Fake news and baseless rumours are at least as old as professional news production. Nevertheless, fabricated news seem to have caught the world unprepared with the US election of 2016 and the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of the EU. Clickbait headlines and made-up stories often spread faster than the well-researched articles of established news channels. Populist movements, such as AfD in Germany or the ‘Leave’ camp in the UK’s Brexit campaign, have demonstrated their flexible attitudes towards facts. In some states, such as Russia or Hungary, the public and pro-government media create ‘alternative facts’, making it even harder for ordinary news consumers to understand what is going on in the world, what threats loom for their current ways of life, and what an adequate political response would look like.

With this in mind, the Green European Journal is asking experts, activists, and politicians active in this field around Europe, in or around the Green galaxy, about the impact of these developments in their country. The second question of this Green Observatory seeks to map progressive responses to these developments.

David Kopecký, Czech Republic

What is the state of the public and political debate on fake news in your country?

Fake news seems to have become an integral part of the Czech media scene, to a similar extent as in other European countries. The very first initiatives to address it originated in the non-governmental sector: the fact-checking website Demagog.cz was launched in 2012 as the first of its kind. A more policy-oriented approach to fake news is presented by the think tank European Values, which focuses on producing policy papers and advising public policies. It also runs a programme called Kremlin Watch, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations which were aimed at Western democracies. One of its major outcomes was publishing a list of at least 40 Czech media outlets that spread disinformation and manipulation.

At the beginning of 2017, the Czech Ministry of Interior launched the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats as a national security audit identified various types of hybrid threats to the country, including terrorism, radicalisation and foreign disinformation campaigns. It recommended that specialised units be set up within all relevant government bodies to tackle these threats. This has boosted the influence in the public debate about tackling fake news; nevertheless, after the first year of its operation, the Centre published only a handful of recommendations and alerts, mostly in the form of tweets. The Czech public debate is mostly about Russian influence and fake-news-producing media outlets; we haven’t reached the topic of social media regulation yet.

What are the propositions of progressive players on the issue of fake news?

Civil society, the independent press, and the Greens share the opinion that the biggest threats to the freedom of the press and fact-based journalism are attacks on the independence of public media. As many mainstream news and information outlets are de-facto owned by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and their reporting is perceived as biased in his favour, maintaining free and strong public TV and radio is the top-priority issue identified by those who still believe in objective news production. There have already been attempts by the government to weaken the position of the public media, but fortunately the public outlets have managed to keep their level of quality, unlike their Polish and (to some extent) Slovak counterparts.

As the governing bodies of public radio and television are elected by members of parliament, having diverse and democratic parties is key to the independence of public media – as is the existence of public and media pressure during the selection process.

Opinions on the government’s ‘Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats’ and its activities are mixed. There are strong voices that stress the limits of a government agency which is a direct part of the Ministry of Interior, as it may be tempting for the governing minister to influence it. The limitation of the freedom of speech is also raised as a concern, but as the Centre does not have any special legal tools to interfere, this may be more of a theoretical concern than a practical one.

Riikka Suominen, Finland

What is the state of the public and political debate on fake news in your country?

The problems of fake news have been highlighted since 2015 at the highest level (by the president and prime minister) and Finland is actively combating fake news by educating the public and politicians. Journalists have toured schools and taught students how to read news critically. In January 2016, one hundred state officials attended workshops on misinformation. State officials tend to proclaim that Finland effectively resists disinformation, emphasising how the traditionally strong public education system and the existence of a comprehensive government strategy put the country in a good position to deflect coordinated propaganda.

However, the population is somewhat concerned. According to a recent study run by a media and print advocacy group, the majority of Finns think that online fake news reports can affect people’s opinions about current events. Prior to this year’s presidential elections, there were concerns about hacking the election or about fake news campaigns, even though no such indications have been reported so far. Moreover, it is relatively comforting to see that the most famous domestic fake news site, the alt-right MV-lehti, was closed in December due to financial problems (advertisement revenues generated from Google had dropped and the site was no longer profitable). A print magazine with a similar profile, Magneettimedia, is probably facing the same fate this year. In 2016, the Finnish-language bureau for Sputnik, the state-funded Russian media outlet, closed after it failed to attract enough readers.

