Can the EU Stop the Spread of Fake News?

The European Commission announced in late January that it will ramp up its efforts to combat fake news by committing more staff resources to its anti-disinformation task force. The initiative, known as the East Stratcom Task Force, was set up in 2015 to fight back against a perceived Russian propaganda campaign and is an extension of the European External Action Service (EEAS).

The task force currently has 11 full-time staff members whose jobs are primarily to counter anti-Western disinformation spreading around Eastern European social media networks. East Stratcom staff also publish the Disinformation Review, a weekly blog that dissects fake news stories in detail and attempts to spread the truth via social media.

Though Russian disinformation is still the task force’s primary focus, the new influx of funding and resources will be used to more rigorously track fake news from any source. With elections scheduled in France, Germany, and the Netherlands this year, many are concerned about the role fake news could play in influencing the results.

“I am worried, as all people are worried, about fake news, especially after the elections in the United States,” Andrus Ansip, EU commissioner for the Digital Single Market, told the Financial times.

Yet, others have doubts about East Stratcom’s effectiveness.

Christian Stöcker, a professor of digital communication at Hamburg University in Germany, doubts that an anti-disinformation campaign like this could have an effect on people, especially those who are already predisposed to believe fake news to begin with.

“The question of whether people who respond to fake news are open to different interpretations and corrections is open,” Stöcker told the German news site DW. “There’s probably a proportion that can’t be reached anymore at all.”

It’s also unclear how much of a reach the task force’s message actually has. The Disinformation Review’s social media presence, on which it relies heavily to spread its message, is relatively small. The @EUvsDisinfo twitter account has only about 14,000 followers as of this month, and even some of its most popular tweets rarely receive more than a few “likes” and “retweets.” This pales in comparison to the attention some major fake news stories typically get.

One incident, where a Syrian refugee’s selfie with German Chancellor Angela Merkel was featured in a Facebook post falsely linking him to terrorist attacks in Brussels and Berlin, was shared nearly 200,000 times before it was taken down. The incident is now the subject of a major court case in Germany.

[For an in-depth look at the court case, see our full reporting here.]

That’s not to say that there hasn’t been some success in fighting fake news. In addition to debunking myths, East Stratcom also meticulously tracks fake news stories and attempts to trace their origins. In a report published last month, the task force found over 2,500 examples of fake news stories spreading across European social media.

Such information can be highly useful for activists and academics concerned about fake news in their own countries., a journalism project started by students and faculty at the Mohyla School of Journalism in Ukraine, relies heavily on the Disinformation Review’s reporting in its mission to dispel myths about the Ukraine conflict.

However, simply tracking myths and debunking them might not be enough to stop disinformation from spreading. So, some social media companies are attempting to tackle fake news at its source

In December, Facebook
added a tool that allows users to flag fake news reports for review by third-party fact checkers. If found to be deliberately false, the stories would be tagged accordingly. Though Facebook doesn’t remove the story from its site, it will get a “false” label which negatively impactsits score in the company’s algorithm so that fewer people see it in their newsfeeds.

Originally launched in the United States, the program has since partnered with media outlets in Germany and France.

[For more reporting on Facebook’s efforts to fight fake news, check out this story from MediaFile.]

Some European governments have taken the fight against fake news into their own hands. In Germany, lawmakers are considering a bill that would fine Facebook as much as €500,000 if a reported fake news story isn’t taken down within 24 hours. And in Britain, a parliamentary inquiry was launched to examine fake news and its potential impact on the democratic process.

It remains to be seen how effective these tools will be in stopping fake news, or at least curtailing its effect. Some, such as Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations, believe we’ve already reached peak fake news.

“It’s harder to do the second time,” Shapiro told CNBC, “We hit peak fake news about a month ago. There will never be that level of assumed impact again.”

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