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Archive for September, 2019

Europe-wide vote fragments center as far right, Greens gain

May 27, 2019

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s traditional center splintered in the hardest-fought European Parliament elections in decades, with the far right and pro-environment Greens gaining ground on Sunday after four days of a polarized vote.

Turnout was at a two-decade high over the balloting across the 28 European Union countries. The elections were seen as a test of the influence of the nationalist, populist and hard-right movements that have swept the continent in recent years and impelled Britain to quit the EU altogether. Both supporters of closer European unity and those who consider the EU a meddlesome and bureaucratic presence portrayed the vote as crucial for the future of the bloc.

In Britain, voters went for the extremes, with the strongest showing for Nigel Farage’s the newly formed Brexit party and a surge for the staunchly pro-European Liberal Democrats, versus a near wipeout for Conservatives. In France, an electorate that voted Emmanuel Macron into presidential office in 2017 did an about-face and the party of his defeated opponent, Marine Le Pen, drew into first place. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition saw a drastic loss in support to the Greens and, to a lesser extent, the far right. Italy’s League party, led by Matteo Salvini, claimed 32% of the vote in early projections, compared with around 6% five years ago.

“Not only is the League the first party in Italy, but Marine Le Pen is first in France, Nigel Farage is first in Great Britain. Therefore, Italy, France and England: the sign of a Europe that is changing, that is fed up,” Salvini said.

Despite gains, the vote was hardly the watershed anticipated by Europe’s far-right populists, who have vowed to dilute the European Union from within in favor of national sovereignty. Pro-EU parties still were expected to win about two-thirds of the 751-seat legislature that sits in Brussels and Strasbourg, according to the projections released by the parliament and based on the results rolling in overnight.

The continent-wide voting had major implications not just for the functioning of the bloc but also for the internal politics in many countries. Le Pen exulted that the expected result “confirms the new nationalist-globalist division” in France and beyond; Greece’s governing party called for snap elections after its loss; and Salvini was expected to capitalize on the outcome to boost his power at home.

“The monopoly of power is broken,” Margrethe Vestager, of the pro-EU ALDE grouping that includes Macron’s party. Vestager declared herself a candidate to lead the European commission for ALDE, which gained seats in large part because Macron’s party is itself a newcomer.

Le Pen’s far-right, anti-immigrant National Rally party came out on top in France with 24% in an astonishing rebuke of Macron, who has made EU integration the heart of his presidency. His party drew just over 21%, according to government results.

Exit polls in Germany, the EU’s biggest country, likewise indicated Merkel’s party and its center-left coalition partner also suffered losses, while the Greens were set for big gains and the far right was expected to pick up slightly more support.

Turnout across the bloc was put at 50.5%, a 20-year high. An estimated 426 million people were eligible to vote. The results will likely leave Parliament’s two main parties, the European People’s Party and the Socialists & Democrats, without a majority for the first time since 1979, opening the way for complicated talks to form a working coalition. The Greens and the ALDE free-market liberals were jockeying to become decisive in the body.

A subdued Esther de Lange, vice chair of the European People’s Party, conceded that the results indicate “fragmentation and a shrinking center.” The Greens did well not just in Germany but in France and Ireland. “The Green wave has really spread all over Europe, and for us that is a fantastic result,” said Ska Keller, the group’s co-leader in the Parliament.

Germany’s Manfred Weber, the candidate of the EPP, the biggest party in Parliament, said that now it is “most necessary for the forces that believe in this Europe, that want to lead this Europe to a good future, that have ambitions for this Europe” to work together.

The EU and its Parliament set trade policy on the continent, regulate agriculture, oversee antitrust enforcement and set monetary policy for 19 of the 28 nations sharing the euro currency. Britain voted, even though it is planning to leave the EU. Its EU lawmakers will lose their jobs as soon as Brexit happens.

Europe has been roiled in the past few years by immigration from the Mideast and Africa and deadly attacks by Islamic extremists. It has also seen rising tensions over economic inequality and growing hostility toward the political establishment — sentiments not unlike those that got Donald Trump elected in the U.S.

Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian prime minister Viktor Orban, a possible ally of Italy’s Salvini, said he hopes the election will bring a shift toward political parties that want to stop migration. The migration issue “will reorganize the political spectrum in the European Union,” he said.

Proponents of stronger EU integration, led by Macron, argue that issues like climate change and immigration are too big for any one country to tackle alone. His lead candidate, Nathalie Loiseau, said she would continue the fight against nationalists in the European Parliament.

With the elections over, European leaders are jockeying over the top jobs in the EU’s headquarters in Brussels. The leaders meet for a summit over dinner Tuesday. Current European lawmakers’ terms end July 1, and the new parliament will be seated the following day.

Associated Press writers Mike Corder, Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria; Joseph Wilson in Barcelona, Spain; Pablo Gorondi in Budapest; Sylvie Corbet in Paris; Colleen Barry in Milan; Jill Lawless in London; and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

Brexit Party wins, Conservatives bashed in UK’s EU voting

May 27, 2019

LONDON (AP) — Britain’s governing Conservative Party was all but wiped out in the European Parliament election as voters sick of the country’s stalled European Union exit flocked to uncompromisingly pro-Brexit or pro-EU parties.

The main opposition Labor Party also faced a drubbing in a vote that upended the traditional order of British politics and plunged the country into even more Brexit uncertainty. The big winners were the newly founded Brexit Party led by veteran anti-EU campaigner Nigel Farage and the strongly pro-European Liberal Democrats.

With results announced early Monday for all of England and Wales, the Brexit Party had won 28 of the 73 British EU seats up for grabs and almost a third of the votes. The Liberal Democrats took about 20% of the vote and 15 seats — up from only one at the last EU election in 2014.

Labor came third with 10 seats, followed by the Greens with seven. The ruling Conservatives were in fifth place with just three EU seats and under 10% of the vote. Scotland and Northern Ireland are due to announce their results later.

Farage’s Brexit Party was one of several nationalist and populist parties making gains across the continent in an election that saw erosion of support for the traditionally dominant political parties.

Conservative Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was a “painful result” and warned there was an “existential risk to our party unless we now come together and get Brexit done.” The results reflect an electorate deeply divided over Britain’s 2016 decision to leave the EU, but united in anger at the two long-dominant parties, the Conservatives and Labor, who have brought the Brexit process to deadlock.

Britain is participating in the EU election because it is still a member of the bloc, but the lawmakers it elects will only sit in the European Parliament until the country leaves the EU, which is currently scheduled for Oct. 31.

Farage’s Brexit Party was officially launched in April and has only one policy: for Britain to leave the EU as soon as possible, even without a divorce agreement in place. Farage said his party’s performance was “a massive message” for the Conservatives and Labor, and he said it should be given a role in future negotiations with the EU.

“If we don’t leave on Oct. 31, then the scores you have seen for the Brexit Party today will be repeated in a general election — and we are getting ready for it,” said Farage. But the election leaves Britain’s EU exit ever more uncertain, with both Brexiteers and pro-EU “remainers” able to claim strong support. Labor and the Conservatives, who in different ways each sought a compromise Brexit, were hammered.

The result raises the likelihood of a chaotic “no deal” exit from the EU — but also of a new referendum that could reverse the decision to leave. The Conservatives were punished for failing to take the country out of the EU on March 29 as promised, a failure that led Prime Minister Theresa May to announce Friday that she is stepping down from leading the party on June 7. Britain’s new prime minister will be whoever wins the Conservative party leadership race to replace her.

The favorites, including ex-Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, have vowed to leave the EU on Oct. 31 even if there is no deal in place. Most businesses and economists think that would cause economic turmoil and plunge Britain into recession. But many Conservatives think embracing a no-deal Brexit may be the only way to win back voters from Farage’s party.

Labor was punished for a fence-sitting Brexit policy that saw the party dither over whether to support a new referendum that could halt Brexit. Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Emily Thornberry said the party needed to adopt a clearer pro-EU stance.

“There should be a (new Brexit) referendum and we should campaign to remain,” she said.

Europe’s voters elect new parliament as nationalism mounts

May 26, 2019

BRUSSELS (AP) — Pivotal elections for the European Union parliament reached their climax Sunday as the last 21 nations went to the polls, with results to be announced in the evening in a vote that boils down to a continent-wide battle between euroskeptic populists and proponents of closer EU unity.

Right-wing nationalists who want to slash immigration into Europe and return power to national governments are expected to make gains, though mainstream parties are tipped to hold onto power in the 751-seat legislature that sits in both Brussels and Strasbourg.