What are the propositions of progressive players on the issue of fake news?

Greens are aware of the problems associated with the threat of fake news, web propaganda, and propaganda bots that were seen in the Brexit campaign and in the US elections – but overall, they don’t see fake news as an imminent threat to Finnish society. However, some political personalities have already reacted to issues related to fake news campaigns: Brexit, for example, has changed the Green presidential candidate Pekka Haavisto’s opinion on referendums – he now sees fake news about military co-operation as a reason not to hold a referendum on joining NATO.

All in all, if we want to address the broader issue of disinformation, we might look at what US expert Jed Willard had to say in the aforementioned training workshop for Finnish officials: the director of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Centre for Global Engagement at Harvard recommended not repeating the lies spread by fake news and focusing instead on Finland’s own strong positive narrative to ensure people have access to a clear and credible account of events. Moreover, the Greens stress that a strong education system is the best cure against propaganda; therefore, they heavily criticise the current right-wing government’s decision to cut down on education.

Johannes Hillje, Germany

What is the state of the public and political debate on fake news in your country?

In view of the German federal election of 2017, prominent figures from across the political spectrum demanded (quite naively) a ‘ban’ on fake news, as they feared the impact of false information on their very own election result. Then and now, the debate lacks differentiation and a clear and common understanding of the term ‘fake news’. In the end, a wave of what should be called fake news (i.e. fabricated misinformation deliberately spread to deceive the public) did not occur during the German election campaign. Or at least not to such a great extent as expected.

In its analysis, the Internet Institute of Oxford University found that 10 per cent of links to news articles shared on Facebook shortly before the election can be classified as fake news. The major part of it came from right-wing news sites, some of them with strong affinity to the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD). A week after the election, a new hate speech law (the so-called ‘NetzDG’) came into force. It imposes fines up to 50 million euros on social media platforms if they don’t delete illegal content including hate speech and fake news within 24 hours of it being reported.

Critics have argued that the short timeframe and the huge fines will lead social networks to become overly cautious, and effectively censor content. Moreover, is has been criticised that the decision of whether a certain post or tweet is illegal or not is put in the hands of Facebook, Twitter and Co. – meaning that justice is outsourced from the state to big companies.

What are the propositions of progressive players on the issue of fake news?

The Greens advocate stronger responsibility of the social networks for the content on their platforms, but do not want them to play the role of the judge. That’s why the Greens demand stronger cooperation between the judicial system and social media providers. Many independent media started ‘fact checking’ sections on their websites, TV programmes or newspapers in the context of the federal election of 2017. The media organization CORRECTIV started a partnership with Facebook to identify and mark false information directly on the social network. However, the big question remains whether people who tend to consume and believe fake news stories can really be reached by those initiatives. And even if those people are reached, is it realistic to assume that they are ready to change their beliefs just because the distrusted mainstream media claims that an ‘alternative fact’ is untrue?

The rise of fake news seems to be a symptom of a deeper problem which is related to rising distrust in (and thereby shrinking authority of) traditional institutions of democratic societies, such as political parties, media, state and local administrations, and so on. This is coupled with the rise of alternative news providers who spread misguiding information. Thus, the re-stabilisation of the democratic public can only come from within. That means that citizens themselves have to be empowered to manoeuvre in the chaotic landscape of information and misinformation in the digital era. To ensure that our information societies do not transform into disinformation societies, we need to build ‘information literacy’ among citizens.

Krisztian Simon, Hungary

What is the state of the public and political debate on fake news in your country?

Journalism is going through a severe crisis: in the last decade, Hungarian media experienced a cut in resources as well as increased competition for clicks on the internet, which obliged journalists to publish their articles as fast as they could (often without sufficient time to check their sources), in order to beat the competition. With the so-called refugee crisis, there have been examples of mainstream news sites republishing fabricated articles about threats from aggressive migrants and the likes. Fortunately, the serious outlets have since got their act together, but there are still numerous news sources that embrace and deliberately fabricate news stories.

