EU on alert over fake news during polls

Steps include monitoring social media, pressure on tech giants

The EU polls run from tomorrow to Sunday. Tech giants have come under pressure from EU governments to react faster in taking down fake news on their sites. PHOTO: REUTERS
The EU polls run from tomorrow to Sunday. Tech giants have come under pressure from EU governments to react faster in taking down fake news on their sites. PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS • 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 EU to declare victory over misinformation.

Since the 2016 US presidential elections, which were marked by false information spread on social media aiming to manipulate voters, member states of the EU 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 European Union polls from tomorrow to Sunday will be a key test on whether new alert systems put in place since then have had any impact.

"This is the key phase now," a European diplomatic source said. "We are particularly careful in the days before the elections" but "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, especially Facebook, Google and Twitter, have come under immense pressure from EU governments to react better and quicker in taking down fake news on their sites.

The news media has also sought to directly combat fake news by setting up fact-checking services which can explicitly contradict false information.

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 over polls in which only 42.5 per cent of the electorate voted the last time around in 2014.

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

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 that more needs to be done.

It has set up a regional centre in Dublin, Ireland, 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.

In its latest analysis of the actions taken by social media platforms to combat fake news, the EU Commission said last Friday 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 that more needed to be done to strengthen the integrity of their advertising services.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2019, with the headline 'EU on alert over fake news during polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe