Europe’s Far-Right Online Bubble
Prior to the 2016 US Presidential Election, a seemingly infinite number of political news websites were churning out hastily produced articles mostly aligned with Donald Trump’s political agenda. The obscurity of those sites notwithstanding, they reached millions of voters throughout America and had a considerable impact on the result of the elections.
A study published last year by researchers at Ohio State University found that thousands upon thousands of fabricated news articles, such as the one about the Pope endorsing Donald Trump, may have helped tip the scale on Election Day.
Perhaps even more shockingly, this all took place largely under the radar of America’s mainstream media bubble. Now the same trend is observable across the EU, with each country having its self-contained ecosystem of far-right politicians and “alternative” media outlets feeding off each other’s discontented audiences.
Alexandre Alaphilippe, the executive director of a Brussels-based anti-disinformation NGO EU Disinfo Lab, says that Europe is now witnessing a new kind of political race where disinformation is used as a campaign tool.
“It’s the new tactic that helps you to win elections. It’s about winning at all costs, even at the expense of democracy,” he says.
Whether it is Matteo Salvini in Italy, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or Tomio Okamura in the Czech Republic, they all know very well that disinformation websites, and their audiences, are their natural allies. The upcoming EU parliamentary elections will be a large stage for Europe’s far-right to harness the power of social media fueled with fake news. And the results will showcase just how effective European populists are at deploying nationalist, far-right media echo chambers.
According to European Council on Foreign Relations’ recent study, anti-Europeans could win more than one-third of seats in the EU Parliament, allowing them to bring about a “qualitative change” in the union.
Similar to the American example, this could all happen without the majority of European populations ever being exposed to the kind of anti-European, anti-migrant or pro-Russian (depending on the particular EU country) media content that millions of Europeans consume on a daily basis, and which then shapes their voting behavior.
Despite the heterogeneity of EU member states’ respective political and media cultures, the marriage of far-right parties and disinformation platforms seems to have formed in a similar fashion in each of Europe’s main regions: east, west and south. They only seem to differ in influence.
The Czech Republic
As a post-communist country with a decades-long period of being under Russian domination, the Czech Republic has recently experienced disinformation as a blend of pro-Russian propaganda and a Czech-flavored anti-establishment rhetoric.
Jonas Syrovatka, a program manager at Prague Security Studies Institute, says that the first seeds for the emergence of “alternative” media in the Czech Republic were planted with the onset of the economic crisis in 2008.
“There were political parties that started saying that the post-1989 political course wasn’t as good as everyone had thought,” Syrovatka said. “In 2013, these messages became more powerful as they started blending with the pro-Russian narratives.”
Today, the combined outreach of the Czech Republic’s most popular “alternative” news sites is around 10 percent of the country’s population. With almost 700 000 real users in February 2019, the Breitbart-esque news site Parlamentní listy (or “Parliamentary Letters”) is by far the most influential such platform in the country.
Alongside interviews with mostly anti-establishment politicians, the site regularly posts sensational articles seemingly intended to stir up discontent with the status quo.
Parlamentní listy’s main contender is a website named AC24. This Prague-based media company, which logged almost 300,000 real users in February 2019, built its reputation on bashing foreign-funded NGOs, and the Czech Republic’s membership in the EU and NATO.
According to Syrovatka, these two websites might look differently in style and form but they present the same threat. “They are both equally likely to publish manipulative articles or provide a platform for extremist groups.”
The outreach of these website is further amplified by social media. For example, Parlamentní listy’s total amount of followers (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) reaches more than a million users. This is made possible by dozens of nationalistically-oriented Facebook groups/pages sharing their content.
With the use of Crowdtangle, a social monitoring platform, one can easily find out the top social referrals for each website. For instance, Parlamentní listy’s leading supplier of interactions on their articles are Facebook pages of “The Czech Patriots,” and the Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (FDD), a hard-core Eurosceptic far-right political party.
Similarly, AC24 is able to generate thousands of additional social media interactions with the help of Facebook groups such as “Czech and Slovak supporters of Russian Crimea,” or various regional outposts of the far-right FDD.
According to Syrovatka, the FDD and the Czech alternative news platforms are engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship. “Okamura [the FDD leader] is always ready to supply them with an interesting content, which brings money to the platforms from ad revenues. The FDD profits by using their audiences to amplify its political message,” he said.
In the past year, the disinformation business in Italy has flourished. Since the victory of anti-establishment political party Five Star Movement and the right wing populist Lega party, fake news and propaganda have been blended in with the official narrative of the government in power.
The 2018 general election saw a peak in the production of disinformation in Italy, especially in spreading alarmism about terrorism, and propagating anti-migrant sentiments. Ahead of the European parliamentary elections, the Italian government is showing that it is perhaps incapable, but definitely unwilling, to confront the problem of disinformation.
If the rise of such disinformation and clickbait platforms after the 2008 economic crisis could be attributed to personal economic motives, a decade later disinformation is serving a predominantly political purpose. According to a report published by AGcom (Italy’s regulator and competition authority for the communication industry) at the end of 2018, 57% of fake news online is concerned with political topics and hard news, followed by a 20% regarding science and medicine.
Discomfort over the continued impacts of the migrant crisis has resulted in a wave of anti-immigration sentiment that has been duly elaborated in disinformation echo chambers and right-wing political saloons. Illegal immigration and terrorism have been the main topics affected by disinformation. A recent study by Agcom published revealed that 15% of online content on immigration contains disinformation, and 11% of information related to terrorism contains spurious “facts.”
Websites claiming to expose crimes allegedly committed by immigrants have been mushrooming online, and have been largely shared in a network of Facebook groups whose names mirror citizens’ resentment: Mai piu’ la sinistra al governo (“Never Again a left wing government”), Italexit (“Italians against the EU”), or “Italians first.” A look into the content shared in the first two groups at the end of 2018 reveals two major sources: TG Quotidiano and cronacapiu, registered under the same name, Gianfranco Arnoldo, whose Facebook profile, featuring the picture of a benevolent Matteo Salvini, leaves little doubt as to his political preferences. Both websites, with an audience of a couple of thousand readers, were taken down at the beginning of the year and replaced with new websites with an identical content whose articles were shared in the same Facebook groups, the most popular of which, Mai piu’ la sinistra al governo, has over 54k followers.
Michelangelo Coltelli, founder of the debunking website BUTAC, has been contrasting online disinformation since 2012. In the past seven years, he has observed changing trends in the production of fake news in Italy. “If in the past these websites were characterized by a name that would make clear their political or social stands such as “United Against Migrants,” today’s platforms often disguise themselves as official news platforms, with names reminiscent of established media,” he told me.
However, according to Coltelli, it is not these platforms that constitute a real threat to the Italian media diet. “The real problem today it is not only disinformation,” he says, “but also poorly reported and scarcely fact-checked news published by established media.”
Relatively high confidence in mainstream news sources, a rich media landscape, and government campaigns to spread awareness about disinformation and to increase media literacy are some of the factors that have kept fake news at bay in the Netherlands.
However, echo chambers of alternative realities still exist—where vaccines cause autism and cancer, and mainstream media and liberal politicians have conspired towards the Islamization of Europe.
As of March 2019, no systematic research on disinformation in the Netherlands has been carried out and published to the general public. However, research on disinformation platforms cited by De Hoax-wijzer and Hoaxmelding, two independent debunking websites, enable some insight into the state of the phenomenon in the country. A check of the listed sites shows rather scarce interest for most of them, with monthly visitors ranging between a couple of hundreds and a couple of thousands for the less visited ones. Among the most popular of the conspiracy websites, NineforNews reaches 760,000 visitors per month.
The most popular Dutch language disinformation outlets are generally clickbait websites, platforms sceptical of modern medicine, and generalized conspiracy sites. However, as multilingualism is rather widespread in the country, the potential influence of foreign language websites should not be undervalued. The Eurosceptic, anti-Islam, and right-wing publication Voice of Europe is not only one of the favorite sources of information for Geert Wilders, omnipresent leader of the anti-immigrant party PVV, but also for many of his sympathizers, who account for 4.63% of the English-language outlet’s visitors.
In fact, the Netherlands is the site’s fourth largest source of traffic, after the United States, United Kingdom and Germany. The website presents current news from all over Europe with an agenda pushing against immigration and the EU, and highly sympathetic to the cause of politicians like Wilders, Marine Le Pen, and Viktor Orbán. Articles on the site have titles like “Christians living in a Muslim country ‘143 times more likely’ to be killed by a Muslim than vice versa” and “Who’s spreading the fake news: Hungary or the European Commission?”
Another potential menace for news quality in the Netherlands is Twitter. Research by Dutch newspaper NRC revealed that between 2016 and 2017, Twitter accounts flagged by the US investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections triggered over 940 Dutch-language tweets. Those tweets focused on amplifying anti-Islam sentiment and polarizing attitudes towards migrants and refugees. The same accounts were also responsible for tweets in support of Geert Wilders and the PVV during the 2017 Dutch general elections.
On March 18 this year, after a gunman in a tram killed four people and seriously wounded three others for still unknown reasons, a fake Twitter account pretending to be that of the politician Jesse Klaver, leader of the green political party GroenLinks, posted in defence of the perpetrator’s right to anonymity, and denounced the decision of the police to have his CCTV-picture made public as ethnic profiling. It caused an upheaval in the Dutch commentariat: even though the debunker HoaxMelding was quick to detect that the account was an impostor, the tweet quickly spread both on Twitter and Facebook, where in spite of all debunking efforts, threats and verbal attacks on the politician persisted.
“It is remarkable that the government has recently started a campaign against the proliferation of fake news, but one wonders whether it really makes sense,” wrote Hoaxmelding. “If people want to believe in fake news, you can’t just talk them out of it.”
This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue