Citizens worry of interference ahead of European elections

Majority of people are afraid of disinformation campaigns, data breaches and cyberattacks

Photo: EPA Frans Timmermans (L) and Vera Jourova (R).

European citizens worry about possible interference in 2019 European elections and fear of disinformation campaigns, data breaches and cyberattacks, according to a new Eurobarometer survey, published last Tuesday. It was unveiled for the annual European Commission's Fundamental Rights Colloquium devoted this year to the EU democracy.

The survey published sheds light on the expectations of Europeans for the May 2019 European elections and what would motivate them to cast their vote. According to it, 43% of the respondents would like to receive more information on the EU and its impact on their daily lives, while 31% want more young people standing as candidates.

The figures clearly show that Europeans are worried about interference in the elections, with 61% worry that elections can be manipulated through cyberattacks, 59% worry about foreign actors and criminal groups influencing elections, while 67% worry that personal data left online could be used to target the political messages they see.

But Europeans overwhelmingly (74-81%) agree on the way to tackle these threats by introducing more transparency to online social media platforms, including on clearly indicating who is behind online advertisement; by giving equal opportunities to all political parties to access online services to compete for voters' attention; by giving a right to reply for candidates or political parties on social media; and by introducing the same silence period online as already exists for traditional media.

“Our research shows that people are really worried about disinformation. For the legitimacy of our European democracy it is essential that citizens use their right to vote. And that's why we all, EU institutions and Member States, must protect our elections and bolster our democracy,” First VP Frans Timmermans said. “This survey confirms that Europeans know that the upcoming elections will not be business as usual. They expect actions that will guarantee fair and secure elections and more information about the EU and new faces in politics,” Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova added.

In September, the Commission already put forward a set of concrete measures to make sure that next year's European Parliament elections are organised in a free, fair and secure manner. The measures include greater transparency in online political advertisements and the possibility to impose sanctions for the illegal use of personal data in order to deliberately influence the outcome of the European elections.

The Commission also set up a European electoral cooperation network, which will meet for the first time in January 2019. It called on Member States to nominate their representative for this network as soon as possible. The Fundamental Rights Colloquium was aimed at looking into potential solutions ahead of the network's first meeting.

Furthermore, the Commission has taken number of actions on disinformation. Major tech companies have already signed the Code of Practice on Disinformation that will help provide more transparency on sponsored political advertising online. The Commission and the External Action Service (EEAS) are currently finalising a common Action Plan on disinformation for a coordinated response at Union and Member State level to the threat of disinformation. This action Plan is to be adopted in the coming weeks.

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