Since the far-right surge in 2006, at least 90 Hungarian-language fake news sites have emerged (mainly run by Hungarian far-right actors), most of them spreading lies and rumours about refugees. There are also examples of anti-Ukraine messages or promotional stories about the Russian-backed Paks II Nuclear Power Plant Expansion project in Hungary. These sites mainly reach their audiences on Facebook, but with the refugee issue not being high on the agenda, they have become gradually less prominent.

Fake news are also produced to a great degree by the mainstream right-wing media, among them the public service broadcasters and close to 500 other outlets (most radio stations and the complete regional press) that were, in the last few years, bought up by business people from prime minister Viktor Orbán’s closest circles, thereby having the opportunity to start concerted fake news campaigns focusing on the state’s enemies (EU, Soros).

What are the propositions of progressive players on the issue of fake news?

While the two biggest left-wing parties don’t seem to care about fake news, smaller parties on the Left put the issue of fake news (or as some call it, state propaganda) high on their agenda. Members of the newly founded Momentum party have made a video in which the party leader visited the office of the major pro-government news site to confront the author of some fabricated news items about his lies. Others mainly focus on strengthening the reliable voices in the Hungarian media: the MEP Benedek Jávor, for example, is working on establishing a new grant scheme for investigative journalism in the EU; the former Green MP Gábor Vágó is active as a volunteer for independent news outlets; members of Hungary’s Green Party, Lehet Más a Politika (LMP),  have set up a website called Reflektor.hu as a place for debate among progressive actors in the country; and many opposition politicians try to help journalists in their work by providing them with information, and by doing investigations of their own.

Universities and NGOs try to improve media literacy, and the remaining independent news outlets put a great effort into maintaining their credibility and finding new sources of income in order to continue publishing well-researched articles. All these efforts, however, are far from enough as long as the main sources of information (as well as possible policy responses) are controlled by the governing party.

Alberto Alemanno, Italy

What is the state of the public and political debate on fake news in your country?

The upcoming Italian general election on March 4 2018 is reigniting a public and political debate on fake news. New evidence suggests that Russia is trying to interfere in the Italian election by sending waves of fake news to stir up anti-EU sentiments before the country heads to the polls. This is particularly problematic insofar as Italy appears to be a fertile ground for the next destabilising campaign.

Also, Italian political parties appear to be more vulnerable than ever to infiltration. The anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), which came out on top of Italy’s 2013 parliamentary elections and is expected to do well in 2018, has embraced fake news, conspiracies theories, and Kremlin-sponsored stories as part of its political offering. The Northern League, which will present itself in the centre-right coalition led by former Prime Minister Berlusconi, has established close ties with the United Russia party and is suspected to receive funds from the Kremlin’s security services.

The Italian government is well aware that its elections may become the target of the Kremlin to weaken the EU’s united stance on sanctions. It is against this backdrop that, after partnering with Facebook and Google to teach students across 8000 high schools how to pick out conspiracies and fake information, the Italian government has set up a stakeholder group to foster self-regulation by social media platforms and other publishers. Members include Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Wikimedia, as well as journalists and civil society organisations.

What are the propositions of progressive players on the issue of fake news?

A growing number of political leaders in mainstream parties in Italy promises to crack down on fake news through regulations as they lose patience with the proliferation of online disinformation. Given the public salience and unprecedented severity of the phenomenon, to fight fake news by law may seem an attractive option. Yet limiting news output to ‘true’ — essentially state-sanctioned — information could pose an even greater threat to democracy than disinformation itself, as it would limit the diversity of the media landscape. Moreover, evidence suggests that to counter false information by law could backfire in another way as well: qualifying a piece of news as fake and thereby giving it greater publicity gives the news piece a boost and spreads the message even further.

Fake news is a symptom of deeper structural problems in our societies and our media environments. Thus, to counter it, we need to take a step back so as to examine the vulnerabilities these fake narratives exploit. In particular, we must unpack the underlying, self-reinforcing mechanisms that make this old phenomenon so pervasive today.

