Europe has currently been hit by the latest bit of fake news, which is just a joke. The headline “Big Ben to be renamed Massive Mohammed from 2018” has been widely shared, which accompanied outrage on Facebook.
It might be easy to laugh. However, governments in Europe are starting to take “fake news” very seriously. In line with the “Big Ben” headline, a fiery user even posted a message as saying, “Not being funny, this will cause civil war!”
The news came from a news parody site and first put online on Aug. 15, 2017.
How it all began?
In the midst of fears that fake news may have influenced the 2016 Brexit vote and current elections in France and the Netherlands, European governments and ordinary people are taking action to fight against false and misleading news.
At the same time, efforts in Europe are ongoing to crack down on hate speech because online vitriol (anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic, and anti-Semitic tirades) may be poisoning political debate and feeding extremist groups all over the continent.
The approach differs from country to country and mirrors local concerns. Germany is especially worried about hate speech and neo-Nazi slogans that proliferate online. Countries bordering Russia or with hugely Russian-language minorities are primarily concerned about Moscow-based propaganda being utilized to subvert their democracies.
Governments from Paris to Prague and London to Lisbon are concerned about these fake news; hence, propaganda and merely poor journalism are eating away trust in the mainstream media and government.
Promoting and Reinforcing Accurate and Professional Journalism
Things in Europe are not as bad as those in the U.S. A research by the U.K.’s Computational Propaganda Research Project at the Oxford Internet Institute found that 50 percent of news stories spreading online in the U.S. in the lead-up in 2016 elections could be categorized as “junk news.” Relatively, this is defined as something that does not meet the fundamental standards of accuracy and professional journalism.
On the other hand, the equivalent figure was 20 percent in France’s and Germany’s recent presidential elections.
Establishing Credible Sources
The major contrast between the U.S. and Europe is the source of the untrustworthy online reporting. While alternative right news sites like Breitbart or the openly white nationalist Daily Stormer exist in Europe, the huge fight against fake news focuses on Russia.
In early 2017, the Czech Republic’s interior ministry launched the Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats as it is worried about the spreading of untrustworthy Czech-language sites with links to Russia. This center focuses on the task of identifying and combating fake news.
In Ukraine, a group of students, graduates and lecturers from Kyiv’s Mohyla Journalism School work on the highly respected Stopfake.org fact-checking site that publishes web videos and stories condemning unreliable claims made by Russian-backed media, (e.g., such as some false claims that the neo-Nazis run the Ukrainian government).
Fact-checking is a must.
Many fact-checking sites exist across the European continent. These include the East StratCom Task Force, which is set up by the European Union to combat “Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns.” East StratCom directs to Russia’s investment of nearly $1 billion in its state-controlled media operations, which include RT, the broadcaster that targets online audience outside the country.
In Finland, the government has set up a new police task force to pay particular attention to online hate. Many police investigations about threats on an individual broadcaster, reporter, or writer are ongoing.
Thus, the journalist admits that awareness of such an issue has progressed, but more regulation and tougher laws are necessary.
In Paris, France, the prosecutor’s office opened an inquiry on “fake news to divert votes, use forgeries and false receipts” on May 4, following the grievance of President Emmanuel Macron.
With this, he charged that official papers published on the internet showing he had a secret offshore account in the Bahamas were forgeries, an intended “campaign of digital disinformation” to disrupt the French election in favor of his challenger. The documents are then debunked as fake by The Observers, a fact-checking division of France 24 news channel.
Russia and Germany’s Fight Against Fake News
These two nations have surfaced as the most determined players in the scramble to adapt to this setting and to reshape it wherever possible. The German vote will be an early test. And it’s the campaign that will unfurl in the same manner of leaks, disinformation, and hacks, which impair the U.S. elections in November 2016. Or, they will advance in classic German fashion, orderly and dull, under the directives that Merkel’s government is striving to rewrite on the fly.
In Germany, Facebook’s fact-checking partner is Correctiv, an investigative journalism start-up that has a cluttered newsroom on the second floor of a vine-covered building in central Berlin.
Devising Policies on Responsible Social Media Use
On June 30, 2017, the German parliament passed a new law that targets social media networks themselves, foisting fines of up to $57 million on the likes of Twitter or Facebook if they don’t delete racist, slanderous or illegal comments and posts within 24 hours of being informed to do so.
According to Bitkom, a national association of German digital media companies, the law will cost the social networks around $622 million extra cost per year for oversight and personnel, an amount Facebook admitted as “realistic.”
Neudert of the Oxford Institute said that the effect of the German law is already seen online. There is a sharp decline in fake news stories being posted on Facebook accounts.
A Finnish investigative journalist with YLE, Jessikka Aro, said that the German legislation is a great law that should be adopted across the continent.
Europeans do hope to prevent a massive tide of disinformation from influencing national elections and spreading hate.
America’s War On Fake News
In the U.S., Facebook claims to be a neutral platform for communication. Its passive approach went out the window in the 2016 elections. Within one week of President Trump’s victory, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has admitted that ordinary citizens were right to ask about the company’s role in distributing fake news and about the effect it may have had on the national elections.
Zuckerberg said that these are very significant questions and that he cared deeply about getting them right. However, he cautioned that recognizing the truth is complex. Instead of playing the role of truth teller, Facebook has explicitly outsourced it to independent fact checkers who can filter through an unending stream of articles, posts, rumors and conspiracy theories and try to set the record straight.
Hence, the problem has not been simply about people spreading lies online, but the digital platforms were set up in such ways that make them very potent. The “share” button can send lies around the cyber world faster before fact checkers can debunk them.
In America today, the social media has begun warning users of “disputed content” and giving links to reliable sources such as Associated Press.
Now, be the judge whether Europe has advanced better in battling against fake news compared to other countries in the world.