EU elections update: Can the EU voters vote unaffected from fake news and online disinformation?

European Elections 2019 in Utrecht – Polling station / Ballot box – A woman casts her ballot      Date: 23/05/2019 Reference: EP-089286A. © European Union , 2019 – Source : EP
Photo: ROBERT MEERDING

EU elections already kicked off yesterday in the UK and the Netherlands with several EU citizens abstaining in Britain due to clerical errors by local councils. The old continent is now following the EU elections closely, worrying about the effect of fake news and growth of far-right parties.

The EC published last week various reports concerning the progress that has been made  by Facebook, Google and Twitter in the fight of disinformation. The officials of the EU executive body expressed their acknowledgement of the social media’s commitment to protect the electoral process.

However, campaign group Avaaz published a report two days ago where it was found that far-right parties are using Facebook to spread fake news in order to mislead EU citizens and amplify their messages.

EC reports social media’s contribution

The European Commission recognized the efforts and actions taken by the three online platforms to tackle fake news and disinformation in an attempt to prevent meddling with the EU elections. More specifically, the Vice-President for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip, the Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Věra Jourová, the Commissioner for the Security Union Julian King, and the Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel had mentioned in a joint statement :

“We recognise the continued progress made by Facebook, Google and Twitter on their commitments to increase transparency and protect the integrity of the upcoming elections. We welcome the robust measures that all three platforms have taken against manipulative behaviour on their services, including coordinated disinformation operations.”

It needs to be mentioned though that Twitter’s and Google’s policies on transparency around issue-based advertising will not be ready to be implemented before the EU elections. The latter can eventually lead to “divisive public debate” and “disinformation” during the elections according to the EC. Furthermore, the analysis shows that Facebook has taken several measures to prevent false, disruptive and misleading content from penetrating into its system.

Far-right parties meddle with EU elections

However, Avaaz, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, recently conducted an EU-wide investigation on Facebook revealing that more than 500 pages and groups have been influenced by anti-EU groups which shared false and hateful content.

The analysis showed that the groups were in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom. They were all supporting the far-right extremist parties of each country spreading disinformation all over the online social media. Unfortunately, the content has been viewed more than half a billion times in the last three months inescapably contributing to the rise of nationalism and populism.

The US tech firm removed the misleading content from its platform, which was violating its policies, but the damage had already been done. The impact of this and similar cases could be influential in the elections of the 28 EU member states. Besides, Eurosceptic and populist parties are expected to win as much as 35% of the European Parliament seats according to the latest poll by Europe Elects .

Social media could do more

Facebook, Twitter and Google have to take stronger measures and provide more analytical data in order to ensure that fake news and online disinformation are effectively addressed. It is imperative that these platforms offer their users a much more accurate and verified information promoting transparency and connection with traditional media.

However, Facebook stated to AFP:

“Every day we block millions of fake accounts, and continue to deploy smarter technologies and better defences. But we are in an arms race against sophisticated and dedicated adversaries that want to attempt to manipulate public debate”.

It seems that the US tech giants are not going to use all the arrows available in their quiver to battle disinformation unless forced to do so. The ongoing EU elections will be only the beginning and further measures should be implemented in order to make sure that anti-EU false content is blocked. Otherwise, EU citizens will not be better protected adequately by far-right ideas and sentiments which have as their sole goal to dismantle the EU project and values.

All in all, it clearly seems that nationalism and populism have been affecting the EU electoral process not only through traditional channels but also through online social media using fake news and disinformation.

Let’s hope that their attempts will not influence the majority of EU voters who should try its best to remain untouched by such messages and instead promote a more united and solid bloc. At the end of the day though it will always be up to critical thinking to come as closer as possible to Downs’ (1957) rational voter (myth).

Europe will now have to wait until this Sunday evening to monitor the damages caused by sensational populist and far-right propaganda in social media and fake news outlets.

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