Online disinformation during elections : researchers in Europe team up to monitor and analyse the situation

As has been the case for many recent national elections, the European Parliament elections are also facing the challenges of online disinformation. The European Commission is making an extra effort to push giant tech companies to implement a voluntary code of conduct against disinformation. European researchers are preparing the first studies on the topic.

According to Eurobarometer, 83 % of Europeans perceive false news as a problem for democracy. 73 % of internet users in the EU are concerned about disinformation in pre-election periods.
Disinformation – i.e. verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public – distorts public debate, undermines citizens’ trust in institutions and the media, and even destabilises democratic processes such as elections.
Social media and online platforms play an important role in speeding up the spread of such news and they enable a global reach without much effort from the author.
The upcoming European Parliament elections, due to take place on 23-26 May, are focusing extra attention on this phenomenon. Experiences with former national elections have shown that monitoring the election campaigns, filtering fake news and identifying fake accounts are the best means of dealing with this challenge. Researchers from almost all Member States have their own experiences of this issue. They are now focusing their research on the European vote.

Lisa-Maria NeudertLisa-Maria Neudert works for the Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda project: “We are currently preparing to analyse the EP elections 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.”

The Swedish research centre DEMICOM, which conducts research on democracy and communication in the digital community, produced a report last autumn on the Swedish national elections, involving about 100 researchers and several different approaches. Now it is teaming up with colleagues from all around Europe to monitor the European elections.

Kajsa FalascaKajsa Falasca from Demicom“We are now running a similar project for the EP elections, involving 60 researchers from all Member States. The results will be available quite quickly, 10 days after the elections. The project will focus on European politics, the campaigns and media coverage, and the use of social media and other digital media. It will also include an analysis of fake news, disinformation and misinformation. My own contribution will focus on how political parties use social media. I am looking into how they behave on social media, and how they perceive the effects of social media both before and after the elections. In Sweden, all the parties taking part in the elections are very concerned about being transparent during the campaign and are committed to not using misinformation.”

EU action plan against disinformation ( source European Commission)

European action plan against disinformation

The role of social media platforms is crucial. The European Commission initiated a code of practice on disinformation as an essential step in ensuring transparent, fair and trustworthy online campaign activities ahead of the European elections in May 2019. Among the signatories are Google, Facebook, Twitter, Mozilla as well as the advertising industry. This is the first time that industry worldwide has agreed, on a voluntary basis, to self-regulatory standards to combat disinformation.

The Commission also expects tech giants to do more to delete misleading or illegal content – including incitement to hatred and extremism. Facebook and Google recently announced their intention to step up their efforts to keep fake news from being uploaded and disseminated. Facebook’s efforts have resulted in fake accounts being identified and, together with Google, it uses AI technologies to counteract malicious networks. However, the Commission criticized Facebook, Google and Twitter of falling short on their pledges to combat disinformation.

Kajsa Falasca puts it into perspective: ‘During the last ten years, we have seen Facebook move from saying: ‘we are not responsible at all’, to saying today that they are concerned, that they are trying to take measures to regulate and control content’.

More transparency over the political ads

Another of the European Commission’s aims is to have more control over political ads. At the end of March, Facebook announced that it would be putting in place a strict authorisation process for publishers of political ads, and it labels the political ads in each Member State so that users are aware who paid for them. According to Facebook, this helps people understand the ads they see during the European elections, so that they can better decide what to read, trust and share.
Facebook also said that it was adding new features and information to its ad archive, the Ad Library, and expanding access to its database so that researchers could conduct more in-depth analysis of the data.

Lisa-Maria Neudert : “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.”

To protect European democracy, the European Parliament on 12 March 2019 adopted new rules on political campaigning, including dissuading and penalising EU-level political organisations that deliberately misuse personal data in European election campaigns. The Council adopted the new provisions on 19 March 2019. The new rules are binding and directly applicable in all Member States as of 25 March 2019.
Also on 12 March 2019, the European Parliament strongly condemned in a resolution the increasingly aggressive actions of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, “which seek to undermine the foundations and principles of European democracies as well as the sovereignty of all Eastern Partnership countries”.

The European Parliament has itself created a unit attached to its Spokesperson, that is dedicated to defending its reputation as an institution and coordinating the fight against disinformation targeting it.

Useful links

Commission welcomes the commitment of online platforms ahead of the European elections, 23 April 2019
RAPID ALERT SYSTEM infographic
Code of practice on disinformation
Initiatives of the independent fact-checker for the elections
Fact-checking project of the European Journalism Training Association (EJTA)
EP vote on the new regulation
EP resolution of 12 March 2019
HORIZON magazine on the European elections
Oxford Technology and Elections Commission (OxTEC)​
Can we tackle electoral hostility with satire?
ERC : Elections: New report highlights innovative research on 21st century political world


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