Is the EU doing enough to fight fake news?

On April 1 this year, the European Commission’s office in Athens leaked a report saying that Greece had been fined for introducing daylight saving time. Greece would face a fine of €17,650 for every hour that passed until it agreed to turn the clocks back. The leak was, of course, an April Fool’s joke, but with a serious intent: the Commission said the fake statement was aimed at raising awareness about disinformation, an issue that is gaining increasing concern in the run-up to the European Parliament elections next month. But apart from issuing jaunty pranks, has the European Union prepared enough to fight the expected wave of fake news?

Fake news, usually defined as disinformation or outright lies that masquerades as legitimate news, is not new. But thanks to the rapid dissemination that digital technologies provide, its impact has risen enormously. It appeared to play a key role in swaying voters in the UK’s 2016 referendum to leave the EU, and in the US presidential elections later that year. The revelations that Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data of millions of Facebook users during the Brexit campaign has fuelled the fears of social media manipulation. EU officials are bracing themselves for a new onslaught in the Parliament elections on May 23-26.

For many officials, there is a greater fear of disinformation – like trolls spreading lies and conspiracy theories, or computer bots that send out rumours on social media – than other internet-based threats to elections, such as a hack attack that falsifies results or takes voting systems offline. Disinformation could have a bigger impact, fostering distrust in politics and undermining the electoral process. It is becoming a threat to democracy itself.

Although the EU currently has a population of more than half a billion people, its parliamentary elections are effectively national polls in each of its member states. Defence against hacking and disinformation increasingly needs a national and a European response.

That is why in 2015, a special EU disinformation task force, East StratCom, was set up under the Commission’s European External Action Service, focusing on counteracting Russian disinformation.

Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron called for greater European efforts, urging the creation of an EU-wide body to protect voting from “cyber-attacks and manipulations”, countering fake news and hate speech (in France, the Yellow Vest insurgent protest movement appears to be particularly susceptible to disinformation).

At the same time, MEPs passed a resolution “to raise awareness about Russia’s disinformation campaigns, as this constitutes the main source of disinformation in Europe”. It called on member states to develop robust protection, including holding to account social media companies, messaging services and search engine providers who failing to speedily remove systemic fake news.

The EU has also called on Google, Facebook and Twitter to do more to combat fake news and close down fake accounts ahead of the European election after they signed a voluntary code of conduct to stave off regulation. Last month, Facebook said it would boost its efforts to fight misinformation ahead of the May elections, setting up an operations centre that would be staffed 24 hours a day with engineers, data scientists, researchers and policy experts, and partnering with German news agency DPA to boost its factchecking.

These are much needed measures. Disinformation could have a major impact on the vote next month. The latest forecasts from pollofpolls.eu shows that the three largest political groups – the centre-right EPP, the centre-left S&D and the centrist liberal ALDE – will win between them only 415 of the 751 of the seats in the next parliament, or 55%. It would not take much of an upheaval for the three parties together to slip to fewer than half the seats. That could mean a non-functioning parliament, seriously hampering the European project.

There is also the risk that mainstream parties blame fake news for their electoral failings. While populism has risen in line with disinformation, they are not synonymous: it is arguable that in the current economic and political turmoil, anti-European parties do not need outside help to be successful. Indeed, this incomplete overlap makes it even harder for the mainstream to fight disinformation. Politicians like Italy’s far-right Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and French far-right leader Marine Le Pen all seem to benefit from support from Russian trolls (and unsurprisingly seem more sympathetic to Moscow). But they have dismissed claims their votes were boosted by disinformation, saying such allegations are just sour grapes from rivals.

So while European democracy needs to maintain its vigilance against hacking and disinformation, the EU must also address some of the underlying reasons why fake news has found such receptive audiences.

Many people accept fake news because of what psychologists call confirmation bias, the instinct to accept what aligns with preconceived beliefs. It’s stressful and unsettling to process views that conflict with what we believe. But then, unfortunately, those trying to combat fake news not only fail to persuade, they often reinforce it by, for example, repeating the myth.

There are lessons to be learnt from populists, including those who are accused of disinformation. For example, in the 2016 Brexit referendum, Britain’s Leave campaigners mastered the art of crafting messages that played well on social media, targeting individuals with precise messages that really hit the spot. Social media channels react much faster than traditional media to compelling stories; Twitter followers rise much faster with a stream of interesting content.

The lesson for the centre – which has been caught flatfooted in recent years – is to take social media much more seriously and tell better stories. Mainstream politicians must master message crafting and use the whole range of channels in a co-ordinated way, especially social media.

There are other things we can do. We cannot stop the tide but we can build dikes. Facebook and Twitter already take down more than one million fake accounts a day. It is perhaps ironic that Russian President Vladimir Putin has just signed a controversial set of bills that make it a crime to spread disinformation online. Europe does not yet have a similar law, but we are getting closer to it.

Perhaps the main remedy against disinformation is education. Authorities should do more to teach voters how to weed out dubious claims. They should work more closely with social media companies to learn more about who is issuing the disinformation – and how to close them down, if necessary.

All politicians have to communicate more effectively. New technologies have changed the way game is played, but they have not changed the essentials of politics: clear ideas, inspiring visions and strong messages. The mainstream has to remember what it stands for, write those better stories and run effective comprehensive campaigns that take full advantage of the digital tools at their fingertips.

Author: John Higgins

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