Rarely has the truth been more subjective.
The victory of businessman-turned-politician Donald Trump in November blindsided many people, causing journalists and political scientists to wonder what they might have missed. One phenomenon some have pointed to to explain Mr Trump’s surprising triumph has been the rise of so-called fake news on the internet. An analysis from FiveThirtyEight, a website that takes a statistics-based approach to covering politics, showed that the term “fake news” had almost no mentions on the popular internet forum Reddit until late October but has since skyrocketed.
Most fake news comes from Facebook, where it is just as easy to share a story created by enterprising teens in Macedonia as one reported from the New York Times. In the hopes of maintaining a claim to objectivity, Facebook refused to censor any stories, calling itself a social network and not a media company tasked with making editorial choices. Reports circulated claiming that Facebook had developed a tool to stamp out fake news, only to shelve it over concerns the site would appear partisan. After much public agitation, Facebook unrolled a number of measures such as fact-checkers and an option for users to report shared content as fake.
Working with Google, Facebook implemented measures aimed at combating the spread of fake news by clamping down on paid advertisements that spread falsehoods. Although Facebook may wish to remain apolitical, imaginary news can have real consequences. In December, a man was arrested for opening fire at a restaurant in Washington DC; fake news circulated that the restaurant served as cover for a child sex slave ring orchestrated by Bill and Hillary Clinton.
The company stepped up its efforts in Europe, ahead of the pivotal elections that took place place across the pond. In Germany and France, two places seen as likely targets of fake news, Facebook rolled out a “disputed” tag for stories that outside organizations rule as false. Late in 2016, a law proposed by senior German legislators aimed to combat manipulation ahead of this year’s parliamentary elections. The law would require Facebook and its social media peers to act within 24 hours to remove a flagged post.
With the elections in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and potentially Italy, Europe struggled to fortify itself against the tide of fake news. Amidst rising populist sentiment throughout the continent, fake news may have had an influence these pivotal elections, threatening the stability and cohesion of the European Union.
Russia has taken notice. In an attempt to punch above its weight amid serious structural concerns at home, it has recently taken to actively exporting what was initially meant only for domestic consumption: propaganda. Taking advantage of the anonymity and anarchy of the internet, Russian troll factories have spread fake news throughout the continent, influencing voters and harassing journalists who attempt to expose them. Many incidents have been clear attempts to promote Russian strategic interests abroad, with fake news aimed at undermining public support for NATO and stoking resentment towards refugees. Russians posing as Ukrainians have attempted to influence Dutch policy towards the embattled former Soviet satellite state.
German parliamentary elections took place on September 24th 2017. Angela Merkel was been a major target of fake news due to her bold advocacy for the EU’s refugee program, and observers were concerned that they may be the deciding factor in an already-tense election.
French presidential elections were held on April 23rd 2017. François Hollande, the incumbent, had refused to run and his Socialist Party fared poorly. Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen faced off in a runoff election on May 17th, with Mr Macron emerging as the new president. But in a population rattled by devastating terror attacks, further terror activities and a preponderance of fake news could have shifted the outcome of the election by pushing more voters towards Ms Le Pen.
The EU is, in light of the American election, treating fake news as a credible threat and taking steps to mitigate its effects. While there are reasons to believe that small audiences for the major fake news propagators as well as increased preparation – through new social media practices, security measures, and laws – will minimize the effect of disinformation in European elections, it is simply too soon to tell. It is also unclear whether regulation is the best method to tackle fake news, or whether it even has its purported effect. The fake news pandemic caught the United States by surprise; it is much harder to pull off the same trick a second time.
by Alex Smith and David Gernon