Leading the challenge to the established order is Italy’s hard-line interior minister, Matteo Salvini, head of the League party, who is assembling a group of like-minded parties from across Europe. “We need to do everything that is right to free this country, this continent, from the illegal occupation organized by Brussels,” Salvini told a rally in Milan last weekend that was attended by the leaders of 11 nationalist parties.

As he voted in Budapest on Sunday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said he hopes the election will bring a shift toward political parties that want to stop migration. The migration issue “will reorganize the political spectrum in the European Union,” said Orban, who recently met with Salvini but has not yet committed to joining the Italian’s group.

Projections released by the European Parliament last month show the center-right European People’s Party bloc losing 37 of its 217 seats and the center-left S&D group dropping from 186 seats to 149. On the far right flank, the Europe of Nations and Freedom group is predicted to increase its bloc from 37 to 62 seats.

Proponents of stronger EU integration, led by French President Emmanuel Macron , argue that issues like climate change and reining in immigration are simply too big for any one country to tackle alone.

Macron, whose country has been rocked in recent months by the populist yellow vest movement, has called the elections “the most important since 1979 because the (European) Union is facing an existential risk” from nationalists seeking to divide the bloc.

In Austria, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said Sunday that he hopes the elections will strengthen the center rather than parties on the far right and left. Austria is one of the countries where the vote has increasing importance to national politics, serving as a first test of support ahead of a national election in September following the collapse of Kurz’s governing coalition a week ago.

Spanish caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who is currently trying to form a government at home, said as he voted in Madrid that he hopes the outcome of the vote will lead to stability in his country.

He added that the elections are “to decide the future of progress and wellbeing for the entirety of our country and Europe.” In Belgium, a general election is taking place alongside the European vote, while Lithuanians will vote in the second round of their presidential election.

Sunday promises to be a long day and night for election watchers — the last polls close at 11 p.m. (2100 GMT) in Italy but the European Parliament plans to begin issuing estimates and projections hours earlier with the first official projection of the makeup of the new parliament at 11:15 p.m. (2115 GMT).

As the dust settles on four days of elections, European leaders will begin the task of selecting candidates for the top jobs in the EU’s headquarters in Brussels. The leaders meet for a summit over dinner Tuesday night.

Current European lawmakers’ terms end July 1 and the new parliament will take their seats in Strasbourg the following day.

Associated Press writers Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, Joseph Wilson in Barcelona, Spain, Pablo Gorondi in Budapest and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

No election fever in Romanian village thriving with EU funds

May 24, 2019

LUNCAVITA, Romania (AP) — In 2014, the Romanian village of Luncavita had one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country for the European Parliament election — all of 19.3%.  But the southeastern village has increasingly figured out how to draw in exceptional amounts of European Union money for development projects. When the polling stations open again Sunday for this year’s European Parliament vote, more residents say they will be there.

The village’s turnout was hardly an exception in Romania’s Tulcea County, where just 27.5% of eligible voters cast ballots, the second-lowest figure in Romania, according to the Permanent Electoral Authority.

“You can find this effect across Eastern Europe,” said Sorin Ionita, a political analyst with Expert Forum, a Bucharest-based think-tank. “People think Europe is so big and runs so well that they don’t need us to tell them what to do.”

Voter turnout across the continent has been declining for decades in the European Parliament elections, falling to an all-time low of 42.5% in 2014. That included a range from 13% in Slovakia to 90% in Belgium, where voting is compulsory. Last month, the EU launched a three-minute video to inspire more Europeans to vote.

Since 2004, Luncavita has attracted more than 55 million euros ($61.3 million) in European funds, or almost 12,000 euros ($13,345) for each of its 4,600 residents. The man responsible for turning the village into an EU money magnet is Marian Ilie, who was preparing for the priesthood before a 2002 accident landed him in a wheelchair. Ilie then found a new vocation as project manager for the use of European Union funds allocated to his hometown.

Among other projects, EU money has financed the local drinking water and sewage system, a water treatment plant, roads and a school renovation. For Mayor Stefan Ilie, Marian’s brother, the EU “is fundamental to our development.”

“If Romania were to exit the EU tomorrow, it would return to communism within five years,” Stefan Ilie said. Marioara Banea, a 63-year-old local retiree, remembers tying a rope from her home to the backyard outhouse so her blind mother could find it.

“The EU changed my life,” Banea said. “Now we have water. We used to queue at the well for hours … and we have indoor plumbing too!” Despite the EU-related benefits, she didn’t vote in the EU elections in 2009 or 2014.