One of the reasons of their current prominence is the fact that tech companies such as Facebook and Google have appropriated — and monopolised— the online advertising market. This has led to a pay-as-you-go business model, in which advertisers are only charged when a page is viewed or clicked on. This ensures that social media companies have no incentive to play the role of arbiters of truth. In order to change this, the social norm of governing how contents are presented and consumed online needs to be transformed.

Simon Otjes, The Netherlands

What is the state of the public and political debate on fake news in your country?

These days, fake news play a prominent role in the Dutch political debate, partly because the new minister of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations, Kajsa Ollongren of the social-liberal party D66, has written a letter to parliament outlining her plans to combat the problem of fake news and foreign interference in elections. Here, she warned that the country is being “monitored” by Russia’s security services who are seeking opportunities to undermine the democratic process. After the letter, newspapers warned of “an avalanche of fake news”.

However, the minister was only able to mention a single example of interference through fake news, and she was reluctant to publicly name the website – which has made the problem seem rather minor.

Whether there is a real threat of fake news and Russian interference in the election could be seen in the 2017 referendum campaign on the EU-Ukraine association agreement: that was a referendum whose outcome was in the direct interest of the Russian government. And indeed, there are some signs that those who were opposed to the association agreement had close contact with Russia. According to the New York Times, for example, the new rising star on the radical right, Thierry Baudet, retweeted a Russian fake news story and the Socialist Party was in contact with pro-Russian groups from East Ukraine. These still appear to be minor incidents and would not merit the political attention turned towards fake news. But the principle appears to be ‘better safe than sorry’.

What are the propositions of progressive players on the issue of fake news?

In her letter, Minister Ollongren mentioned a number of initiatives to combat fake news. One initiative was taken by Leiden University, the largest online news website, nu.nl, and Facebook to combat the spread of fake news stories by giving journalists and academics the ability to check stories marked by members of this network as fake news, and then put a visible warning next to the story. Despite its public prominence, fake news is not a major problem in the Netherlands and there are a number of important safeguards in place. The Dutch media, in particular the newspaper NRC Handelsblad, spends considerable resources on fact checking stories, as well as statements made by politicians. Moreover, the Dutch media landscape lacks real tabloids that prioritise sensationalism over decent reporting.

In the public debate, on the other hand, there is growing unease with the possibility that governments take it upon themselves to combat fake news. This could put pressure on the freedom of speech, in particular when it is unclear on what grounds news can be labelled as fake. The EU initiative of ‘EU vs Disinfo’, for example, labelled a number of Dutch media stories by the public broadcaster NPO, a regional newspaper, and a number of websites as fake news. These stories reported, for instance, about public meetings in which statements were made that were deemed untrue. It appears to be the case that a pro-Ukrainian NGO labelled those reports as fake news, and there is a threat that, in the future, governments and organised interests can label stories that they do not like, and the outlets that interview people they oppose, as fake news.

Paweł Cywiński, Poland

What is the state of the public and political debate on fake news in your country?

The question of fake news has arisen both in the public sphere and in everyday discussions among people. This growing awareness improves the quality of debate both on the web and outside of it. The very label of ‘fake news’ may serve to disarm manipulation and foster a more critical approach towards the media. Even though the problem is not contained to one side of the political divide, it is very troubling that the government and government-controlled media are constantly feeding the public with fake news, in particular regarding the refugee crisis. For example, officials repeatedly claim that Poland accepted between 400 000 and 2 000 000 refugees from Ukraine. In fact, between 2013 and 2017, Poland granted international protection to no more than 400 Ukrainian citizens – out of 6 000 asking for it.

There are currently no proposals to specifically regulate against fake news. Actually, Polish media law seems to be already strict enough. Journalists are legally obliged to thoroughly verify their sources, and this applies to internet journalism as well. If the rules of reliability are not followed, the publisher may be obliged to publish a démenti, apologise or pay damages. What is lacking is institutions to enforce the law. Individual suits are costly and may take years –  it would be more efficient to create counter-propaganda institutions; but you cannot be sure the government would use them to disarm fake news and help the truth come out rather than to spread fake news of their own.

What are the propositions of progressive players on the issue of fake news?

