning system. Further details are expected this week.

Trolls on a roll

But compared with the resources Russia devotes to web propaganda, those numbers are tiny. RT and Sputnik have huge budgets and Russia’s internet troll factory in St Petersburg employs 1,000 people.

The EU wants national cybersecurity authorities to share information about attacks as quickly as possible. It also plans to require political parties to disclose who is backing internet election campaign ads and where funding came from.

The key, however, is to nurture a healthy sense of public mistrust in information disseminated through the internet, said Andrus Ansip, the vice president of the EU Commission. He says if bad guys use tech, “we better use our common sense.” Let’s hope we have plenty available.

Eva Fischer is a Handelsblatt Brussels corespondent. Dana Heide covers IT, tech and politics for Handelsblatt in Berlin. Handelsblatt’s Till Hoppe focuses on defense, domestic policy and cyber issues. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected],