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The latest bit of fake news to hit Europe was, actually, just a joke.
“Big Ben to be renamed Massive Mohamed from 2018” ran the headline in the story, widely shared, with accompanying outrage, on Facebook. “Not being funny, this will cause civil war!” posted one incandescent user, unaware that the post, first put online Aug. 15, came from The Rochdale Herald, an Onion-style news parody site.
It’s easy to laugh, but governments across Europe are starting to take fake news very seriously.
Amid fears that online disinformation may have influenced last year’s Brexit vote and recent elections in the Netherlands and France, European governments and ordinary citizens are taking action to counter the spread of news that is misleading, disingenuous or just plain wrong. At the same time, efforts are underway across Europe to crack down on hate speech, as worries that online vitriol — anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic tirades — may be poisoning political debate and feeding extremist groups across the continent.
The approach varies from country to country and reflects local concerns. Germany is particularly worried about hate speech and neo-Nazi slogans spreading online. Nations bordering Russia or with large Russian-language minorities are mainly concerned about Moscow-based propaganda being used to destabilize their democracies. And governments from London to Lisbon and Paris to Prague are worried propaganda, fake news and just poor journalism are undermining trust in government and the mainstream media.
Things in Europe aren’t quite as bad as the U.S. Research by the Computational Propaganda Research Project at the Oxford Internet Institute in the U.K. found that fully 50 percent of news stories circulated online in the United States in the lead-up to last year’s elections could be classified as “junk news,” defined as not meeting basic standards of accuracy and professional journalism. The equivalent figure ahead of recent presidential elections in France and Germany was 20 percent.
“Things are bent here, but in the U.S. they’re already broken,” is how Ehsan Fadakar, a Swedish journalist and head of social and third-party strategy at the Scandinavian Schibsted Media Group, puts it. “We’ve learned a lot from what’s happened in the U.S. and are now better equipped to deal with fake news before it breaks us.”
Another major difference between Europe and the United States is the source of the dubious online reporting. While alt-right news sites akin to Breitbart or the overtly white nationalist Daily Stormer do exist in Europe (Breitbart has bureaus in London and Jerusalem but so far has not come through on plans to launch French or German-language versions in Europe) much of the fight against fake news in Europe focuses on Russia.
Early this year, the Czech Republic’s interior ministry, concerned about the proliferation of dubious Czech-language sites with links to Russia, launched the Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, tasked with identifying and countering fake news. In Ukraine, a group of lecturers, graduates and students from Kyiv’s Mohyla Journalism School operate the highly respected Stopfake.org fact-checking website that publishes stories and web videos denouncing dubious claims made (mainly) by Russian-backed media, such as false claims that the Ukrainian government is run by neo-Nazis. Several such fact-checking sites exist across Europe, including the East StratCom Task Force, set up by the European Union to counter “Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns.” East StratCom points to Russia’s investment of nearly $1 billion in its state-controlled media operations, including RT, the broadcaster that targets audiences outside of Russia.
“We got lazy and made budget cuts to public broadcasting and investigative journalism while Russia was increasing funding,” said Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, speaking at an event in Brussels May 3 to celebrate World Press Freedom Day.
What distinguishes Russian-backed fake news is not just its funding, but its professionalism. Outlets like RT and Sputnik — an online Russian news site that operates in dozens of languages across Europe and Asia — mix “hard news, well reported and sourced, with fake and junk news,” says Lisa-Maria Nicola Neudert, a researcher for the London-based Computational Propaganda project. Neudert notes that news from Russia was given a separate category in their research to illustrate the difference.
Jessikka Aro, a Finnish investigative journalist with public broadcaster YLE, knows a bit about the dark side of Russian fake news. Her investigations into so-called “troll factories” in Russia — where info warriors, many with the direct support of the Russian government, spread social media propaganda targeting audiences in Western Europe — led to furious online attacks against her. Aro became, in her own words, a “troll magnet,” leading to virulent online abuse, death threats and, yes, fake news stories.
“They accused me of being a drug dealer, a terrorist sympathizer, of being a threat to Finnish national security,” she tells THR. “Even people I knew began to attack me online and send death threats.”
Aro, who is working on a book on her experiences — titled Vladimir Putin’s Troll Army — sees parallels between what has happened in Finland and developments in the U.S., saying the fake news phenomenon is poisoning mainstream political debate.
“What you saw in (President) Trump’s reaction to Charlottesville, blaming ‘all sides,’ this has already happened in Finland,” she says. “The propaganda against the so-called extreme left has created a fake argument trying to divide people into two groups. It has so politicized and polarized issues, like the issue of immigrants, that it has become impossible to comment on them without being labeled as an extremist.”
The Finnish government has noticed, and has set up a new police task force to focus on online hate. Several police investigations concerning threats against Aro are currently underway. Aro acknowledges that awareness of the issue has improved but believes more regulation and tougher laws are needed.
