Disinformation or just mischief - why Europe is worried about fake news

The scourge of fake news is causing concern across the world, especially in Europe where at least three countries go to the polls this year.

President-elect Donald Trump speaking in Orlando, Florida on December 16,2016 . Experts are assessing how much fake news influenced the outcome of the US presidential election. Evan Vucci / AP
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DUBLIN // It can be shocking, often ridiculous and most of all, it is patently untrue. Even so, fake news was a factor in the outcome of the US presidential election last year. Now this scourge is causing concern across the rest of the world — especially in Europe, where at least three countries go to the polls this year.

Hosted on partisan blogs and fraudulent “news” sites, the stories often veer into absurdity — such as one that claimed Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for president.

But the widespread circulation of these articles in America’s deeply polarised electorate came as a shock. President Barack Obama has likened the creators of fake news to “domestic propagandists”, and voiced concern that it offered foreign governments a new way to influence elections.

The ease of manufacturing and spreading fake stories is worrying for Europe, where France, Germany and the Netherlands are facing key elections in which centrist or leftist incumbents appear threatened by rising right-wing, populist forces.

Already, instances of fake news have emerged during key electoral moments in Europe, and European leaders are alarmed. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, who is standing for re-election this year, has told members of parliament that they had to deal with fake sites, internet robots, (known simply as bots) and trolls.

“Opinions aren’t formed the way they were 25 years ago,” she said. “We should not underestimate what is happening in the context of the internet and with digitalisation — this is part of our reality.”

Ms Merkel’s government has threatened to fine Facebook €500,000 (Dh1.93m) for each fake news article it fails to remove from its site, although the relevant law has not yet come into force.

The US is still trying to understand what role fake news played in Mr Trump’s unexpected triumph. In a Pew Research Centre study conducted last month, nearly two out of three Americans said they believed that made-up news articles caused great confusion during the election campaign. Fake headlines fooled American adults 75 per cent of the time, an Ipsos Public Affairs poll found.

The effect of fake stories was amplified by social media. Most of the popularly shared fake articles on Facebook favoured Mr Trump, who went on to win the election, a BuzzFeed news analysis found.

To determine whether fake news brought about Mr Trump’s win, “we first need to know if the most widely shared fake news stories … were only being seen by partisans or if they became visible to broader audiences” says Kjerstin Thorson, a professor of communications studies at Michigan State University, who is compiling that data. However, she has found that Americans were exposed to fake news — about Hillary Clinton’s team rigging the polls, say — about as much as they had been exposed to real news.

“Strikingly, the original source of each of these stories was dubious, but that mattered little for them going viral,” said Sri Kalyanaraman, a journalism professor at the University of Florida. “I would wager that the majority of individuals — even those who consumed these news stories with relish — would be hard-pressed to correctly identify the source.”

In Italy, during a crucial referendum last month, a fact-checking site found that half of the most popular articles about the referendum shared on social media were untrue. In France, Alain Juppe, a front-runner in the Republican primary, lost after articles falsely linked him to Islamist extremists.

Fabricated news articles appeared before the Brexit referendum last June. In Macedonia, before a parliamentary election in December, “news” sites published articles claiming that the opposition leader wanted to divide the country between Macedonians and ethnic Albanians.

“The websites were registered out of Serbia and Croatia, and they were run by a guy who supported the ruling party,” said Maja Jovanovska, a journalist based in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, who investigated these sites.

“When we found out, the sites closed down. But the campaign became all about this one fake story,” she said. “We’d interview voters, and we’d find almost everyone was talking about this.”

The problem has even surfaced in Iraq, where prime minister Haider Al Abadi alleged on Monday that his opponents were propagating fake reports of bombings in Baghdad, in a bid to erode his authority.

Addressing a press conference, Mr Al Abadi said: “You are journalists — go to the alleged spots in Baghdad. Were there victims there, were there really bombs there, were there any martyrs?”

In response to mounting criticism, Facebook has announced that it will crack down on false news, and Google has stopped providing its revenue-generating ads to hundreds of fake news sites around the world.

Mr Kalyanaraman said these moves were laudable but were unlikely to be very effective. Marking out a website as fake is unlikely to cause sympathetic readers to change their minds and boycott the site, he pointed out.

“We face the possibility of being wrapped in our self-centred little webs of interest,” he said. “We run the risk of becoming a deeply divided society.”