Online disinformation in elections, a scientist’s opinion
Interview with Lisa- Maria Neudert, is a DPhil candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute and Researcher with the Project on Computational Propaganda.
Will you be observing the EP elections? What are the main challenges?
Yes, we are currently preparing to analyse the EP elections in May and are analysing political discourse in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. We have only just started our data analysis and it is too early to draw any conclusions, but some preliminary trends are emerging. Across countries, junk news sources consistently discuss immigration issues – which is not surprising – and some promote anti-EU issues and propose leaving the EU. Our research focuses on moments of heightened public interest. We know that elections and referenda have been vulnerable to disinformation campaigns and foreign interference, but sophisticated influence campaigns such as the Russian interference in the US elections need to be planned and implemented over several years.
Can you confirm that people who believe fake tabloid news would also find fake political news credible?
I am not aware of any research that would suggest this relationship. Generally, junk news operates with a similar logic to ‘clickbait’, sensationalism, emotional language and misleading headlines – but there is a clear distinction between harmless gossip and malicious information operations.
How do you assess the efforts by the platforms for more transparency regarding the political ads, are they sufficient?
In the run up to the EU elections, several social media platforms introduced new transparency and accountability tools. For example Twitter and Facebook now offer advertising archives for Europe. They are certainly a step in the right direction which I command. Nevertheless, these archives fall short of providing comprehensive, machine-readable data for research and transparency efforts. Currently, users first need to search the data base with keywords (e.g. topics, name of advertisers). This manual access is time-consuming and only works if you already know what you are looking for.
I believe while self-regulation efforts have become more ambitious, platforms are still vulnerable to manipulation. But also, existing regulatory frameworks are unprepared to address such complex issues in relation to micro-targeting, privacy and transparency of political advertising. Protecting the integrity of political processes and restoring trust in democracy online will require some careful thinking.
At the University of Oxford, we have just launched a new commission tasked with safeguarding democracy from the potentially disruptive influences of modern technology, such as misinformation, “fake news” and micro-targeting in political campaigns. The Oxford Technology and Elections Commission (OxTEC) will bring together researchers, technology experts and policymakers to reflect on such issues and to develop a roadmap for action.