Europe Combats a New Foe of Political Stability: Fake News
Posted by hkarner - 22. Februar 2017
Source: The New York Times
BRUSSELS — They scan websites and pore over social media, combing through hundreds of reports a day. But the bogus claims just keep coming.
Germans are fleeing their country, fearful of Muslim refugees. The Swedish government supports the Islamic State. The European Union has drafted rules to regulate the ethnicity of snowmen.
In their open-plan office overlooking a major thoroughfare in Brussels, an 11-person team known as East Stratcom, serves as Europe’s front line against this onslaught of fake news.
Created by the European Union to address “Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns,” the team — composed of diplomats, bureaucrats and former journalists — tracks down reports to determine whether they are fake. Then, it debunks the stories for hapless readers. In the 16 months since the team has been on the job, it has discredited 2,500 stories, many with links to Russia.
In a year when the French, Germans and Dutch will elect leaders, the European authorities are scrambling to counter a rising tide of fake news and anti-European Union propaganda aimed at destabilizing people’s trust in institutions.
As officials play catch-up in the fight against sophisticated hacking and fake news operations, they fear Europe and its elections remain vulnerable at a critical moment: The region’s decades-old project of unity hangs in the balance, challenged by populist forces within the bloc and pressures from Russia and beyond.
“If you look at how European media, and even big American media, are covering the issue now, I would say that it is those few people on that team who have been able to raise awareness,” said Jakub Janda, a deputy director with European Values, a think tank based in Prague, who has worked with East Stratcom.
Many false claims target politicians who present the biggest obstacles to Moscow’s goal of undermining the European Union. Others seek to portray refugees from the Middle East as terrorists or rapists, fomenting populist anger.
In France, the head of the En Marche! party said last week that Russian news channels had targeted the presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, who belongs to the party and is running on a pro-European Union platform. Richard Ferrand, the party’s secretary-general, said the campaign’s databases and websites had been hit by “hundreds, if not thousands,” of attacks from inside Russia.
The East Stratcom team is the first to admit that it is outgunned: The task is overwhelming, the volume of reports immense, the support to combat them scant.
The team tries to debunk bogus items in real time on Facebook and Twitter and publishes daily reports and a weekly newsletter on fake stories to its more than 12,000 followers on social media.
But its list of 2,500 fake reports is small compared with the daily churn across social media. Catching every fake news story would be nearly impossible, and the fake reports the team does combat routinely get a lot more viewers than its myth-busting efforts.
East Stratcom is purely a communications exercise. Still, team members, most of whom speak Russian, have received death threats, and a Czech member of the team has twice been accused on Russian television of espionage.
The team in Brussels is not the only force in Europe fighting the problem. Similar groups are being created from Finland to the Czech Republic to disprove online hoaxes, state agencies are improving online security to counter potential hacking attacks and European news media outlets are expanding fact-checking teams to counter false reports.
One of the biggest problems policy makers across Europe say they face is a lack of tech specialists. Germany recently passed a cybersecurity law that called for a rapid response team to combat hacking attacks. Officials quietly acknowledged, though, that they would need three teams, if they could only find people to staff them.
“There are concerns shared by many governments that fake news could become weaponized,” said Damian Collins, a British politician in charge of a new parliamentary investigation examining the phenomenon. “The spread of this type of material could eventually undermine our democratic institutions.”
Despite the regionwide push to counter false reports, experts question whether such fact-checking efforts by governments and publishers will have a meaningful effect. Fake reports can easily be shared through social media with few, if any, checks for accuracy.
“Most people just don’t care about where their news comes from,” said Mark Deuze, a professor at the University of Amsterdam. He added that “nep news,” Dutch for “fake news,” has been growing ahead of the country’s national elections next month. “People are exposed to a ridiculous amount of information online.”
Officials are also anxious about hackers’ attempts to infiltrate the email accounts of candidates and politicians to steal compromising information.
Much like their American counterparts, security experts warn, European politicians remain highly vulnerable, though national intelligence agencies are now strengthening lawmakers’ security protocols.
In Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing tough competition ahead of elections in September, the country’s domestic intelligence service already has reported a sharp rise in so-called phishing attacks in recent months aimed at political parties and members of the country’s Parliament.
They attribute these efforts to the hacking group known as Fancy Bear, or APT 28, which American intelligence agencies linked to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee before the presidential election. Both American and German intelligence officials believe the group is operated by the G.R.U., the Russian military intelligence service.
The German government is weighing potential hefty fines for tech giants like Google and Facebook, whose platforms allow false stories to be quickly circulated. The companies insist that they cannot be held responsible because they do not generate the stories.
Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, said that although there was no “smoking gun,” Russia was likely to be involved in the increase in online misinformation aimed at destabilizing German politics.
“What makes cyberattacks so sexy for foreign powers is that it is nearly impossible to find a smoking gun,” Mr. Maassen said in an interview with Phoenix TV Feb. 12. “It is always possible to cover your tracks and operate undercover.”
“This isn’t just about debunking falsehoods,” said Jenni Sargent, the managing director of First Draft News, a nonprofit that is partly funded by Google and expanding rapidly in France ahead of the country’s elections, as well as across Europe and beyond. “What we’re trying to do is to deal with the content as opposed to the source.”
Such efforts across Europe have gained momentum since the United States’ presidential election.
Soon after Donald J. Trump’s victory in November, David Alandete gathered his team in the El País newsroom in downtown Madrid with one goal in mind: to respond to fake news.
Like many journalists, Mr. Alandete, the Spanish newspaper’s managing editor and a former United States correspondent, had seen waves of false reports during the presidential campaign, many directed at Mexico — a country that accounts for roughly half of El País’ online readership.
“Trump winning was a major turning point for us,” Mr. Alandete said. “Many of our readers were asking whether they could even travel to the States.”
Populist parties and distrust of traditional news media outlets have been growing in Spain, like other cash-strapped European countries. Such movements have spurred an explosion of fake or misleading news, aimed at either promoting certain political views or undermining others’ credibility.
To counter such reports — and, in part, to cater to its Mexican readers — El País began expanding its fact-checking efforts late last year. That includes assigning five more reporters to debunk false reports online and starting a blog, called “Hechos,” or “facts” in Spanish, to dispel the worst offenders.
Not all of El País’s myth-busting targets, though, have been about politics.
In its first blog post, published last month, the newspaper’s reporters reviewed false claims that the Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo had abandoned his sports car after hurting one of his hands while driving. The post, according to Mr. Alandete, was viewed more than 200,000 times — making it one of El País’s most-read online articles that week.
“Many people don’t trust institutions anymore,” Mr. Alandete said. “We see fake news coming from everywhere.”