In just a few weeks, voters across Europe will be casting their ballots for a new European Parliament. But how vulnerable are the elections against undue influence in times of fake news and bots? Have the social media enterprises learned from past mistakes? And what is the responsibility of the classic media?
Around 400 million Europeans are eligible to elect a new parliament at the end of May. But will the ballot be influenced digitally? And how are Facebook, Twitter and other social media players bracing themselves? Concerns are widespread across the EU that digital disinformation could shake up the European elections. That fear is by no means unfounded. After all, Facebook came under massive criticism when a major propaganda campaign orchestrated from Russia was uncovered in the wake of the most recent US presidential election. Previously, unsolicited opinion-makers from abroad had also he attempted to unlawfully influence the Brexit referendum.
So what is the current state of disinformation on the Internet? "Yes, there are such campaigns - even more than we thought - but their impact is overestimated," says Simon Hegelich, Professor of Political Data Science at the Bavarian School of Public Policy in Munich. There is much going on quantitatively, Hegelich says, especially on topics such as migration, homophobia or religion. However, the fact that it exists does not necessarily mean that it has an effect. "Compared with the effort British parties made in the Brexit referendum, or with Trump in his election campaign, the impact is very low. It's unlikely that it was the key."
High alert in the EU
However, Hegelich is wary of indirect effects of digital disinformation campaigns, whose ultimate aim is to stir up uncertainty and mistrust. "If everyone talks about how bad such campaigns are and how scared one has to be, then they will succeed - even if in reality they aren't."
What is clear is that the EU is on high alert. In December, the European Commission presented a plan of action designed to stop propaganda spreading online. A task force against Russian influence, which had been established in 2015, has had its resources doubled, and a rapid alert system, through which attempts at manipulation can be reported, has been launched.
Social networks have also reacted as pressure on them has increased. Twitter has introduced a new feature to coincide with the European elections: users can now report election-related misinformation. In the past, there had been repeated manipulation attempts on the Internet. One example from the US presidential election are false claims that Democrat supporters could cast their votes for Hillary Clinton via text message.
In the meantime, Facebook has prohibited political advertising that is financed from abroad. For example, campaigning for a candidate from Denmark can no longer be paid for from Italy, Russia or the USA. In late March, Facebook manager Richard Allen also announced that the social network would increase transparency with regards to all forms of political advertising. Specifically, anyone who wants to advertise political content must provide Facebook with their identity and location. It also must be made clear who finances the ad.
"Moving towards the European elections, the voting issue naturally has absolute priority for us at the moment," said Facebook's European CEO, Martin Ott, at a recent event in the German parliament, the Bundestag. The number of staff working for the platform on integrity and security issues had been increased from 10,000 to more than 30,000, he added.
The responsibility of the established media
But are the networks doing enough? And to what extent are the elections really being digitally influenced? "Disinformation is on the way, that much is clear," says Alexander Sängerlaub of the Berlin-based think tank Stiftung Neue Verantwortung. "But the question is: what effect and what impact do they have? In Germany - and that's the good news - we are a bit more resilient than in other countries." This is partly due to the fact that trust in traditional media remains at high levels. Nevertheless, populists try to disperse disinformation, Sängerlaub says, "in order to torpedo democratic debates or to mobilise their own supporters."
Both Sängerlaub and Hegelich attribute certain responsibilities to the traditional media. "Right-wing populist parties and candidates, such as the Alternative for Germany party, always benefit from coverage, whether it's positive or negative," Hegelich says. The media should therefore ask themselves whether their reporting resembles the actual importance of these parties. Sängerlaub sounds a similar warning: "Populists hold up sticks in the hope that the media will jump over them."
Specific statements pertaining to the actual level of danger posed by online disinformation campaigns are hard to come by. One reason is that there's a lack of data to support an evaluation. "Research is flying blindly towards the European elections," warns Sängerlaub.
Researchers and journalists have long been insisting that Facebook, Twitter and other networks must be made to act more responsibly. For example, at a recent public hearing before the Digital Committee in the German Bundestag, Martin Emmer from the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society called for more data to be made available by the corporations in order to be able to better identify and understand possible manipulations. Alexander Sängerlaub of the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung says: "The platforms have been collecting our data for years - it is time now to give something back."
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