Transforming Europe: Will Fake News decide our future?

By Marlene Beck 

**This blog post is part of the Jean Monnet Chair of European Media Governance and Integration series

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Elections in the Netherlands, in France, in Great Britain, in Germany – and in Austria. Without doubt: 2017 is a year of fateful decisions in Europe. At the end of the year we will certainly know if it’s not only a super election year but also a super year for Europe and for the future of the European Union.

It’s the first elections in Europe after the peak of the migration crisis, after Brexit and after several terrorist attacks threatening the Europeans. Facing a changing social and media environment people are asking Politics for new answers and Politicians are asked to give answers in new ways, using innovative media technologies and alternative channels of distribution.

And it’s the first elections in Europe after Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the USA and after Trump’s first press conference as President-elect when the term “fake news” broke out of media discussions into the mainstream (Carson, 2017).

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Fake news as computational type of political Propaganda with monetary perspective.

Bending the truth for political gain is certainly not an invention of Trump or his political opponents. Political propaganda stretches back to ancient times, growing in scale and persuasive power with mass communication. But while propaganda of the 20th century was largely state controlled and stocked to analogue modes, the rising trend of fake news nowadays is triggered by small groups of people taking advantage of social media interaction and the algorithms of social networks.

What propaganda and Internet fake news still hold in common: “both are methods of distorting the truth for emotional persuasion, seeking to drive action.“ (Carson, 2017)

Due to the opportunities of social networks the quantity and range of fake news is enormous. According to a study of the University of Stanford in the three months before the election, pro-Trump fabricated stories were shared a total of 30 million times, counting nearly four times more than pro-Clinton shares.

Contrary to the propaganda in the past, the motivation of creating and spreading Fake news is no longer only political, but also economical. In the 2016 US election many creators were trying to earn money out of distributing content and gaining a bigger audience for advertising. In the aftermath of the US election the German newspaper “Die Zeit” portrayed a small town in Macedonia, which was kind of the European epicentre of fake news throughout the election period. In the peak period over 140 websites with fake news were registered in Veles. Young people, with moderate income or even unemployed, were spreading fake news to earn some extra dollars. And while those people cared little about the question of who would become the next President of the US, they were making good money out of influencing the American voters.

 

Super Election Year 2017: Fake news has cross the Atlantic

No question: fake news is not only an American trend, but a worldwide phenomenon, spreading all around the globe and influencing people – across borders and continents.

Before the Presidential vote in France, researchers from the University of Oxford published a study that found that a quarter of the political stories shared on Twitter during a week in March 2017 were deliberately false, based on misinformation. Researchers reviewed approximately 842,000 tweets involving the French election during a seven-day span. Of those linked to external news sites, “about one-quarter contained content described in the report as ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan or conspiratorial”.  (Blake, 2017) During the sample period large amounts of traffic were generated by highly automated accounts.

Since last year’s Presidential election, the influence of fake news has probably been the most debated question among experts and the general public. Right now we neither have clear answers nor long-term studies. According to the researchers of Oxford University “the combination of automation and propaganda can significantly impact public opinion during important policy debates, elections, and political crises”. (Howard et al., 2017) However, in  retrospect to the US election Allcott and Gentzkow of Stanford University pointed out that social media was an important but not dominant source of election news and were claiming that even the most widely circulated hoaxes were seen by only a small fraction of all voters.

In preparation for the super election year in Europe German Chancellor Angela Merkel has voiced her concerns about fake news, emphasizing that opinions are formed in different ways than they were 25 years ago and warning that Fake News could impact the results of the 2017 election.

With these facts in mind, let’s go back to our question of whether fake news will influence elections in Europe. Looking at the first results in the Netherlands and in France Europe is not petrified, but still alert. Obviously fake news is not highly influencing, but it’s still a formidable challenge. A challenge for western democracies, established parties and politicians to give new answers in changing times and to deal with these new forms of political propaganda and changing media society. And, last but not least, they are a challenge for all Europeans to raise personal media competence, to be critical and watchful. But the good news is: the future is still in our hands.

References:

Allcott, H./ Gentzkow, M.  (2017): Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election. (http://web.stanford.edu/~gentzkow/research/fakenews.pdf)

Howard, P. / Bradshaw, S. / Kollanyi, B. / Desigaud, C. / Bolsover, G. (2017): Junk News and Bots during the French Presidential Election: What Are French Voters Sharing Over Twitter?  (http://comprop.oii.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/89/2017/04/What-Are-French-Voters-Sharing-Over-Twitter-v9.pdf)

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/angela-merkel-fake-news-german-elections-donald-trump-a7439641.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/french-voters-deluge-fake-news-stories-facebook-twitter-russian-influence-days-before-election-a7696506.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/0/fake-news-origins-grew-2016/

http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/apr/21/france-faces-fake-news-flood-social-media-ahead-pr/

http://www.zeit.de/2016/52/fake-news-hersteller-unternehmen-mazedonien

 

 

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