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Bug meat and other fake news inundate EU voters

Teri Schultz in Brussels
June 7, 2024

Conspiracy theorists are trying to influence European election campaigns with disinformation and lies. Much of the fabrication comes from Moscow, but plenty is homegrown.

A man offers insects on a spoon
In Italy, an anti-EU claim that Brussels wants to force people to eat insects has gained traction againImage: Matteo Secci/LaPresse via ZUMA Press/picture alliance

If media campaigns in more than a dozen European countries were to be believed, the European Union (EU) intends to force citizens to eat insects instead of meat. 

The claim has touched nerves, especially in Italy, where variations of it have been revived and splashed across billboards during European elections to pit Brussels against mama's special sauce.

But consumers of this claim are being fed pure nonsense, an example of countless fabrications launched or adopted by candidates seeking political gain at the cost of the truth.

The fake insect-food narrative, which first surfaced last year in a number of EU countries, has proven so popular with malign actors both within and outside the bloc that they've brought it back for the European election cycle to try to discredit pro-EU candidates.

"This was pushed by some pro-Russian outlets: 'We are forced to eat insects because now we don't have the meat and agricultural products because of the sanctions against Russia,'" explained Tomasso Canetta, fact-checking coordinator for the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO), a hub of 52 fact-checking organizations tracking the increase of disinformation ahead of the vote.

Even Canetta was a bit astonished that this seemingly outlandish narrative made it to his own children's school in Milan, Italy, where parents "were actually worried about their hypothesis of having secretly added insects in the food then given to the children," he told DW. "And, of course, this is absolutely false and baseless." 

But no one should be surprised that malignant actors want to impact Europe's election cycle, with 720 seats up for grabs for the next five-year term in the European Parliament and many national elections taking place simultaneously as part of a record year for elections worldwide.

The EDMO reports a record-high amount of disinformation ahead of the vote about universally controversial issues like migration, agricultural policy and climate change, including even the resurrection of fake stories from years past, such as COVID-19 conspiracies.

Fact check: Fakes about Germany farmers' protests

720 seats worth contesting for disinformers

Perhaps most crucially for the Kremlin and its like-minded cronies, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) elected over the next days will help shape policies toward Moscow and aid packages for Ukraine as it fights to expel Russian troops from its territory and become a member of the EU and NATO. Russia's war in Ukraine has included information campaigns against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy personally, which DW's Fact Check unit has documented and debunked.

"For the current Kremlin leadership, this is an existential battle, and they clearly are trying to win it, not as much on the frontline as much as targeting the support from the West," explained Janis Sarts, director of NATO's Strategic Communications Center of Excellence in Riga.

"That's why this political election year is so important for them to promote the narratives, the forces that would be ready to stop this support to Ukraine and undermine the European and transatlantic security."

Russian disinformation network targets EU elections

Former Latvian Deputy Prime Minister and EU lawmaker Artis Pabriks says people should not underestimate the European Parliament as an attractive target for political interference.

"Even if at first sight the European Parliament doesn't seem to be the most influential legislative body, there are still a lot of people — former prime ministers, former ministers — who can influence different positions also looking from the perspective of strategic communication," he told DW.

"So it's only logical that Russians are taking interest and trying to push their narrative through this institution. If I were, a Russian politician or Russian leader, I would definitely do the same."

Some EU politicians combine forces with Kremlin 

In some cases, the interests of the Kremlin coincide with those of EU politicians — to the extent that MEPs have been accused of taking direct payments to promote pro-Russian views. Investigations are underway in at least five EU countries, and the EU has blacklisted owners of propaganda sites linked to the cash-for-influence scheme. 

If there has been any positive trend, it's that "deepfakes," video and audio produced with artificial intelligence (AI), have played a smaller role than expected in disinformation campaigns.

However, experts warn that disinformation campaigns using AI or other techniques may still be deployed at the last minute when fact-checkers would not have enough time to verify and dispute claims.

One such effort appears to be underway at the moment, according to fact-check organization CheckFirst, which says media outlets are being inundated with fake information to overwhelm their fact-checking capabilities ahead of the vote.

EDMO's Canetta emphasizes that the best way for voters to avoid deception is to take responsibility for educating themselves and checking their sources before they check the boxes on their electoral ballots.

Edited by: Rosie Birchard

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