Suspected Russian interference in elections around the world is spreading

The same phenomenon that happened in the U.S. presidential election could now influence major upcoming elections in Europe.

In this Feb. 5, 2016 file photo, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks from the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. CREDIT: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
In this Feb. 5, 2016 file photo, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks from the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. CREDIT: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Wikileaks announced the release of 2,420 documents on Thursday showing the German parliament’s probe into collaboration between Germany’s chief intelligence agency and the National Security Agency (NSA). The release of the documents is the latest act by an organization influencing national elections in favor of the Kremlin (knowingly or otherwise).

U.S. intelligence agencies believe the Kremlin may have influenced the recent U.S. presidential election, after Wikileaks released 20,000 of the DNC’s emails and Trump’s verbal encouragement for Russia to hack his challenger’s email. Now, U.S. senators are calling to declassify Russia’s role in an election that led to Trump’s victory.

The same phenomenon is now potentially influencing major upcoming elections in Europe, as the Italian and German incumbent leaders are squaring off with attacks from fake news sites and Wikileaks.

In Italy, an opposition movement led by former comedian Beppe Grillo called the Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle or M5S) is using fake news, with many of the stories published sourced to Kremlin mouthpieces like Sputnik. Mimicking talking points seen in other pro-Kremlin pieces, stories demonize refugees and attack Renzi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

M5S was critical of Russia as recently as 2014, according to Buzzfeed News, but recent stances taken by their MPs (who are required to sign a contract demanding they follow the party line) indicate a heavy shift in their view (or potential relationship) with Russian foreign policy.

“In addition to publishing pro-Kremlin and anti-NATO messages across its web properties, M5S has called for sanctions to be dropped, accepted the annexation of Crimea, and, in July 2015, tabled a parliamentary question calling for relations with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to be normalized,” Buzzfeed reported. “Last month the party protested against Italian troops being used in a NATO training exercise in the Baltic.”

A cat dressed up with a collar and tie looks out from a window of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Nov. 14, 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ Matt Dunham
A cat dressed up with a collar and tie looks out from a window of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Nov. 14, 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ Matt Dunham

Earlier this year, M5S overtook the leading Democratic Party, led by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, as the most popular party in Italy, according to opinion polls taken in July.

Meanwhile in Germany, the country’s intelligence agencies are weary of the electoral influence coming from fake news sites and Russia. The latest document dumps from Wikileaks, an organization suspected of receiving information from the Kremlin and releasing information beneficial to the Russian regime, further casts glances East to Moscow.

Merkel recently announced she would seek a fourth term as German chancellor. Merkel may be seen as the last bulwark against pro-Russian leaders coming to power in the West (though she has said talk of her being the West’s last hope was “absurd”). Domestically, Trump has largely been seen as a leader that won’t oppose Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy ambitions. A front runner in France’s next Presidential election is a big Putin advocate. And at least one of the masterminds (if you can call him that) behind Britain’s Brexit vote, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage has gone on record with his admiration of Putin and was recently offered to host his own program on Kremlin-backed propaganda outlet RT.

The latest Wikileaks dump is concerning for both elections, and will throw a cog in reelection efforts for Merkel in particular because it reveals the connection between surveillance agencies and the extent of surveillance.

“This substantial body of evidence proves that the inquiry has been using documents from Mr Snowden and yet it has been too cowardly to permit him to testify,” Assange said in the overview of Wikileak’s latest document dump. “Germany can not take a leadership role within the EU if its own parliamentary processes are subservient to the wishes of a non EU state.”

Some of the information released by Wikileaks, should it prove to be true, certainly brings about worthy criticisms of ruling coalitions and parties. The responsibility of these government’s to be more transparent and just with their citizens is apparent and the information released is valuable to that extent. But to take a step back and look at how pro-Kremlin vessels seem to be trying to influence elections by the spread of fake news (and potentially real documents in some cases) is deeply troubling and playing into the hands of not only Putin, but populist, right-wing leaders with dangerous policy positions.