FakEU roundup: Syria gas attack, UK poisoning prompt accusations of misinformation

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

The politics of fake news

Over the past few weeks, the discussion on misinformation has closely tracked major geopolitical developments.

Two weeks ago, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Wassili Nebensja, called the chemical attack in Douma “fake news” created by Syrian rebels and Western powers. Some right-wing politicians across Europe, such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini, echoed this narrative.

Downing Street rejected these accusations. In the aftermath of the military strike organized by France, Great Britain and the U.S., authorities in Washington said that online activity of Russian-related trolls exploded (the precise numbers have been challenged by the DFR Lab). Meanwhile, Labor’s shadow Home secretary Diane Abbott was criticized for using an irrelevant composite picture in a tweet critical of the military operation in Syria.

Russian authorities also accused the UK government of spreading fake news in relation to the Skripal case (the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons stated that it was likely the poison used in the attack was of Russian origin).

The UK’s media regulator, OFCOM, announced investigations into seven Russia Today programs for breaching the principle of impartiality.

On Friday, the BBC had to dismiss as fake a staged video made to appear as originating from the British broadcaster announcing a nuclear attack against the NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Meanwhile, Reuters got its hands on a draft communication from the European Commission (EC) outlining the measures multinational tech companies should enact against the spread of fake news on their platforms. With the objective of drastically reducing the circulation of misinformation by 2018, the EC will help draft a “code of practice,” Reuters said.

In other news, Facebook announced that it will put in place a special ad-transparency tool during the electoral campaign of the upcoming Irish referendum on abortion rights. Over the past few weeks, Irish media explained that online campaigns will play a pivotal role in the run-up to the vote.

In France, the online media trade union (SPIIL) called for legislators to exempt their publications from the regulatory measures contained in the bill against fake news that is expected to be approved later this year by Parliament. According to the preliminary text, judges could force newsrooms to remove news items which are deemed to be false within 48 hours after notification. SPIIL claimed that social media platforms and online media should not be equally affected by the provision, as it would limit the principles of freedom of expression. Meanwhile, the French minister of culture, Françoise Nyssen, said that she would like to see public libraries across the country offer workshops to help combat online misinformation.

In Italy, a new survey conducted by Toluna shows that 70 percent of citizens are worried about the spread of fake news. Surveyed respondents said they trusted television more than print or online outlets.

During a parliamentary debate, deputies from mainstream parties defended the role of the German public international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, against attacks from the populist AfD party. In the context of rising misinformation, Deutsche Welle stands out as a rock of quality information, MPs said.

Journalists at the Hungarian state-owned public media network, MTVA, told The Guardian that their network shared misinformation to support the government in the recent election. In Portugal, Prime Minister António Costa said that “quality social communication” is the best tool against fake news. Costa mentioned U.S. President Donald Trump’s online communication strategy as a negative example.

Producing and tackling fake news

On Faktenfinder, the fact-checking website of the German television news service  Tagesschau, notorious fake news creator Tommaso Debenedetti explained how and why he spreads misinformation.

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

In an interview published on Taurillion, Divina Frau-Meigs, a media literacy expert and professor at Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris, argues that more needs to be done to understand the effect of fake news on communities in the medium and long-term. Also, Frau-Meigs claims that Emmanuel Macron’s proposition to regulate the news sector during electoral campaigns would break the basic rules of democracy.

Andrew Futter of the University of Leicester discusses the influence fake news could have on geopolitics in the context of a nuclear escalation. Futter claims that contrary to the past, large-scale misinformation can place political actors under unmotivated pressure to act in irrational ways.

On Mediapart, Pierre Guerlain argues that the act of deliberately withholding information can be as threatening to the development of a rational and transparent public debate as the diffusion of “fake news.” Professional journalism failed in this way during the Iraq War, Guerlain suggests.

Discussing fake news, popular French psychoanalyst Claude Halmos explains that the success of any manipulated message depends on both the ability of the sender and the weakness of the receiver. Discussing the latter, Halmos claims that to build a stronger and critical readership, it is necessary to step up educational programmes in schools. Similarly, Peter Rásonyi, writing on Neue Zürcher Zeitung, claims that fake news has always been part of politics. In other terms, it is up to ordinary citizens to filter good and bad news. Likewise, Rásonyi criticizes any potential state-driven intervention against fake news. In his view, public authorities should focus on establishing a pluralistic media framework.

In a podcast, François-Bernard Huyghe, director of research at the French think tank IRIS, discusses the history of fake news and explains why the topic gained momentum over the past few years. Huyghe argues that the discussion over fake news is a symptom of a more comprehensive political cleavage that opposes liberals on the one hand, and communitarians on the other.

Fact checks from around Europe

Amidst a heated debate over the sustainability of the Spanish welfare system, El Objetivo verified recent declarations released by the Socialist Party (PSOE) Deputy Secretary General Adriana Lastra, who said that Spain “is the EU country with fewer social expenditures.” The affirmation was found to be false, as 14 countries lay behind Madrid, according to Eurostat data.

The Ferret analyzed recent claims on youth unemployment made by the ruling Scottish national party (SNP). Fact-checkers confirmed that Scotland has a lower rate of joblessness among the young than the UK as a whole and a higher youth employment rate.

In France, both Les Décodeurs and 20 minutes turned their attention to two televised interviews by President Emmanuel Macron on April 12 and April 15. Several of Macron’s claims were found to be inaccurate or false.  

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