Fake News: From Macedonia to the West

The sleepy riverside town of Veles was once known for providing porcelain to the whole of the former Yugoslavia. However, since 2016, it has made a new name for itself as a hub for generating fake news. After the historic result of the 2016 U.S. elections, thousands of bogus news stories, designed to influence American voters, were traced back to this quiet town in Macedonia. Concerns were raised regarding the prevalence of disinformation, most of which came in the form of headlines that favored Republican candidate Donald Trump, circulating across social media platforms and even being reposted by legitimate news outlets in the U.S. This city, at the epicenter of the rise of fake news, attracted journalists and experts, who found that the magnitude of the issue was far greater than they had initially believed. The stories have tapped into an underlying extremist vein of society and capitalized on the ever-growing polarity of politics in the West, with the European Union (EU) as one of the main targets. This article utilizes a combination of political theory and current events to assess how the social factors that shape the EU have contributed to its vulnerability. Additionally, it presents the actions taken at both the supranational and subsidiary levels amongst the member states while simultaneously commenting upon how the EU should move forward in its battle against disinformation.

Misinformation vs. disinformation

To begin, fake news exists within a larger ecosystem of misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is defined as false or inaccurate information that is mistakenly or inadvertently created or spread; the intent is not to deceive, while disinformation is false information that is deliberately created and spread, in order to influence the public or obscure the truth, a definition more in line with the epidemic nations face today, and manifested in the form of fake news. Due to this, confidence in the media has dropped, as citizens don’t trust the information they are accessing from news outlets is accurate. Author, teacher and investigative journalist Ralph Keyes coined the concept of ‘post-truth politics’, a narrative based in deceit that sets the scene of today’s political landscapes. His book The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life argues that as deception becomes more prevalent in mainstream media, lies are no longer being treated as inexcusable and are instead accepted by segments of the public. He believes that center stage is not only occupied by the struggle between true and false since a third category of ambiguous statements that are not exactly the truth but fall short of a lie has emerged. He labels this as enhanced or neo-truth, and states that with its arrival, truth and honesty are no longer absolute but mutable, fluid concepts. This contributes to current political culture, where debates are governed by appeals to emotions disconnected to the true details of policy, and factual rebuttals by experts are disregarded.

Brexit

This is perhaps best illustrated by Brexit and the media storm which surrounded it into a nearly four-year long process. The British Prime Minister at the time of Brexit negotiations, Theresa May, attacked the Kremlin for meddling in elections and attempting to weaponise information and promote discord in the West. The EU Parliament stated that information campaigns that originate from Russia had been widely circulating in the EU and aimed to boost Moscow’s narrative of a morally decayed EU on the brink of collapse, and seek to exploit divisions in Western societies. Regarding Brexit, the UK communications agency 89up.org released a report that cited Russian media interference in the EU referendum to be worth up to £4 million. Leading up to the referendum in 2016, two Kremlin-backed outlets, Russia Today and Sputnik, published articles with strong anti-EU sentiments that gained a social reach of 134 million potential impressions compared to a total social reach of just 33 million and 11 million potential impressions for all content shared from the Vote Leave website and Leave EU website respectively. Thus, Kremlin-funded propaganda channels attained over three times more visibility and therefore impact on social media platforms like Twitter than both the official pro-Brexit campaign pages combined. Articles employing carefully constructed disinformation were seeded across social media platforms, their visibility inflated using bots which delivered over 10,000,000 potential Twitter impressions during the EU referendum. This was further exacerbated by the public’s distrust of authoritative experts and economists about Brexit. The public relations and marketing consultancy firm, Edelman, releases a Trust Barometer each year that gauges public trust in institutions and weighs the informed public’s statistics against those of the uninformed. Its findings for the UK in 2016 highlighted an ongoing trend of trust inequality, stating that the trust that Britons feel in government, business, the media and NGOs depends on where they stand in the social hierarchy. The findings regarding Brexit concluded that it was strongly favored by those struggling through austerity and that there was a 17-percentage point gap between the trust that Informed Publics (university-educated, higher earners with a declared interest in politics and news) have in all institutions compared with the rest of the population. This is an ever-present issue in politics, as socio-economic standing contributes to one’s ability to obtain accurate information regarding politics.

