Several new studies have found a surge in homegrown “junk news” about immigration and Islam, rather than explicit attacks by foreign actors on EU institutions and personalities, in the run-up to this week’s EU elections.
The separate findings — from Avaaz, the campaign group, Alto Data Analytics, a market research firm, and the Oxford Internet Institute — point to a shift in priorities for Europe’s far-right political parties, which no longer explicitly advocate leaving the EU but instead focus on divisive social issues, including the UN migration pact that caused turmoil in several governments last year.
Researchers found many new websites, notably in Italian, set up to collate and disseminate anti-migrant and anti-Muslim stories. In some cases, the stories linked to current events such as the fire at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris.
“Anti-migrant themes have been relentlessly exploited as way to galvanise, connect and create active digital communities,” said Alex Romero, chief executive at Alto Data Analytics, which found anti-immigration content was among the most-shared material on more than 500 Twitter accounts suspected of spreading disinformation or hyper- partisan stories.
“We’ve seen strong signals of co-ordination from some highly active users to spread disinformation from very specific sites focused on immigration as a way to attack the political elites and EU establishment,” he added. “These techniques to exploit the digital ecosystem are shaping the public agenda.”
Meanwhile, Avaaz’s study, which focused on disinformation in the EU’s six biggest countries — Germany, France, the UK, Italy, Spain and Poland — led to Facebook taking down networks that had reached over half a billion EU users over the past three months.
The findings have prompted questions over why the world’s largest social network has not been able to detect the content itself, despite opening a dedicated EU election monitoring operation and pledging to stamp out misinformation networks.
Facebook said it did not want to kill legitimate public discourse, and had focused its pre-election efforts on manipulative behaviour, such as fake accounts and automated sharing of propaganda.
“While we recognise some political opinions might be controversial, we believe it is important that different views can be shared and we do not to remove posts or pages just because some people don’t like them,” a spokesperson for the social network said.
“However, political views can and should be expressed without hate. This is something we take very seriously. We have community standards that clearly state that hate speech is not acceptable on Facebook and, when we become aware of it, we remove it as quickly as we can.”
Christoph Schott, campaign director at Avaaz, said the campaign group had detected “incredible co-ordination” among far-right disinformation networks that were all based in Europe, rather than foreign networks.
“We see people copying the playbook of Russian disinformation,” he added.
Separate analysis from the Oxford Internet Institute found anti-immigration and anti-Islam stories appearing to originate from Europe were among the most shared “junk news” stories on Twitter.
“It’s not so much foreign forces that are trying to push deliberately false information but homegrown junk news,” said Nahema Marchal, lead author of the Oxford research.
Twitter said: “Platform manipulation is against the Twitter rules and we take strong enforcement action when behaviour violates our policies.
Twitter has “established a cross-functional EU elections team, introduced a new political campaign ads policy and rolled out a dedicated tool which allows users across the EU to easily report intentionally misleading election information to us”, it said.