In the era of fake news, democracies need to protect themselves from a deluge of disinformation. False facts and unsubstantiated rumors not only provide fertile ground for political extremists to fool the public, they can also discredit and undermine the legitimacy of democratic institutions.
European countries facing general elections this year have become particularly vulnerable and concerned about fake news that can influence the outcome. Officials and analysts are looking at the conduct of the US elections as a negative precedent. American intelligence sources are convinced that Russian professionals created false stories to influence the election in favor of Donald Trump. Fake news was sent through Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other social media outlets, although no one can accurately measure how it swayed voters.
With Germany facing general elections in September, Berlin is worried that similar infiltration could impact on the vote. German officials have proposed creating a special government unit, an “anti-disinformation center,” to combat fake news. The government is also drafting legislation to prevent Facebook from spreading fabricated stories. Social media networks are not merely conduits for information but share a responsibility to society for accuracy and should bear the consequences if they enable damaging false stories to spread without any warnings.
Facebook has a platform of more than 1.5 billion users worldwide and clearly impacts on social attitudes and behavior, and not only among the most gullible citizens who are prone to conspiracy theories. In response to mounting pressure, the Facebook management is finally seeking out the worst offenders who spread false reports. They have enlisted five fact-checking organizations to review stories that are flagged by Facebook users.
The scope and reach of false news has become so extensive that Martin Schulz, President of the EU parliament, has called for Europe-wide laws to stem the spread of particularly harmful stories. A special EU team, StratCom East, already documents disinformation originating from Russian sources. It issues a weekly bulletin highlighting the numerous frauds and distortions, as well as a Twitter feed called EU Mythbusters. The unit responsible for StratCom East is led by a former British EU official and contains experts on disinformation from several member states. The material is collected through a “myth-buster network” of over 300 journalists, bloggers, NGO activists, and current and former government officials.
Individual lies are one thing but deliberate state intervention is much more ominous. Schulz claims that to combat the subversion of democracy through manufactured news, a Europe-wide solution is necessary. Legislation and enforcement should not restrict free speech but a way needs to be found to warn consumers that a particular story either has no basis in fact or has not been corroborated.
Analysts believe that populists, nationalists, and pro-Moscow activists are saturating the social media and can inject falsehood during election campaigns that preoccupy journalists, commentators, and politicians and divert attention from real policy issues, similarly to what occurred in the US. Such stories are aimed not only at discrediting particular politicians but also at undermining national institutions and questioning the rationale for democracy.
The Czech Republic is now at the forefront of the anti-disinformation campaign. To counter Russia’s offensive against Western democracies, Prague has established a specialist unit dealing with fake news spread by websites supported by Moscow. Its primary aim is to counteract interference in the country’s general elections in October.
Officials believe the Kremlin is behind forty Czech-language websites peddling conspiracy theories. Moscow’s key goal is to sow doubts into the minds of citizens that democracy is the best system, while creating negative images of the EU, the US, and NATO. Part of the Czech interior ministry, the Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, will scrutinize disinformation and counter it via the social media.
Online agitation had an impact in the Czech Republic during the refugee crisis and incited anti-Islamic rallies despite the fact that the country has few Muslims or immigrants. Protesters have carried placards denouncing the EU, NATO, and Chancellor Angela Merkel. The social media offensive has fuelled public fears of terrorism and an imminent influx of Middle Eastern refugees.
Czech intelligence officials blame some sectors of the country’s 45,000-strong Russian community for the disinformation, as well as agents at the large Russian embassy in Prague who pose as diplomats. Some Czech MPs advocate expelling Russian citizens convicted of spreading false news and expelling diplomats suspected of spying.
According to the Czech Republic’s domestic security agency, BIS, Moscow possesses the “most active foreign intelligence services” on Czech soil. One of the priorities of Russian espionage is to fabricate disinformation and promote distrust in the democratic process and the Western alliance that will enable extremists to gain votes against “the establishment.”
Viewers, listeners, and readers anywhere in Europe need to beware of being duped by Russia’s special services. For instance, during 2016 manufactured news included reports that the CIA murdered Russian dissident Boris Nemtsov; that the US plans to shoot down a Finnish plane and blame Russia; that Poland is preparing to occupy western Ukraine; and that IS militants are fighting against pro-Moscow forces in Ukraine. Purveyors of such disinformation operate on the assumption that a substantial number of voters in every country can be easily deceived.