The legal system has also gotten involved in France. On May 4, the Paris prosecutor’s office opened a inquiry into what it terms “false news in order to divert votes, use forgeries and false receipts,” following a complaint by now-President Emmanuel Macron. Macron charged that documents published on internet forum 4chan purporting to show Macron had a secret offshore account in the Bahamas were forgeries released in what his complaint says were part of a deliberate “campaign of digital disinformation” intended to destabilize the French election to benefit Macron’s challenger, the far-right politician Marine Le Pen. (In fact, Le Pen did mention “an offshore account in the Bahamas” in the final TV debate with Macron). The documents themselves have since been debunked as fake by The Observers, the fact checking division of news channel France 24.
The German government has gone one step further. On June 30, the German parliament passed a new law targeting social media platforms themselves, imposing fines of up to $57 million (€50 million) on the likes of Facebook or Twitter if they do not delete illegal, racist or slanderous comments and posts within 24 hours of being notified to do so. The law, according to Bitkom, a national association of German digital media companies, will cost the social media platforms around $622 million (€530 million) a year in extra costs for oversight and personnel, a figure Facebook has called “realistic.”
Neudert of the Oxford Institute says the impact of the German law is already being seen online, with a sharp decline in fake news stories being posted to Facebook accounts.
“It’s a great law and one I think should be adopted across Europe,” says Aro on the German legislation.
But there have been critics. The Czech initiative has been attacked as an Orwellian “ministry of truth” by the country’s own president, Milos Zeman. Zeman, who is viewed as strongly pro-Russian and likes to style himself as the Czech Donald Trump, has compared efforts to identify and combat fake news to the sort of state censorship the country experienced under communism.
In Germany, many worry fake news legislation will impinge on free speech and lead social media platforms to overreact by taking down any and all posts that could be deemed offensive. This point hit home earlier this month when Facebook deleted a post from popular television journalist Dunja Hayali. In the post, Hayali mimicked the rude tone, and spotty grammar, of a user who was insulting her online. Facebook later apologized for overreacting.
While Facebook has responded, at least in Germany, Twitter has so far shown less inclination to adapt to local regulation. Israeli-German comedian Shahak Shapira says over the past six months he’s reported more than 300 examples of hate speech on Twitter to the company, tweets such as “let’s gas some Jews,” which violate Germany’s laws against defamation, public incitement to violence or Holocaust denial. He received 9 replies and none of the tweets were removed.
On Aug. 7, Shapira spray-painted (in wash-away chalk) the offensive tweets in front of Twitter’s German headquarters in Hamburg. The video he posted of the action went viral, generating more than 250,000 views.
“Twitter didn’t respond, they don’t give a shit,” Shapira tells THR. “Most of the tweets I sprayed are still online.”
While many European governments are looking to regulation to combat fake news, others are putting their hopes on technical solutions. Full Fact, a London-based independent fact-checking organization, is developing software tools to allow journalists to carry out automatic fact-checking of claims made online, on TV or in live interviews with politicians. The tools, says Mevan Babakar, project manager at Full Fact, analyze statements and compare them to a database of verifiable facts — if a politician claims a spike in crime committed by immigrants, say, the software will link directly to the relevant data from police statistics. The tools are already being tested by select media organizations and Full Fact hopes to roll them out more widely in 2018. The group is backed by a mix of crowdfunding, donations and sizable funding by two billionaires: the Hungarian-born investor George Soros, and the Iranian-American eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
Babakar compares Full Fact’s software to “building an immune system” against fake or misleading claims. But she notes that debunking alone does not necessarily stop junk news from spreading. Full Fact was among the first to debunk several claims made during the Brexit campaign — including the notorious one made by Brexiters that the U.K. sends £350 million a week ($450 million) to the EU — but they continued to be cited by politicians and pundits alike. Neudert of the Oxford Institute notes that some studies show debunking online news stories can actually increase their popularity, as users repost the fake news in order to counter what they see as an effort by the mainstream media “to suppress the truth.”
And, notes Neudert, purveyors of junk news are getting more sophisticated in the way they package and distribute their disinformation. Late last year, RT spun off In The Now, a youth-focused, irreverent news show on its regular channel, as a stand-alone online video service, serving up content for YouTube, Facebook and Twitter with the company’s Russian government affiliation nowhere to be seen (other than a page buried on RT’s website).
And earlier this year RT actually launched its own project, FakeCheck, targeting what it identifies as fake news.
“The goal is to weed out and correct any egregious bias, misinformation, or misstated facts within a particular news story by means of basic journalistic fact-checking,” a spokesperson for RT told THR.
“RT has become much more careful,” says Russian journalist Alexei Kovalev, who runs his own independent debunking site, Noodle Remover.
He cautions, however, that RT’s efforts to fight fake news may, in fact, be just another way to disseminate false or misleading information.
“Their FakeCheck project is ridiculous,” he says. “It is one-sided and totally in line with everything else they’re doing — like basically being the Syrian government’s mouthpiece or trying to embellish the Kremlin’s international reputation. … Overall, the whole thing is just another testimony to the fact that the very term ‘fake news’ has lost its value. It is being used by Donald Trump and Russia’s Foreign Ministry to the same end. Every time they’re being criticized or hear something they don’t like, they just yell loudly: It is fake news!”
Vladmir Kozlov in Moscow contributed to this report.
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