Report From Nonprofit Group Avaaz Says 'Europe Is Being Drowned In Disinformation'
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
As Europeans choose their representatives in the EU, how reliable is the information they're getting online? One new report finds that Europe is being drowned in disinformation. The report is from the progressive nonprofit group Avaaz. Avaaz found disinformation was viewed more than 500 million times in the past three months and that its reach far outstripped the reach of official far-right parties.
Joining me now is Christoph Schott, who directed that report for Avaaz. He's on the line from Brussels. Hi, there.
CHRISTOPH SCHOTT: Hi, there. Good to be here.
KELLY: Good to have you with us. So give us some examples. What kind of things did you find?
SCHOTT: We found a very, very large set of different type of content from actual disinformation. We saw, for example, a video of migrants destroying a police car, viewed 10 million times, when, actually, that was out of a movie - years old. And people kind of got a misrepresenting, like, picture of reality where they thought this type of content, both very hateful or, actually, outright lies, is very popular in the community. And that's what really concern us - that these disinformation networks out there share this content so far and wide so quickly that it reaches millions of millions of Europeans every single day.
KELLY: Right. I mean, you found it was reaching people in Germany and Spain and France, Italy, the United Kingdom - all over Europe.
SCHOTT: Yes. Everywhere we looked, we found these networks using very, very similar tactics. And often, not - they're different from what I think we have seen in the U.S. elections where Russian operatives set up groups for a very long time. And also, like, in European countries, we saw those groups operating for years, sometimes starting as a lifestyle page or a movie page, and then slowly, but surely, shifting to becoming a far-right page. That is a clear, deceptive tactic to pull in more and more people into their stories.
KELLY: And this disinformation that you were finding - it tended to skew to the far-right, or were people on the far-left - were there other groups skewing it in different directions?
SCHOTT: Yes. So we started looking at what actual disinformation is spreading and looked who's spreading is. And time and again, we went down a rabbit hole to the far-right. But in Italy, for example, we also found a lot of populist, but they're not far-right parties. So it was not only far-right, but mainly far-right - what we found in our research.
KELLY: And you said you went down the rabbit hole of who was creating this. Just speak a little bit more about that. Was this official groups, random individuals - or can you even tell?
SCHOTT: We cannot tell each time because the publicly available data on Facebook is not - doesn't show you everything. But in many countries, like in Spain, it was actually pretty much two individuals running a coordinated network of pages to spread their message. One was a bit more publicly known. The other one was just, I think, a pensioner in some small island in Spain. And then we saw it all across. Like, it's very fringe-type, sometimes white nationalist. Again, we did not find much political affiliation - only in Germany, where even local and regional AFD politicians were involved in setting up fake and duplicate accounts and be friend with them. And that worried us, as well.
KELLY: The AFD being that - the far-right party in Germany.
SCHOTT: That's right.
KELLY: Here in the U.S., as authorities have tried to track disinformation across social media, a lot of the trail has led back to Russia. That's been very much in the headlines here. Did you find that in your investigation in Europe?
SCHOTT: No. What we found in our investigation was that a lot of the tactics that we think Russia has deployed in the U.S. elections have been copied. So there might not even be such a need anymore for Russia to step over that line and do it themselves 'cause they're now going to have those, I'd say, copycats do the job for them. And then they might be using the outlets like RT to just amplify some of the most divisive content. And that's maybe kind of the new play - just amplify what's already out there and divisive.
KELLY: You and I are speaking, of course, as Europeans are voting this weekend in parliamentary elections. Were you able to measure what impact this disinformation may be having in those campaigns?
SCHOTT: I mean, imagine you go into the polls believing that migrants, refugees in general, receive much more sort of support than our pensioners and that migrants are violent and rape women and that climate change isn't real. Like, if you actually believe all those things because you have been lied to, I believe that clearly shifts your, at least, voting intention - maybe even stay home 'cause you lost trust in democracy or nearly is altogether. And that is a real threat. It's not just, oh, on the day before the elections, there's a fake news about your voting station. That's not what we're seeing.
What we're seeing is, like, long-term disinformation campaigns with the aim to drive us apart, to deceive us. And as a democracy, we need to stand up and, right now, say, now we vote even more because we believe that democracy's our strength, and we will not be manipulated by this type of behavior.
KELLY: Christoph Schott, thank you.
SCHOTT: Thank you very much. There was a joy.
KELLY: He's with the nonprofit progressive group Avaaz. He joined us via Skype from Brussels, talking about their new report on disinformation and social media in Europe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.