“I didn’t know what the EU was, but now that I see how much money they gave us, I’m going to,” Banea said, hoping some new EU funds will help build a home for the elderly. While some 3.6 million Romanians — most under the age of 40 — have left the country since it joined the EU in 2007, European money is also helping to bring some of them back to Luncavita. After working for six years in Italy, Radu Canepa, 34, came back to Romania and started a small farm with 30,000 euros ($33,420) in EU funding, buying some land and five cows.

The milk he sells to a local processing plant brings about in 1,000 euros ($1,115) a month. Canepa hopes to apply for an addition 10,000 euros ($11,180) to expand his business. “Without EU funds, I’d still be in Italy right now,” Canepa said.

Valentina Radu also worked in Italy, but when her husband lost his job there, they struggled to pay the rent and decided to come home. They also used EU funds to buy a small farm, which now has 25 cows.

But Radu wanted to have a second business, and after talking with Marian Ilie, she settled on opening a tailor’s shop. She bought machinery and raw materials with the help of the 70,000 euros ($78,000) she received from the EU and her traditional Romanian blouses and skirts are now in high demand.

For Romania, Sunday’s vote will also be a test run for the country’s presidential election this fall, with political parties trying out messages on voters now. “People do appreciate the support they get from the EU, but their feeling is that the EU works with or without them,” said Ionita, the analyst.

Still, Radu is very appreciative of the EU’s role in her successful enterprises, saying the bloc has “changed my life for the better.” “I will definitely vote this time around,” she added. “I want to expand my business and EU funds are the way to go.”

Nicolae Dumitrache and Vadim Ghirda contributed to this report.

Climate protesters turn out as Europe votes on parliament

May 24, 2019

BERLIN (AP) — Protesters — many of them too young to vote — took to the streets Friday across the European Union to demand tougher action against global warming as the 28-nation bloc elects a new parliament.

From Portugal to Finland, from Italy to Britain, students followed the call of Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg to stage ‘school strikes’ against climate change. The issue has come to the fore ahead of the elections that began Thursday and end Sunday for the EU’s 751-seat assembly. The vote is expected to boost the influence of parties that have a strong environmental message.

In Berlin, thousands of mostly young people rallied in front of the German capital’s landmark Brandenburg Gate waving banners with slogans such as “There is no planet B” or “Plant trees, save the bees, clean the seas.”

Clara Kirchhoff said although she’s not yet allowed to vote, she’s been pressing family members and older friends to consider the world’s long-term future when they go to the polls Sunday. “I think, particularly at the European level, it’s an important issue to create a level playing field, because there’s no point in Germany doing a lot for the climate and others not pulling their weight,” the 17-year-old said.

Fourteen-year-old Parvati Smolka said she and her fellow students felt an obligation to attend the Berlin rally on behalf of future generations. “We’ve got a chance to go on the streets here and make our voice heard,” she said.

A few thousands of people, mostly high school and university students, marched Friday in the streets of Paris in a joyful atmosphere to demand action against climate change. Some sang “One, two, three degrees, that’s a crime against humanity” and waved posters reading “No nature, no future.”

Thunberg, who was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, said she consciously chose he run-up to the EU parliamentary vote to organize another continent-wide protest. “We think that it spreads a message that this is a very important election, and that it should be about the climate crisis,” she told Sweden’s TV4.

Sylvie Corbet from Paris contributed to this report.

Strong showing for pro-EU parties in Dutch EU vote

May 23, 2019

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Pro-European Dutch parties were predicted Thursday to win most of the country’s seats in the European Parliament, with right-wing populist opponents of the European Union managing to take only four of the nation’s 26 seats.

In a surprise forecast, the Dutch Labor Party of European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans became the country’s biggest party in the 751-seat European Parliament, according to an Ipsos exit poll.

“What an unbelievable exit poll!” Labor leader Lodewijk Asscher told a gathering of cheering party faithful. The poll was published by Dutch national broadcaster NOS after polling stations closed Thursday evening in Netherlands. Earlier in the day, Dutch and British voters kicked off the first of four days of voting for the European Parliament in all of the EU’s 28 nations.

Official results will only be announced after the last polling station in the EU closes late Sunday. The Dutch Labor party was forecast to win five seats, while the pro-European center right VVD of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte gained one seat to win a total of four seats.

