FAKE NEWS & POLITICS
Political fake news refers to ‘misleading allegations affecting the honesty of an election that are deliberately, artificially, or automatically spread en masse via an online communication service’. The term disinformation campaign is used when fake news spreads on such a large scale that it translates into wilful attacks on an election’s integrity so as to destabilise the ruling regime by tapping into fears, nationalism, and authoritarianism.
The emergence of these disruption methods in closely tied to the rising power of digital platforms, which make it possible for fake news on a given candidate to go viral and have a non-negligible impact on public opinion.
Political fake news may be all virtual, but its impact is real. For one thing, they have destabilised elections in multiple countries over the past few years.
This is why digital platforms, governments, and the international community are enacting increasingly serious measures to try and prevent disinformation campaigns, including by regulating social media and stocking up the legislative arsenal.
CASE IN POINT: FAKE NEWS MACHINES IN MACEDONIA
During the 2016 US presidential campaign, the city of Veles, Macedonia, became the ‘fake news capital of the world’. Influenced by powerful state forces, some one hundred young Macedonians joined veritable ‘fake news machines’, whose goal was to use the internet to inundate American public opinion with an uninterrupted barrage of fake news in order to make candidate Donald Trump win.
These young people were earning around 10,000 euros per month to create fake accounts and make up fake articles. One of the most common fake news pieces sought to undermine Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s credibility by spreading rumours to tarnish her image. The mendacious allegation that ‘Barack Obama was funding Hillary Clinton’s campaign with money stolen from veterans’ came from Veles and gained significant traction in the US.
The website ‘The fake news machine: inside a town gearing up for 2020’ documents and analyses hundreds of web pages created in Veles whose primary goal is to manipulate information to help the Republican candidate win.
According to Xhelal Neziri of the Center for Investigative Journalism Macedonia (SCOOP), the fake news machines in Veles were led remotely by the country’s nationalist party, which was in power at the time. As Neziri explains, ‘our investigation shows that this operation was coordinated by the previous government. A platform of young people who were already publishing misleading health care articles was used to swing political opinions during the Macedonian parliamentary elections and then the American presidential election’ (source (in French): ‘Veles, capitale mondiale des fake news, RFI’ – link).
CASE IN POINT: FAKE NEWS DESTABILISING ELECTIONS IN UKRAINE
The March 2019 presidential campaign in Ukraine, which bestowed victory on comedian Volodymyr Zelensky – considered to be pro-Western – was marked by disinformation campaigns seeking to discredit him.
According to the international news agency DW (link), ‘Russian-language fake news… consumed the country’s media landscape’ during the election’. DW estimates that ‘the most popular fake news articles appeared on Facebook, shared by accounts with up to 2 million followers’.
On 5 January, shortly after comedian Volodymyr Zelensky announced his presidential candidacy, a Facebook page managed by bbccn.co published a fake news article to tarnish his reputation. The article claimed that the public prosecutor of Ukraine, Yuriy Lutsenko, had launched criminal proceedings against Zelensky for planning to overthrow the constitutional order. This article got more than 20,000 reactions online, but it is obvious that the rumour comes from manipulated information: no charges had ever been pressed against the comedian.
In the same vein, a fake website falsely purporting to be Zelensky’s own was identified by fact checkers. One post on the site was a fictional declaration in which Zelensky stated his desire to make Russian the official language of Ukraine, a proposal that is nowhere to be found in the candidate’s campaign platform.
DW’s article ‘Is Ukraine’s presidential election threatened by fake news’ gives more detail about the disinformation campaigns aimed at preventing the civil-society candidate from winning.