March 28, 2018

FakEU is a fortnightly roundup of press coverage on misinformation from or about the EU.

The politics of fake news

Last week, the president of the German Federal Republic, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, invited journalists and bloggers to discuss the spread of misinformation at his Bellevue residence in Berlin. Steinmeier called for traditional media and recognized information sources to stand out as “islands of trustworthiness” in the public sphere. Meanwhile, however, a new study conducted by the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung investigated the role played by traditional media outlets in the spread of fake news. The authors claimed that well-established media outlets, such as Bild and Die Welt, created fake news that were later exploited by right-wing politicians via social networks.

In France, during the “Assise du journalisme” — an annual  event gathering French media professionals — the Minister of Culture, Françoise Nyssen, revealed further details about the upcoming bill aimed at tackling the diffusion of fake news during elections. Under the law proposed by the government, news items shall be considered a “threat” if they are “evidently false” and benefit from “artificial” and “massive diffusion,” Nyssen said. Skeptical remarks on the law have been expressed on Europe1, Sud Ouest and Public Senat, whereas a thorough analysis of the challenges of defining fake news from a judicial point of view was published in La revue européenne des médias et du numérique. On March 28, two Senate committees discuss the contours of this legislative agenda.

The UN rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, rebuked Italy’s efforts to combat fake news through a reporting mechanism answering to the police and set up by the Ministry of the Interior. Meanwhile, even professionals of the agricultural sector are engaging in discussions about digital misinformation. A professor in the University of Molise’s Agriculture department warned that quality of information is key in industrial sectors influenced by heavy economic interests, such as the food industry.

In its annual report, the European data protection supervisor warned that disinformation could critically influence the 2019 European Parliamentary electoral campaign. The “principle of electoral transparency is not satisfied if voters do not have the right to freely access, receive and share informations on the electoral process and candidates,” said one of the supervisors, Carlo Buttarelli. “The rights of the latter are threatened by online manipulation,” he added. Shortly after, speaking to a crowd at the Foro de Nueva Economia in Madrid, the director-general of communication of the European Parliament, Jaume Duch, also warned that EP elections were particularly vulnerable to the threats of false news because European topics are less well-known. Meanwhile, Mariya Gabriel, commissioner for the digital economy and society told Le Figaro that, as part of its wider offensive against fake news, the EU should double its funds allocated to the digital economy.

In Austria, two weeks ago, the vice chancellor and leader of the far-right FPO party, Heinz-Christian Strache, was fined 10,000 euros for having accused ORF journalist Wolfgang Armin of spreading of fake news. In a similar row, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy accused the French media outlet Médiapart of having spread fake news against him in 2012, in relation to the ongoing Libyan-campaign finance case. Médiapart promptly replied to the accusations.

Producing and tackling fake news

The BBC created an interactive game called BBC iReporter aimed at teens and tweens. The Berlin-based Digital Game Culture Foundation will hold a 48-hour Game Jam to brainstorm on the development of news games. In France, Franceinfo and France Culture will join forces to tackle misinformation. The two public radio broadcasters will kick off a special podcast series on false news about science on April 30.

Debating fake news: op-eds, commentaries and academic debates

According to a Eurobarometer survey, more than 80 percent of the European population perceive fake news as a threat to democracy and as a problem in their country (IlSole24Ore). Meanwhile, Fiorenza Gamba (University of Geneva) and Thomas Widmer (University of Zurich) claim that the Swiss confederal system should be seen as an institutional check on the spread of misinformation. As the Helvetic political system is split up into districts, it becomes more difficult to target candidates with fake news and hate speech, compared to cases of the “personalized political systems,” such as those of the U.S., France and Italy. Meanwhile, the Swiss newspaper Le Temps depicted the The New York Times as an “antidote to fake news.”

On Die Welt, Jim Heintz argues Russia was behind fake news long before Vladimir Putin’s emergence. In another historical perspective, BBC documentarist Phil Tinline analyzed strategic disinformation as a phenomenon spanning several decades of international politics.

Ioana Manolescu (Institut national de recherche dédié au numérique, INRIA) and Erica Scherer, director of innovation at France Télévisions, discuss the role of media in the diffusion of fake news. Scherer recalls that the lack of trust traditional media are suffering from made it possible for fake news to spread. On the other hand, Manolescu calls for media to take up the challenge of providing thorough analysis of the social reality instead of just fact-checking false claims.

Fact-checks from around Europe

In France, AFP and Les Décodeurs verified claims made by former President Nicolas Sarkozy related to the ongoing investigation on Libyan funds and campaign financing. Sarkozy’s declarations on the matter were deemed to be false.

In Spain, El Objetivo checked the truthfulness of claims made by Noelia Vera, an MP of the leftist alliance Unidos Podemos, on the numbers of “forced” Spanish “economic migrants.” According to Vera, some 800,000 Spanish citizens left the country due to the economic crisis that hit the country in the years following the financial breakdown of 2007-08. However, official data contradict her numbers.

In the UK, The Ferret blasted promotional material shared on social media channels by the pro-independence group Business for Scotland. The organization falsely claimed Scotland was the “only UK nation to have exported more than it imported, every year since records began.”

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