EU task force fights flood of fake news

In 16 months, it has debunked 2,500 stories, many with links to Russia, for online readers

BRUSSELS • They scan websites and pore over social media, combing through hundreds of reports a day.

But the bogus claims just keep coming: Germans are fleeing their country, fearful of Muslim refugees. The Swedish government supports the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group. The European Union has drafted rules to regulate the ethnicity of snowmen.

In Brussels, an 11-person team, known as East StratCom, serves as Europe's front line against this onslaught of fake news.

Created by the EU to address "Russia's ongoing disinformation campaigns", the team - composed of diplomats, bureaucrats and former journalists - tracks down reports to determine whether they are fake. Then, it debunks the stories for online readers.

In the 16 months that the team has been on the job, it has discredited 2,500 stories, many with links to Russia.

In a year when the French, Germans and Dutch will elect leaders, European authorities are scrambling to counter a rising tide of fake news and propaganda aimed at destabilising trust in institutions.

The region's decades-old project of unity hangs in the balance, challenged by populist forces within the bloc as well as pressures from Russia and beyond.

GOVERNMENTS ALARMED

There are concerns shared by many governments that fake news could become weaponised.

MR DAMIAN COLLINS, a British politician.

Many false claims target European politicians who present the biggest obstacles to Moscow's goal of undermining the EU. Others seek to portray refugees from the Middle East as terrorists or rapists, fomenting populist anger in Europe.

In France, the head of the En Marche! party said last week that Russian news channels had targeted its presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, who is running on a pro-EU platform. Mr Richard Ferrand, the party's secretary-general, said the campaign's databases and websites had been hit by "hundreds, if not thousands" of attacks from inside Russia.

The East StratCom team is the first to admit that it is outgunned: The task is overwhelming, the volume of reports immense, the support to combat them scant.

The team tries to debunk bogus items in real time on Facebook and Twitter and publishes daily reports and a weekly newsletter on fake stories to its more than 12,000 followers on social media.

East StratCom members have received death threats and a Czech member has twice been accused on Russian television of espionage.

The team in Brussels is not the only one.

Similar groups are being created from Finland to the Czech Republic to disprove online hoaxes.

State agencies are improving online security to counter potential hacking attacks and European news media are expanding fact-checking teams to counter false reports.

"There are concerns shared by many governments that fake news could become weaponised," said Mr Damian Collins, a British politician in charge of a new parliamentary investigation.

He added that "nep news", Dutch for "fake news", has been growing, ahead of the country's national elections next month.

Officials are also anxious about hackers' attempts to infiltrate the e-mail accounts of candidates and politicians to steal compromising information.

Much like their United States counterparts, security experts warn that European politicians remain highly vulnerable, though national intelligence agencies are now strengthening lawmakers' security protocols.

Germany is also weighing potential hefty fines for tech giants such as Google and Facebook whose platforms allow false stories to be quickly circulated. The companies insist that they cannot be held responsible because they do not generate the stories.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2017, with the headline 'EU task force fights flood of fake news'. Print Edition | Subscribe