For counter-propaganda, we have got several fact-checking websites. Demagog.org.pl checks the veracity of statements made by politicians. Oko.press provides research-based journalism on the issues of the day, combining investigative journalism, legal analysis, public opinion research, and fact-checking. Uchodzcy.info is a fact-checking project focused on the refugee crisis.

Speaking from my own experience at uchodzcy.info, reliability is essential to build trust with our reader. We always refer to the sources of our data so that our readers can check it on their own if they wish. When referring to someone’s opinions, we always provide the original quotation. When analysing the data, we take time to look into methodology. Our main channel is Facebook, and we have one million impressions monthly. Each post is sponsored and targeted so that we can reach those who are vulnerable to fake news.

The problem is that fact checking feeds mostly into the bubble of those already interested and convinced. We may reassure those who share our general outlook but lack information. For now, there is not much success in reaching out to those who are under the spell of propaganda.

In the long term, good education is crucial to address the problem. In Poland, the education system does not prepare students to deal with fake news and have a critical approach to information. On the other hand, the culture is changing. According to a recent poll by the Catholic Church Statistical Institute, a large majority of teenagers does not automatically trust any news they find on the internet. In our overall difficult situation, this is reassuring.

Tea Šentjurc, Slovenia

What is the state of the public and political debate on fake news in your country?

Generally, we are experiencing a misconception about what fake news really is. Not everything you don’t like is fake news. The biggest, most influential, ‘mainstream’ media are, luckily, still relatively fake-news-free. There are of course sporadic cases of bad reporting, sloppy research or mistakes, but we cannot talk about systematic fake news with an agenda.

Most of the biggest media outlets monitor their comments sections, as they are obliged to by law, even though we have lately heard calls for even stricter control of these sections, published on the medias’ own platforms.

Concerning reporting, I find another problem just as threatening to quality journalism in Slovenia: recently, the richest Slovenians, Samo and Iza Login (together worth around 689 million euros), managed to get a court order prohibiting several media outlets from reporting about them, with a threat of up to a million euros in fines if the order is breached. This level of control over the media by the super-rich presents a great threat to the freedom of the press. As this is a very fresh case, we still have to see how it will play out.

What are the propositions of progressive players on the issue of fake news?

Fake news as such is not really in the focus of general politics or even the public debate (except on Twitter and other social media). In Slovenia we are experiencing other hardships in the media, including sensationalism, politicisation of publicly-owned media, structural and financial adaptation of private media to new economic realities, and so on.

But the Slovene Association of Journalists (DNS), especially with its Journalistic Honour Arbitration Court, and the Association of Journalists and Commentators (ZNP) are, as watchdogs, keeping a close eye on the work of journalists as well as policies and politics in general. DNS has organised several events on how to deal with fake news. Lately, the organisation is also asserting a lot of pressure on the legislative bodies to change the laws regarding media to better reflect the changing reality of society.

The solution is not simple or quick – anything but that. It starts with quality education, including media education for kids and adults, and goes on to include proper, responsible legislation and financing. And, above all, responsible editorial and journalistic standards in everyday reporting. This is hard, but achievable; because the majority of the public wants information that is credible and true. That is the reason why new, right-wing media outlets (the ones that are seen as the most problematic ones when it comes to fake news) have not been successful in generating a viewer or reader base that is bigger than the core base of the extreme right; and thus, they have not made a huge impact on the Slovenian media space.

Myriam Redondo, Spain

What is the state of the public and political debate on fake news in your country?

Fake news did not mean much in Spain until the Catalan crisis erupted with the holding of a pro-independence referendum that was banned by Spanish judges on October 1, 2017. There had been some examples of fake news in previous elections, but they had proven to be rather marginal. However, the violence that day was so shocking that media all over the world broadcast images of the clashes between police and protesters. In the social networks, real images and news were mixed up with fake ones promoted by false profiles or agitators, or just retweeted by mistaken people and media. In the following weeks, there were some studies and analyses that underlined the role of Russian bots and media outlets (such as RT) in pushing polarising contents; some of these studies, however, were highly contested due to their bias or to the lack of definitive proof. Thus, Moscow complained and the Spanish Government clarified that they could not directly blame the Russian Government.

