Why Facebook Is Trying So Hard to Fight Fake News in Europe

May 8, 2017, 10:36 PM UTC
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After deleting more than 30,000 fake accounts before the recent French election, Facebook is now engaged in a very similar campaign in Britain, where it is eliminating thousands of fake accounts and warning users about the problem of fake news in a series of newspaper ads.

It seems the company has come around to the idea that “fake news” campaigns may actually be able to influence elections, after initially denying that this was the case in the U.S. At first, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said fake news was a minuscule problem, and called the suggestion that it may have affected the election “a pretty crazy idea.”

But the company’s behavior in France and the U.K. isn’t evidence of some kind of religious conversion on Zuckerberg’s part when it comes to the dangers of fake news. It’s more about the political pressure that Facebook is feeling on the issue from the European Community.

The giant social network has been under fire for some time now in a number of different E.U. countries, especially Germany, for its role in spreading not just fake news but hate speech and offensive behavior of various kinds. In that context, the French and British campaigns seem mostly designed to make it look as though Facebook takes the issue seriously.

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The German cabinet has approved legislation that would fine large services like Facebook as much as $50 million if they fail to remove fake news or hate speech quickly enough. The bill is not yet law, but it is supported by a number of senior German politicians.

In Britain, meanwhile, some believe that social networks like Facebook and Twitter and their distribution of fake news articles helped to sway the so-called “Brexit” vote in favor of having Britain leave the European Union.

Conservative Parliament member Damian Collins is running a parliamentary inquiry in the U.K. that is investigating the problem of fake news, which he said was a threat to “the integrity of democracy,” and he suggested in recent interviews with British media outlets that Facebook was not doing enough.

It’s not just news that British political observers have suspicions about. There have also been suggestions that the Leave side of the campaign also used Facebook-centric data tools such as Cambridge Analytica to compile psychographic profiles of users, and then target them with ads to try and sway their votes in a particular direction.

The firm, which is owned by billionaire Trump supporter Richard Mercer, has been accused of doing something similar during the U.S. election campaign, a strategy that was reportedly master minded by Donald Trump’s senior adviser (and son-in-law) Jared Kushner.

In France, it appeared that some organized efforts were under way to try and influence the outcome of the election, after thousands of documents relating to centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron were leaked in an anonymous Internet dump by unknown parties. The Macron campaign warned that some of the documents in the dump were forgeries.

The dump seemed calculated to do as much damage as possible, since it occurred just before a 44-hour communications ban that prevented all parties and candidates from talking about the election. But for a variety of reasons, the French press didn’t pay as much attention to the leaks as U.S. media outlets did to similar leaks about Hillary Clinton.

According to the New York Times, one mitigating factor was that France doesn’t have a tradition of tabloid-style press outlets jumping on such material, nor does it have any conservative outlets like Fox News that may have seen it as an opportunity to hurt the opposition.

Britain, however, has a robust and enthusiastic tabloid press, one that is arguably even more interested in the whiff of political scandal than any U.S. outlet. And given the fact that many believe fake news helped push the country out of the EU.., there will no doubt be plenty of attention given to whether Facebook is the source of similar election-related fake news.

Although it came too late to be much help with the U.S. election, Facebook admitted in a recent research report that there were signs of coordinated attempts to affect the U.S. presidential campaign through the distribution of fake news about both political parties.

In some cases, the social network’s security team said that this behavior wasn’t even directed at raising doubts or perpetuating myths about a specific candidate or party, but was intended to sow discord and confusion about the outcome of the election in general.

“We identified malicious actors on Facebook who, via inauthentic accounts, actively engaged across the political spectrum,” the report said, “with the apparent intent of increasing tensions between supporters of these groups and fracturing their supportive base.”

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