The rise of social media

The rise of social media platforms as a means of dispersing political information capitalizes on the uninformed public and bombards them with disinformation, knowing it is more likely to be trusted and subsequently spread. In relation to this, Elizabeth’s Neumann’s political science and mass communication theory titled “The Spiral of Silence” argues that a semi-statistical organ which senses barometric pressure of opinion distribution highlights how there is a severe aversion towards being isolated, even symbolically via one’s opinions. The tendency of one to speak up and the other to be silent starts off a spiraling process which increasingly establishes one opinion as the prevailing one. There is proof that bots are being sold online to generate traffic on fake news websites, pushing them to be trending topics. This feeds into the spiral, as it manipulates agenda setting, and silences opinions that aren’t as prominent in the media, regardless of whether they are factually correct. Thus, when looking at the UK, we can see that this was often the case throughout the process of Brexit, as even politicians spread shockingly incorrect information to their supporters.

The case of Boris Johnsons’ Brexit essay, titled “My vision for a bold, thriving Britain enabled by Brexit” and published in the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, highlights how Neumann’s theory can come into play. Johnson stated that Britain would take back control of roughly £350 million a week after leaving the EU. This statement was plastered all over London’s iconic doubled-decker buses that circulate the capital day and night. They were coined ‘Boris Battlebuses’, but the statement he made was entirely false. However, it was circulated enough that the public began to spread it. The same occurred in the case of false statistics regarding migration and an overall demonization of the EU. These aspects came in the forms of headlines framed to capitalize upon preexisting fears that British citizens have had regarding threats to the economy. These headlines have their visibility boosted through armies of bots, as for example, on the day of Britain’s referendum, Twitter accounts traced back to Russian servers sent thousands of messages with the hashtag #ReasonsToLeaveEU. The effects of this are perhaps best seen in the Trust Barometer of 2017, a year after the referendum, which showed trust in the UK at a historic low at 29 per cent with a specific emphasis on politicians being the least trusted by the public. The survey found that the British trusted leaked information much more than traditional news sources; algorithms over human editors. Overall, these findings cite how trust in the UK continued to decline at a rapid pace throughout Brexit and the plethora of false information that surrounded it. These sentiments are a result of strategically placed fake news stories and entire outlets that employ fearmongering to pick away at the foundations of democracy, leaving citizens no longer willing to put their faith in authority. After the referendum that solidified Brexit, the Oxford dictionary added the term “post-truth”, highlighting the degree to which this fake news has become a threat to the EU.

Populism in the EU

It is crucial to consult the political trend of populism in the EU as a factor that helps implement the dominance of fake news in the media. In her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” American-German philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt assessed the influence of populism as a common denominator in both Nazism and Stalinism, arguing that when populism begins to take control, the public becomes increasingly gullible and more subject to being influenced by propaganda. A study headed by French economist and professor Yann Algan titled “The European Trust Crisis and the Rise of Populism” shows that following the 2008 financial crisis, voting for anti-establishment parties spiked. The study found that crisis-driven economic insecurity is a substantial determinant of populism and political distrust, which correlates with statistics showing populism in Europe at its highest level since the 1930s, with the average populist vote in the EU Member State standing at 24% in 2019, up from 8.5% in 2000. This rise in populism corresponds to a shift in public perceptions of the media. Previously trusted, professional news outlets are now seen as ‘elite’, with alternative sources now being relied on for information. An article by Robert Colvile titled “Britain’s Truthiness Moment”, published on Foreign Policy, relays a quintessential example of how the public is progressively being indoctrinated with the argument that “political outsiders” are what nations need occupying positions of power. He cites a recent debate on the EU when Faisal Islam of Sky News challenged the co-chair of the Leave campaign Michael Gove to name a single independent economic authority who thought Brexit was a good idea. Gove’s response was to evade the question and claim that he was glad the organizations were not on his side, saying, “I think people in this country have had enough of experts,” adding that instead of looking to these “know-it-alls”, he had placed his faith in the British people.