The main outcome of this experience was that fake news and fake social media profiles were raised to the top of the Spanish political agenda. It has become very common to find articles related to fake news and bots on the front page of Spanish newspapers. With the purpose of guaranteeing security and avoiding new examples of what they considered a huge disinformation episode, the ruling party, Partido Popular, proposed to forbid anonymity on the internet. Also, the government introduced cybersecurity as a strategic action line in the new National Security Strategy for 2018, and announced the creation of an official Centre of Security Operations (COS) dealing with the challenge of cybersecurity.

What are the propositions of progressive players on the issue of fake news?

Spanish progressive players have underlined how inconvenient a censorship approach can be when tackling the challenge of disinformation. The possibility of banning anonymity on the internet is highly criticised, in particular because of the difficulties it could pose to legitimate critics of authorities, especially in the case of human rights’ violations.

The contrary position of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on this issue has been emphasised by local actors. Podemos refers to the anonymity ban as a tool to avoid dissent on social networks, strongly opposes it, and says that the talk about the activities of Russian bots is a campaign to generate panic among the population. The Platform for Defence of Information Freedom (Plataforma en Defensa de la Libertad de Información, PDLI) strongly opposes banning online anonymity as well, expressing major concerns that it will lead to repressive measures. Most progressive actors prefer to boost education logics (digital literacy and digital verification literacy) in order to better protect citizens against fake news by creating a better informed and more critical society. Education efforts from schools to universities and a more fact-based approach to current affairs on the part of media are considered the best ways of protecting the truth on the internet.

Natalie Bennett, United Kingdom

What is the state of the public and political debate on fake news in your country?

In the UK, there are two distinct aspects to the fake news debate. As in other countries, there’s concern about the role of social media in amplifying reports from dubious or clearly false sources, and the role of foreign governments, particularly Russia, in influencing and disrupting national debate through it. Ofcom, the media regulator, has called for internet social media giants to be classified as publishers, and the parliamentary select committee on culture, media, and sport has threatened to sanction Facebook and Twitter if they fail to provide more information on Russia’s role on social media in the Brexit referendum. Given the pressures of Brexit, however, immediate action seems unlikely.

But there’s a broader issue about the failure of mainstream traditional media to hold to account the false claims of political figures and campaigners, and the influence of a handful of media tycoons on the news most people access. The issue has come to the fore in the Brexit debate – particularly around the claim by the ‘Leave’ campaign of 350 million pounds a week being available to the NHS if the referendum went its way – but is a longstanding one. The BBC has been subjected to increasing political pressure and interference.

Ownership in the UK is some of the most concentrated in the world, with three companies controlling 71 per cent of national newspaper circulation and five controlling 81 per cent of local media titles. Through websites, these outlets have far more impact than their circulation figures suggest.

What are the propositions of progressive players on the issue of fake news?

Greens are greatly concerned about the decline of local newspapers (already far weaker than in other parts of Europe) and broadcasters, crucial for democratic oversight and community-building. Many places no longer have any regular coverage of local councils and statutory bodies. The Green Party of England and Wales calls for a tax on internet advertising (dubbed a ‘Google tax’) to fund both the BBC, giving it greater independence, and local news sources, which are strong and vibrant in some places (e.g. the Dorset Eye and the Hackney Citizen).

There’s also been a focus on internet giants such as Facebook and Google, urging them to act more strongly on internet abuse and harassment, as well as transparency and action on fake news. And on them paying their taxes to meet the needs of the society from which they are profiting.

Increasing plurality of media ownership is a key issue. The Media Reform Coalition is the leading campaigner, calling for a maximum of 15 per cent audience reach, backed by Greens. Greens have also focused on increasing the independence of regulatory and oversight bodies, such as the BBC Trust and Ofcom.

The Leveson inquiry, set up in 2011 following a scandal about illegal phone hacking, made brief reference to ownership, with plans for a second inquiry, but that has not happened. Greens have supported this second inquiry, and backed Leveson’s recommendations for independent regulation, which was not implemented. Instead a new self-regulation body, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, was set up but has had little impact on standards.

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