BRUSSELS/DUBLIN (reuters) – The European Union has launched a coordinated fight against fake news ahead of this month’s elections for the European Parliament, but officials acknowledge that there are limits to what can be achieved against a hazard hardly recognized a few years ago.
A photo shows a protective net inside the Notre-Dame during the preparatory work in the Notre-Dame Cathedral of one month after it sustained major damage by a fire in Paris, France May 15, 2019. Philippe Lopez/Pool via REUTERS
The risk is “very high”, said Lutz Guellner, one of the EU top officials in charge of anti-disinformation-campaign. “Just look at the past, the AMERICAN elections, what happened in France, Germany.”
Through the funding of fact-checking organizations, building an in-house unit to counter misinformation from Russia, and an appeal on Facebook, Google, Twitter and others, Brussels hopes shield of the 427 million people eligible to vote for the 751-seat european room on May 23-26.
Facebook opened a fake news war room in late April, later show journalists around the Dublin facility, but security experts say that it might be too late to uproot the seeds of doubt planted by the evil campaigns to undermine one of the world’s largest elections.
EU officials say that they are not able to quantify the impact of their efforts. They suffer from limited financial resources and institutional constraints, and just come to terms with the scale of the problem. “The EU can not have a Ministry of Truth,” said a senior EU official.
Despite the pan-European nature of the risks, the vote in separate elections in each of the 28 countries of the EU, some of which have been slow to set safeguards.
The governments of the EU and NATO allies say Russia is focused on the elections for Western democracy to undermine. Moscow denies that.
In a case that forced EU officials to pay attention to the impact on the world of fake news, a story, in 2016, about a Russian-German girl allegedly raped by Arab immigrants led to a media storm to Germany’s intelligence service has been set up as a Russian attempt to manipulate the German public opinion.
THAT BRAND NOTRE DAME?
By alerting people to examples of misinformation, the EU, like other Western governments, hopes to “vaccinate” citizens against fake news, according to Heidi Tworek, an expert on information warfare at the University of British Columbia.
“We may be able to win, but not yet, because we have neglected this for so long,” the Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told Reuters.
Because the elections are likely to be a fragmented parliament, with anti-establishment parties, EU officials are worried about the “bad actors” disrupting a debate.
The turnout for the elections for the European Parliament is traditionally low, making it easier for extreme right-wing and extreme left-wing groups to focus on the voters to give preference to extremist parties via social media.
The Russian media in Europe, while not successful in reaching a wider audience, provides a platform for anti-EU populists.
After a fire in Paris, the Notre Dame cathedral in April, the Russian media outlets in Europe, the debt of Islamist militants and Ukraine’s pro-Western government.
Fact-checkers in Germany called for a fake news article circulated on Facebook about Frans Timmermans, the Socialists’ top candidate for the European elections. The report falsely claimed he wanted the “mass-immigration of Muslim men to Europe”.
“NON-FAST” EU-ALERT SYSTEM
By the threat of regulation, the EU has persuaded Google and Facebook to check whether the election advertising on the sites, while the companies, along with Twitter and Firefox web browser from Mozilla have agreed to the submission of monthly reports as part of an EU-code of practice.
Google said in February it detected nearly 21,000 EU-based Ads from Google accounts that have breached new rules and tried to deceive or fraud users, including 4,200 in Italy alone
Last week, Facebook names, many of Italian accounts.
Facebook is a fact-checking operation is working with 21 partners in 14 European languages. When a story is marked as false, it is impaired on the social network’s news feed and pages that repeatedly share fake news can be blocked.
But the company says that these efforts have their limits. “There is so much shared on Facebook every day that it is not possible to fact check every single piece,” said Antonia Woodford, Facebook product manager.
In some EU countries, such as Hungary, there are no fact-checkers, and groups entered into a collaboration with Facebook to complain about the lack of data about the impact of their work, especially when fake news is spreading quickly about the different platforms and countries.
“It moves pretty fast,” said Phil Chetwynd, global editor in chief at Agence France-Presse, which is along with Facebook. “In most of the locations where we have fact-checkers, we are surprised by the size of what we have discovered.”
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The older generation is particularly vulnerable, with people over 55 most likely to spread false news because they grew up with the printed word, and take the information published in good faith, EU officials say.
Many EU governments have yet to set up their own misinformation, monitoring command post. A much vaunted EU Rapid Alert System’ referred to the national specialists together to fight misinformation is hardly used. “It is a non-rapid, non-alert, non-system,” an EU official said.
However, the EU hopes that a collective effort will at least increase the cost for anyone who tries to interfere. “If someone wants to do it, it will still be possible,” said Heli Tiirmaa-Done, Estonia’s ambassador at large for cyber security.
Written by Robin Emmott; Editing by Giles Elgood