Euroscepticism

Likewise, in “Regimes of Truth in the Communication and Reporting of the European Union Post-Truth, Post-Propaganda or Just Propaganda”, political theory professors Christos Frangonikolopoulous and Stamatis Poulakidako believe that the problems on either side of the EU, both the ‘euro-skeptics’ and ‘pro-EU’ sides, are shaped by disinformation. They argue that there is a need to compare the ‘post-truth of the post-modern and post-industrial communication environment with the modernist notion of propaganda and cite two main instances where this discrepancy can be observed. The first was the decision of the Hungarian government to hold a referendum on the relocation of refugees across the EU in 2016. The media that surrounded this referendum was heavily inundated with the following messages that the Paris terror attacks were carried out by immigrants, that nearly one million immigrants want to come to Europe from Libya alone, and that since the start of the refugee crisis, harassment of women has increased in Europe. This heavily skewed media coverage was littered with factually incorrect information and perpetrated by populist parties gaining popularity in the region. The second instance was during Italy’s 2016 referendum, with arguments that a No vote would impinge upon constitutional reform meant to recapitalize the country’s problematic banks and bail them out of their debt and banking problems spread like wildfire. All claims were false and intended to manipulate public opinion and push Eurosceptic narratives. From these instances, it can be observed that overall, populism has done well by questioning the value of career politicians instead of celebrating the possibility that positions of political power can, and should, be occupied by outsiders, further weakening the legitimacy of well-researched information sources, and bolstering the visibility of fringe outlets that spew disinformation. The lack of accountability placed on these media outlets allows for populist parties to continue to thrive on the misinformed public’s naivety and gullibility. Paired with discontent of current governance, disinformation can create waves of negative effects that undermine the foundations of the EU’s democracy. The ARENA Euro Div project found that there was practically no critique of political actors in decision-making on what dominates media coverage during the Eurocrisis. Fake news is transmitted without being properly vetted and absorbed directly by social media platforms with low levels of monitoring or policies in place to combat this epidemic. In battling a threat that at its core aims to undermine democracy, statements made that censorship should be implemented at a supranational level in the EU are counterintuitive. Although false weaponized political activity in the EU has dire consequences for society, censorship would only further erode the legitimacy of political institutions, as freedom of speech is a main pillar of democracy. The EU has listed combatting disinformation as one of the European Parliament’s main priorities since 2019, with actions being taken that aim to ensure that citizens have access to reliable information. MEP Anna Fotgya discusses how sophisticated foreign electoral interference campaigns have become due to ever-evolving digital tools that allow for aggressive cyberattacks and hostile propaganda. To combat this, she proposed an increased focus on the malicious use of artificial intelligence (AI) and the development of EU-funded AI to effectively counter these attacks. She also argues for public naming and subsequent shaming of fake news perpetrators and their sponsors, while simultaneously outing to the public the goals they wish to achieve through their actions. Additionally, potential sanctions that mean to penalize the countries from which these attacks originate have been discussed, with a Parliamentarian press release stating three main objectives: (1) New laws needed to enable robust response, (2) Protect elections from Russian interference, and (3) Support EU-associated countries and Western Balkans. These are solutions being discussed at a supranational level, but at a subsidiary level, countries should be investing further in education. As the Trust Barometer exposed, an informed public is better equipped to identify disinformation and less likely to fall victim to populist propaganda. Combining investment in education, transparent media and encouraging pluralism will further encourage the public’s resilience to disinformation. The creation of more websites like the EU’s “EUvsDisinfo” can be a means for identifying and debunking fake news and the origins of propaganda being spread across Europe that push fake news. The future lies in Europe’s ability to ensure that future generations are equipped with the means of detecting disinformation, acknowledging its consequences, and finding reliable sources that counter propaganda. Hope for Europe lies in its ability to adapt to an increasingly polarized political landscape, restructure how it disperses information, and hold media outlets accountable for what they publish. Perhaps through these measures, the countries of Europe will emerge stronger and more united.

Lamia Seffar is a Political Science and International Business student at Saint Louis University.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:

L. Seffar (2020). “The Battle Against Disinformation”, Observatory on contemporary crises, June 4, 2020, URL: http://crisesobservatory.es/the-battle-against-disinformation-l-seffar/