Fake News: Coming Soon to a European Election Near You?

In the wake of Donald Trump’s stunning election win, allegations of Russian interference have popularized the notion that Russia can swing election outcomes through the strategic deployment of disinformation and “fake news.” And ahead of major elections in Europe this year, politicians and journalists on both sides of the Atlantic have been warning that Russia could bring such tactics to bear on crucial races in the Netherlands, France, and elsewhere.

Writing in Bloomberg View, however, Leonid Bershidsky offers a dissenting view, arguing that Moscow will not mount a significant campaign to influence Europe’s elections. What’s more, he argues, the paranoia about Russian disinformation campaigns both exaggerates their effectiveness and plays into Moscow’s hands:

The audience-poor Russian propaganda outlets are mostly interested in being publicly accused of trying to affect election outcomes and then loudly refuting the accusations. That plays well to a specific Moscow audience — officials whose views feed into budgeting decisions. RT and Sputnik won’t get more money if a Kremlin-friendly candidate wins — but they will if they’re at the center of public debate, appearing more influential than they could ever be.

There’s no profit in creating European fake news the way young Macedonians did for the U.S. in 2016 to harvest audience for ads on their sites. There are too many countries to follow and difficult languages to parse, and no European country has an audience for fakes that would even approach Donald Trump’s base in terms of size and enthusiasm. Even local far-right communities put more trust in local sources in France and Germany.

Bershidsky’s first point here echoes our own Karina Orlova, who argued last year that Russia’s much-vaunted foreign propaganda organ, RT, is actually quite ineffective despite its ballooning budget. And by overstating the ability of such efforts to influence electoral outcomes—as the unclassified intelligence report on Russian meddling most recently did—critics of Russian interference actually hurt their cause, by attributing far more power to Moscow than it actually has and giving Russian officials an excuse to further fund disinformation campaigns.

In addition to this insight, Bershidsky’s column offers several persuasive reasons to be skeptical that “fake news” efforts will make a big dent in Europe’s elections this year. Read the whole thing.

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