“There is a clear majority of people in the Netherlands, if you count them altogether, who want the European Union to continue playing a role in tackling problems that need to be solved,” Timmermans told NOS, speaking from Spain.

Timmermans is a broadly respected former Dutch foreign minister who is trying to become the next president of the European Commission. The Dutch right-wing populist group Forum for Democracy was forecast by the Ipsos exit poll to win three seats in its first European elections, but those gains didn’t primarily come at the expense of Europe’s mainstream parties. Instead, it appeared they came from other populists. The anti-Islam Party for Freedom led by firebrand lawmaker Geert Wilders lost three of its four EU seats, according to the poll.

The splintered result echoes Dutch domestic politics: There are 13 parties in the 150-seat national parliament. The United Kingdom was the only other EU country to vote Thursday, even as the nation remained in political turmoil over its plans to leave the bloc altogether. No exit polls were expected Thursday night from the UK voting.

The elections come as support is surging for populists and nationalists who want to rein in the EU’s powers and strictly limit immigration. Meanwhile, Europe’s traditional political powerhouses, both conservative and left-wing, insist that unity is the best buffer against the shifting economic and security challenges posed by an emerging new world order.

But populists across several countries have united to challenge those centrist forces. On Saturday, Italy’s anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini was joined at a rally by 10 other nationalist leaders, including far-right leaders Wilders, Marine Le Pen of France’s National Rally party and Joerg Meuthen of the Alternative for Germany party.

Wilders vowed to keep fighting the populist cause even after his party’s projected big defeat. “We had hoped for more seats,” Wilders said in a statement. “But with one seat in the European Parliament we will, together with our European friends, fight even harder against the EU monster, Islam and mass-migration.”

Voters across Europe are electing 751 lawmakers, although that number is set to drop to 705 when Britain eventually leaves the EU. The U.K. has 73 European lawmakers, who would lose their jobs when their country completes its messy divorce from the EU. Some of its seats will be reassigned to other EU member states.

The British vote may have a direct impact on the future of embattled Prime Minister Theresa May, whose Conservative Party appears to be losing support amid a prolonged Brexit impasse. May has tried but failed for months to get lawmakers in the British Parliament to back her plan to leave the EU.

Both the Conservatives and Labor in Britain were predicted to be heading for an electoral pasting in Thursday’s vote, due to the chaos over Brexit. Results of the vote will be announced Sunday night, and a poor showing for the Conservatives would increase the calls for May to step down as party leader, which would set in motion a leadership contest.

Britain’s Brexit party, led by Nigel Farage, has appeared to gain strength in recent voter surveys. Farage voted Thursday, then declared that he hopes to have the shortest possible tenure as a member of the European Parliament because he wants Britain to leave the EU as quickly as possible.

“If you want Brexit, you’ve got to vote Brexit,” he said, warning lawmakers from Britain’s two major parties — Conservatives and Labor — that they will be vanquished at Britain’s next general election unless they respect voters’ desire to leave the EU.

Voting in Britain was marred by the inability of hundreds of the 3 million EU citizens in Britain to vote despite having a legal right to do so. EU citizens who wanted to vote in Britain had to complete a form confirming they would not be voting in their homelands. Some say they did not receive the forms.

The Electoral Commission blamed the problem on the short notice that officials had to prepare for the election, which would not have been held in Britain if the country had left the EU in March, as planned.

Katz reported from London.

Fake news changes shape as EU heads into elections

May 22, 2019

LONDON (AP) — Fake news has evolved beyond the playbook used by Russian trolls in the U.S. election. As the European Union gears up for a crucial election, it is mostly homegrown groups rather than foreign powers that are taking to social media to push false information and extremist messages, experts say.

And private and encrypted chat apps like WhatsApp are increasingly the favored platforms to spread false information, making it harder to monitor and fight. There were worries that the bloc’s May 23-26 vote for the EU parliament would be a ripe target for foreign meddling, given Russian interference in the 2016 ballot that brought U.S. President Donald Trump to power and allegations of disinformation — plus a lack of solid facts — surrounding Britain’s Brexit referendum that same year.

So far, no spike has appeared on the 28-nation bloc’s disinformation radars and tech companies say they haven’t found signs of a coordinated operation by foreign actors. There is, though, a constant buzz of false information that mainly seeks to erode the EU’s image and that has ground on since the last Europe-wide elections in 2014.

