EU on alert for fake news ahead of elections; no flood of false information so far

Ever since the US presidential elections in 2016, EU member states have been on their guard against fake news.
Ever since the US presidential elections in 2016, EU member states have been on their guard against fake news.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS/PARIS (AFP) - Despite the warnings, the campaign for the European Parliament elections has yet to be marked by a flood of fake news, but it is still too early for the European Union to declare victory over misinformation.

Ever since the United States presidential elections in 2016, which were marked by false information spread on social media aiming to manipulate the electorate, EU member states have been on their guard against fake news.

In an unprecedented move in February, the heads of the German, British and French foreign intelligence services issued a joint statement warning against foreign interference in elections in Europe.

The EU polls that will run in member states from Thursday to Sunday (May 23 to 26) will be a key test of whether new alert systems put in place since then have had any impact.

"This is the key phase now," a European diplomatic source told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity. "We are particularly careful in the days before the elections."

But, so far, "there has yet to be a Europe-wide alert". A rapid alert system, staffed by a dozen people, has been set up in the EU's External Action Service to closely watch social media and warn of possible risks of interference.

Tech giants and especially Facebook, Google and Twitter have come under immense pressure from EU governments to react better and quicker to take down fake news spread through their sites.

News media, including AFP have also sought to directly combat fake news, by setting up fact-checking services which can explicitly contradict false information.

 
 
 

'CLEARLY COORDINATED CAMPAIGN?'

If the EU elections do show an improvement, it is another question whether this is because the situation has improved or just a further sign of apathy for polls where only 42.5 per cent of the electorate voted last time around in 2014.

A second European official said even if multiple examples of information manipulations had been reported, none of them was yet of a sufficient scale to justify launching a pan-European alert.

Some examples also were sometimes not directly linked to the elections, but aimed at undermining confidence in institutions or inciting hate against immigrants, the official said.

The countries targeted included the Baltic states, Romania, France and Germany with the misinformation originating in Russia and Iran.

But none of these, so far, came into a category of being a "clearly coordinated campaign seeking to influence the vote of a certain category of the electorate", said the official.

Facebook has come under particularly heavy attack over the use of its platform in the 2016 American polls and has acknowledged more needs to be done.

It has set up a regional centre in Dublin to prevent the use of adverts sent from abroad that seek to target the electorate.

Some Western governments have directly accused Russia of seeking to sway the results of elections by putting out false information on social media sites to influence voters towards a certain choice.

The Kremlin strongly denies the allegations.

Meanwhile, the presence in France ahead of the EU polls of US President Donald Trump's former strategist Steve Bannon, the founder of the right-wing US website Breitbart, has sparked tensions ahead of the polls.

'NEEDS TO DO MORE'

In its latest analysis of the actions taken by social media platforms to combat fake news, the EU Commission said last Friday (May 17)  that it recognises "the continued progress made by Facebook, Google and Twitter on their commitments to increase transparency and protect the integrity of the upcoming elections".

But it added more needed to be done to strengthen the integrity of their advertising services.

And it regretted Google and Twitter were not able to develop and implement policies for the "identification and public disclosure" of issue-based adverts.

Online activist network Avaaz said that after one of its campaigns, Facebook shut down 23 Italian Facebook pages with over 2.46 million followers that were spreading false information and anti-migration, anti-vaccine and anti-Semitic content ahead of the EU elections.

The most active page was an unofficial page in support for the populist left-wing 5 Star Movement which included a made-up quote falsely attributed to the anti-mafia Italian writer and journalist, Roberto Saviano.

"Facebook has done a good job in taking these pages down, (but) Facebook needs to do more, and they need to do it fast," said Mr Christoph Schott, campaign director at Avaaz.