Don't Expect a Fake News Epidemic in Europe

Catching hoaxes is like playing whack-a-mole. But there are plenty of people on the continent standing around with hammers.

All the fake pieces are not in place yet.

Photo: iStock Editorial via Getty Images

Compared with the U.S. last year, European nations that face hotly-contested elections in 2017 aren't seeing a major fake news explosion.

In the Netherlands, where elections are scheduled for March 15, Geert Wilders' nationalist Freedom Party is the front-runner. Wilders was recently caught out in a fake news scandal: He tweeted a Photoshopped image of a rival party leader rallying with a radical Muslim group, holding up signs saying, "Islam will Conquer Europe" and "Shariah for the Netherlands." The original photo was taken in the U.K. in 2009.

The Wilders tweet was reposted 491 times -- not a large number for a politician with almost 770,000 Twitter followers -- and many of those retweets were from the politicians' critics. Other than this incident, the Dutch election has largely been free from "post-truth" concerns. 

The next major electoral battle will take place in France in April and May. Emmanuel Macron, the center-left candidate, has lately made fake news one of his campaign themes, accusing Russian state-owned propaganda outlets of spreading disinformation about him. That, however, is almost fake news in its own right. 

Asked about the accusations on French television, Richard Ferrand, the secretary-general of Marcon's political party, pointed to a story about Macron spending a night at the French embassy during a January trip to Lebanon -- an alleged misuse of public funds. But the story originated with French news websites, according to Disintox, the fact-checking service set up by the newspaper Liberation.

The worst attack on Macron by Sputnik, one of the Kremlin's sites, was in quoted right-wing French lawmaker Nicolas Dhuicq, who criticized Macron as a globalization advocate, suggested that there was "a very wealthy gay lobby" behind him, and predicted that "controversial details of his personal life and ties" would soon become public. This, however, was labeled "opinion" rather than "news," fake or otherwise.

The Russian-owned outlets make no secret of being more sympathetic toward Macron's rivals, Marine Le Pen and Francois Fillon, who have both called for a better relationship with Russia. But their French audiences are tiny. According to SimilarWeb, Sputnik barely cracks the top 500 sites in France with about 3.5 million visits last month -- compared with 86.5 million for the mainstream daily Le Figaro. RT has been given a budget to open a French-language TV station this year, but it's highly unlikely to start broadcasting before the presidential election or affect the result in any way if it does.

In Germany, the election is seven months away, perhaps too early for a barrage of fake news about any of the top candidates. So far, the scandals have been of limited political importance. Green Party legislator Renate Kuenast has sued a right-wing group for reposting a fake quote from her supposedly defending an Afghan asylum seeker who had raped and murdered a German student. A Syrian refugee who once took a selfie with Chancellor Angela Merkel as she visited a refugee center in Berlin sued Facebook after the photo appeared alongside posts claiming he was involved in terror attacks. 

Apart from that, Breitbart, the far-right U.S. site, has been regularly publishing credibility-stretching items about the German election. In January, the site reported that a mob chanting "Allahu akbar" had set fire to a Dortmund church on New Year's Eve. In fact, scaffolding covering the church briefly caught fire from a firecracker. Breitbart has stood by its reporting and continued a steady barrage of stories painting Germany as the scene of Muslim rioting and crime. But Breitbart's German audience is negligible -- about 900,000 visits in January, according to SimilarWeb, compared with 86.3 million for the tabloid Bild.

RT and Sputnik, which often quote the Breitbart stories, are also relatively small here. Sputnik got about 4.1 million visits in January, RT about 6 million. In any case, they have been careful not to draw unwanted attention, at least so far. Recently, Merkel's chief of staff Peter Altmaier announced that an intelligence investigation into possible Russian disinformation found no evidence of such a campaign against the chancellor.

Catching fake news stories is like playing whack-a-mole, but in Europe today, there are plenty of people standing around with hammers waiting for something to pop up. Both in France and in Germany, Facebook has recently launched the same anti-fake news solution it had first tried out in the U.S.: Users can mark content that looks fake to them to send it to a pool of moderators. In France, Facebook, Google, mainstream media outlets and civil society groups have also launched a project called CrossCheck, dedicated to tracking and stemming the spread of viral fake news stories.

These combined efforts and the likelihood that politicians and intelligence services will leap on any potentially dangerous bit of slander make it difficult for any concerted disinformation effort to succeed ahead of this year's European elections. But I doubt that any will be undertaken.

The audience-poor Russian propaganda outlets are mostly interested in being publicly accused of trying to affect election outcomes and then loudly refuting the accusations. That plays well to a specific Moscow audience -- officials whose views feed into budgeting decisions. RT and Sputnik won't get more money if a Kremlin-friendly candidate wins -- but they will if they're at the center of public debate, appearing more influential than they could ever be.

There's no profit in creating European fake news the way young Macedonians did for the U.S. in 2016 to harvest audience for ads on their sites. There are too many countries to follow and difficult languages to parse, and no European country has an audience for fakes that would even approach Donald Trump's base in terms of size and enthusiasm. Even local far-right communities put more trust in local sources in France and Germany.

If European politicians are going to be brought low by the news, it will likely be of the verifiable variety -- as in the case of Fillon, who is likely to be eliminated in the first round of the French election because of revelations that he paid more than $1 million in salaries to family members who appeared to do little in exchange. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.