The 2019 European parliamentary elections and how news organizations can respond*
The phenomenon of disinformation threatens European democratic societies. Concrete measures against disinformation is a dominant challenge to protect democracy.
Propaganda, disinformation, and fake news have existed in societies around the world for hundreds of years. However, the advent of social media has magnified their potential to reach more eyes and inundate audiences with frequent and repetitive messaging. What has risen to the forefront of the 21st century is how social media has emerged as the most effective tool of rhetoric. Particularly, in Europe the refugee crisis has profoundly sharpened this effect due to the populist rhetoric and polarization in which leaders handle the surge of refugees.
The case of Natalie Contessa exemplifies this phenomenon. A woman with a double, as claimed on a Hungarian TV station, citizenship (Hungarian and Swedish). After 40 years of residence in Sweden, Contessa, argued that immigration had changed the country and that she was avoiding the metro because she was afraid of being attacked by Muslim immigrants. According to what he said, in March 2018, he moved back to Hungary, because he felt no longer safe in Stockholm. / As she reported, in March 2018 she moved back to Hungary because she felt no longer safe in Stockholm.The story came at a precipitous moment as Europe wrestles with an intractable migration crisis while the media grapples with the surge of disinformation emerging from the crisis. The story went viral a month before the Hungarian parliamentary elections—an election that was looking increasingly like it would favor the Fidesz-KDNP alliance, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his anti-immigration platform. The news website 444.hu’s story emerged as Hungary’s media outlets were increasingly pressured or bought by those close to Orbàn’s Fidesz party. By 2018, Fidesz or Fidesz allies had gained control of all media in Hungary.
Fake news has proven to sway public opinion—a concern experts and media monitors fear will play heavily ahead of this year’s European parliamentary elections in May. While governments remain alert, the resiliency of democratic values and institutions are being tested as efforts toward a comprehensive strategy to contain or regulate disinformation are being met with hurdles. Seth Jones, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), says the speed and volume at which fake news is disseminated degrades the ability to tell fact from fiction.“[Migration] has been the gasoline for the disinformation fire,” Jones accentuated. David Kaplan, executive director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, notes that some far-right political parties have weaponized fear and confusion to create an environment where the truth is put on trial. “They want to confuse things so badly that people don’t know what is true and what is not,” Kaplan said.According to the European Commission, social media and search engines were the main ways people consumed their news for 57 percent of social media users in the European Union (EU) in 2016. While traditional media compete in this space, some warn that it is only a matter of time before “deep fakes,” or disinformation that will be indistinguishable from real reports, will challenge legitimate media outlets. Thomas Miller, an adjunct professor at the School for Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University, observed that the internet has removed barriers to entry and the perceived necessity for newsmakers who act as gatekeepers. To Miller, “With the internet, you can spread information incredibly cheaply and quickly, and you don’t have to have the resources that one would have had before”.
Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at CSIS, notes that fake news has helped to craft a counter narrative that injects skepticism about the EU as a unified and effective body. “The counter narrative is being led by Mr. Orbán and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, meaning that Europe—the EU—is no longer able under its current format to be able to manage Europe’s challenges—particularly migration,” Conley said. “They want to create a different EU.” Last December, the European Commission launched an action plan that includes four major pillars. The first suggests marrying both fact-checking and collective knowledge, along with optimizing the EU’s monitoring and detection capabilities. The second recommends boosting online accountability. The third recommends raising awareness by fostering education and media literacy. The fourth suggests engaging the private sector to tackle disinformation. The European Commission has also proposed the establishment of a Network of Cybersecurity Competence Centre. With cooperation from member states, the network would coordinate cybersecurity-related financial support from the EU’s budget and to guarantee that Europe is provided with state-of-the-art systems. So far, the use of algorithms and data was considered as technical and unimportant component in journalism.
Nevertheless, in a world, where personalized news feeds is the backbone of news consumption, journalists cannot leave news automation to programmers who have no idea how a newsroom works. Hence, to boost further media transparency, given the high volume of misleading or false information is distributed in sponsored content or posts online adequate boundaries of disseminated information as sponsored and political advertising or true facts have to be set. European Commission has already set the way forward to enable public disclosure of political advertising. Both researchers and fact checkers cooperate to counter disinformation and empower citizens to identify fake news and critically approach online content. Precisely, last October, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Mozilla as well as the trade associations, both representing online platforms and the advertising industry, voluntarily agreed on the guidelines as proposed by the Commission and signed the Code of Practice, valuable part of the Action Plan against disinformation. Google has announced it will publicize the identity of organizations paying for political ads, during the 2019 European parliamentary elections. As a result, any advertisement, published by a political party, candidate, or office holder will have to clearly state to the users who paid for it. Google is also introducing a new process to verify these identities. A similar initiative was announced by Facebook.
Where does the Commission stand in terms of fact checkers framework? Ahead of the European elections in May 2019, consistent to the values of pluralism and the freedom of expression, the Commission is repeatedly monitoring the progress of the platforms on the Action Plan implementation. According to the latest monthly report on the progress made till February 2019, all of the signatories have massively contributed to fight disinformation. Despite this substantial progress, the Commission calls both Google, Twitter, and Facebook to their efforts on three main strands; scrutiny of ad placements; political and issue-based advertising; and integrity of services. In consonance with Conley’s report, along with wider efforts to promote media and news literacy journalists also need to engage readers so that they get involved in the fight against disinformation.
All in all, Education is the key to tackle disinformation. Both state actors and news organizations should raise awareness on disinformation in order for the European citizens to become familiar with the tactics of disinformation and be able to critically analyze material for credibility, to recognize the symptoms and know how to react.In this vein, both The Commission and online factors spread awareness by providing relevant material to schools and by fostering multidisciplinary cooperation. Outside of Europe, newsrooms are also contending with the threat of fake news as a major threat to democracy. “There is no democracy without a free press,” said Martin Baron, editor in chief of The Washington Post. He noted that newsrooms can create fact-checking verticals and incorporate them into stories with complicated and contested narratives. “Over time, people will know what is the truth.” Tom Hamburger, an investigative reporter with the Post, added that the media should offer clear explanations of their process and how they go about reporting the truth. “Disinformation can be beaten only with transparency and by giving wider publicity to these efforts.”
*The article is based on the report produced in Reporting on International Affairs, a CSIS Practicum in Journalism thanks to the generous support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and especially his President Dracopoulos and Anna Bousdoukou whom we are very thankful.
The authors of this study were:
Dr. Nikolas Panagiotou (Assistant Professor, Google Research Scholar,DAAD Scholar, School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki), Ilias Nikezis, Ioanna Kostopoulou, Anna Lampropoulou, Sophocles Geroulis, Konstantinos Kougkas, Magdalini Gkogkou, Nikolaos Vasilakis, Dieg Saez Papachristou, Vaios Charbas, Zoi Belenioti