“Previous, it was broadly about Russia, fakery and looking for bots. Now what we see is the transnational Far Right deploying that digital toolkit, less fake news, more hate-speech, and a more complex set of tactics to amplify populist narratives,” said Sasha Havlicek, CEO of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based left leaning think tank. “That isn’t to say that is there is no Russian activity but that it’s harder to identify definitively.”

The trend now is for populist and far right groups in Europe to “manipulate information” through more nuanced messages, to promote anti-migration, anti-gay and climate denial themes. This “narrative warfare” is much harder for governments and tech companies to react to, she said. Adding to the confusion, some world leaders have themselves been guilty of spreading false or misleading information on social media.

Online campaign group Avaaz said Wednesday it found 500 suspect Facebook pages and groups in Germany, Britain, France, Spain, Italy and Poland spreading fake news seen 533 million times in the past three months. Facebook has taken down 77 of the pages, some of which Avaaz had previously announced.

One of the pages taken down, supporting Italy’s right-wing League party, had shared a video purporting to show African migrants smashing a police car that had racked up 10 million views. But it was actually a scene from a film and had been already debunked several times over the years, Avaaz said.

Christoph Schott, campaign director at Avaaz, says that fake news is often amplified with “bait and switch” tactics like building up an audience for a page on a generic topic such as football or cooking, then ramping up political agendas.

The aim is to sow “little seeds of distrust … to slowly erode trust in institutions and divide people over a longer period of time,” said Schott. Facebook said that after Avaaz shared its research, it removed a number of fake and duplicate accounts for violating its “authenticity policies” and took action against some pages that repeatedly posted misinformation.

Tech companies have stepped up broader efforts to fight fake news. Facebook has set up an EU election “war room” in Dublin, staffed by data scientists, researchers and threat intelligence specialists working with teams in California to monitor for abuse around the clock.

Facebook’s vice president for public policy in Europe, Richard Allan, said this month the company hasn’t detected any major attacks. “Part of that, we hope, is because we put in a lot of preventive measures,” he said. “We’ve gotten better at fake account detection and removal.”

Twitter, which launched a tool for EU users to report deliberately misleading election-related content, also says it hasn’t seen any coordinated malicious activity. The two social media companies, along with Google, have tightened up requirements for taking out political ads, including confirming identities of ad buyers. They’re putting all political ads into publicly searchable databases, although researchers say they don’t give a comprehensive view and the ads aren’t always properly classified.

The nature of European elections may be a factor in behind why they haven’t been targeted. For one thing, turnout is usually low. Around 42 percent of voters cast their ballots in 2014. Beyond that, Europe’s citizens often use the EU elections to cast protest votes about issues of domestic concern.

Around 400 million people in 28 countries are eligible to vote in the world’s biggest transnational elections, choosing 751 representatives to the European Parliament, the EU’s only democratically elected institution.

“The European elections are still basically 28 different national campaigns, fought mostly on national issues,” said policy analyst Paul Butcher at the European Policy Centre think-tank. “Each country has got its own political priorities; the campaigns will be quite different in different places.”

But it could also be a matter of not looking in the right place. Oxford University researchers studying tweets related to the EU elections found that only a small fraction came from Russian or “junk news” sources while mainstream news stories dominated.

However, some junk news stories can be several times more popular than those from professional media organizations, with the most successful centered on populist themes such as anti-immigration and Islamophobia while few attacked European leaders and parties or voiced skepticism about the EU, according to the researchers, who compiled about 585,000 tweets in seven European languages.

“Almost none of the junk we found circulating online came from known Russian sources,” said Nahema Marchal, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. “Instead, it is homegrown, hyper-partisan and alternative media that dominate.”

It’s also become harder to keep track of disinformation as more online conversations go private, said Clara Jiménez Cruz, co-founder of Spanish fact-checking group Maldita.es. Twitter posts or public Facebook feeds are only part of the story, with many messages and discussions now moving to private Facebook groups or encrypted WhatsApp and Telegram chats, which EU and national governments can’t easily monitor, she said.

Avaaz said in a report that millions of potential Spanish voters were flooded with false, misleading, racist or hateful posts on WhatsApp ahead of national elections last month. On WhatsApp, where it’s so hard for outsiders to peer into private conversations to debunk lies, “that is where we find most of the hoaxes,” said Jiménez. “And especially where we find them first.”

Cook reported from Brussels and Parra reported from Madrid. Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

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