News Brief

As the European elections get underway, Facebook is drowning in fake news

From today until Sunday, European citizens will cast their votes in the European Parliament elections. And in the latest in a succession of damning reports published by US-based activism nonprofit Avaaz, it has emerged that millions of EU citizens have been exposed to far-right disinformation during this year’s campaign.

“The results are overwhelming,” the report says, highlighting that these disinformation networks, whose owners are very often shrouded from view, wield more social media power than all Europe’s far-right political parties combined, including Germany’s AfD, Spain’s VOX, Britain’s the Brexit Party, France’s Rassemblement National and Poland’s PiS. Some pages masquerade as administered by politicians or prominent figures, and are duplicated several times to increase their potential reach.

The report went on to highlight the broader network of fake accounts associated with Germany’s far-right AfD party who regularly disseminated false content. The report examined a widely-publicized quotation attributed to the Vice President of the European Commission saying that “monocultural states must be erased” and that “migrants should be induced to reach even the most remote places on this planet.” These quotes were typical of the content Avaaz identified as not only false but designed to galvanize anti-migrant and far-right forces across Europe, deepening existing divisions among the European electorate.

In this election for representatives to the European Parliament, the far-right is hoping to solidify gains it has already made in recent national elections in Spain, Italy and elsewhere on the continent. Member nations including Hungary and Poland have much at stake, as upcoming legislation threatens to penalize the countries’ populist governments for anti-liberal policies. Until last month, the UK electorate was led to believe they would not be participating at all in the EU elections. But following the stagnation of Brexit negotiations, the UK far-right has used this election campaign to fuel anti-European sentiment, with prominent Brexiteer Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party leading in the polls. It is also the first European-wide election since the refugee crisis of 2015, and as a result migration – and misleading content surrounding the issue – has risen to the top of the political agenda, and is being amplified on social media across the continent.

The disinformation networks take advantage of Facebook’s page-boosting algorithms by employing multiple accounts to post the same piece of content at precisely the same moment. This tactic was employed across Europe and, the report says, “seems to indicate either automated posting or coordination by a handful of individuals.”

In Italy, Avaaz highlighted how a video of a car being destroyed – supposedly by migrants – was in fact, a movie clip. In Poland, a fake story about migrant cab drivers raping Polish women was spread far and wide. In Spain, the disinformation focus was on fake stories about Catalan separatists – an issue the Spanish government has, in the past, blamed the Kremlin for amplifying and distorting.

Following the investigation, Facebook has removed a total of 303 pages and accounts from Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Spain and Poland. Collectively, the accounts had a following of around 32 million people and, in the past three months alone, an engagement of around triple that number. Facebook’s removal accounted for just a small portion of the 500 accounts Avaaz identified.

Last week, Italy’s deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini was questioned about the amount of disinformation being spread over Facebook – many of it in support of his own far-right Northern League Party. Salvini appeared unconcerned: “the real fake news I read is in the official newspapers,” he said.

Avaaz’s report is the latest in a set of comprehensive examinations of the Facebook disinformation landscapes of Italy and Poland and Spain, each published over the past few weeks. And Facebook’s response has been robotic. This week, a Facebook spokesperson told media: “We thank Avaaz for sharing their research for us to investigate. As we have said, we are focused on protecting the integrity of elections across the European Union and around the world.” Facebook issued an almost identical statement last week in response to the Italy report.

As the European elections open for voting, Facebook says it’s committed to shutting down disinformation when it finds it, publicizing what it dubs a disinformation “war room” the company has set up in Dublin boasting plentiful resources to monitor and remove disinformation, manipulative content, and hate speech. Facebook says its effort is backed by global intelligence experts, data scientists, researchers and engineers, as well as native speakers of all 24 official European languages.

So far, though, it’s been a losing battle. A separate report, published last week by security company SafeGuard Cyber, found that during just one week in March, more than 241 million Europeans (around half the entire population of the EU) were exposed to disinformation purveyed by Kremlin-linked “bad actors”: accounts which regularly publish malicious and misleading content.