“Fake it until you make it” is the first special report published within Freedom Barometer 2019 Index designed with intention to provide overview of the arising trend of the manipulation over public opinion using Internet, most commonly called FAKE NEWS. Internet provided space for further democratization of our societies, making political and social processes much closer to everyday citizens. However, that very space is increasingly used for intentional manipulation over public opinion and suppressing of fundamental freedoms such are freedom of expression and freedom to information. This is mostly reserved for authoritarian states, however foreign meddling into internal country political processes turned this into an issue in all European countries. Throughout following pages, we will analyze most important information related to fake news trend such are its characteristics, impact, strategies and country developing. Aim of this report is to provide basis for future discussion on possible solutions to ensure protection of fundamental freedoms endangered with this growing trend.
=> Fake news phenomenon directly influences all three pillars of Political freedom of the Freedom Barometer Index, through hindering freedom and fairness of elections, undermining democratic institutions and decreasing trust in media and quality of journalism.
=> There are evidences of social media manipulation for socio-political purposes in 25 countries covered by Freedom Barometer Index analysis.
=> Authoritarian countries changed its strategy from wide-spreading false content from abroad, to empowering domestic groups with know-how and resources for fake news` creation and dissemination.
=> In the name of the fight against fake news, authoritarian regimes managed to tighten grip over information dissemination in society through new laws.
=> Democracies are often caught in a trap, wherein their reaction causes more harm than the event itself. Same applies to fake news. Struggle against fake news could potentially harm freedom of expression and democratic order worse than fake news themselves.
What are we dealing with?
According to Freedom Barometer Index and many other international watchdog organizations, such are Freedom House or Reporters without Borders, freedom of the press is in constant decline around the globe. Media environment faces many challenges, such as:
=> Increased concentration of media ownership and unclear ownership structures;
=> Extensive political and economic pressure on media reporting through biased procedures of state subsidies or public-sector advertising;
=> Crackdown on critical media reporting through abuse of legal and extralegal tools;
=> Hostile environment for journalists marred with verbal and physical attacks, intimidation, or even murders;
=> Poor economic situation in many countries making an impact on decreasing professional media standards.
But, also, there is increased presence of systematic misinformation campaigns, intended to undermine democratic institutions, shape public opinion, spark social polarization and diminish trust in media and their work.
However, manipulation of public opinion isn’t anything new. For decades it was used by politicians and governments to shape support for their actions. But with its acceleration via Internet and social media, this manipulation became one of the biggest threats to modern democracies. These tools increased speed, decreased price, broadened reach and enhanced impact. All those were previously main obstacles to manipulation.
There are many terms for manipulation over public opinion such are disinformation, false news, hoax information or fabricated news. However, the one that has been most commonly used among citizens and political actors is FAKE NEWS. Despite the term itself, it all boils down to the same meaning.
Fake news is intentional and systematic misinformation aiming to manipulate public opinion using Internet.
Same like with terms, there are also many definitions of fake news or disinformation. One such definition was provided by the European Commission:
Disinformation is understood as verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and may cause public harm. Public harm includes threats to democratic processes as well as to public goods such as Union citizens' health, environment or security. Disinformation does not include inadvertent errors, satire and parody, or clearly identified partisan news and commentary.
FREEDOM AT STAKE
From the moment when concept of social media manipulation came into public spotlight (during US presidential elections in 2016) until today, its presence and usage for manipulating public has drastically increased, while strategies for creation and dissemination evolved, managing to by-pass current measures taken by the governments. This means increased presence of fake news in everyday life of people, which as a result can often cause distrust in reporting from objective and independent media outlets. Also, creation of fear among citizens of constant exposure to fake news, allowed authoritarian governments to adopt laws which would entitle solely those in power to judge whether information is false or not – using it to suppress critical reporting and freedom of expression. In addition, certain governments in more developed democracies have pushed to empower private entities with right to censor information and freedom according to their criteria, moving responsibility from democratic institutions to companies. Having everything said in mind, fake news caused a harm to democratic developments in the world, with a potential to further enhance this impact.
According to the study of the Oxford University “The Global Disinformation Disorder”, the number of countries where evidence of social media manipulation was collected increased by 150% since 2017. Social media manipulation took place in 70 countries in 2019, where at least one governmental or political organization engaged in intentional shaping of public opinion through misinformation. Majority of these activities were related to electoral processes in those countries. When it comes to countries covered by Freedom Barometer analysis, for 25 countries out of 45 there is evidence of social media manipulation.
There is evidence of social media manipulation for socio-political purposes in 25 countries covered by Freedom Barometer Index analysis.
In the environment with growing presence of false information, freedom of information can hardly be granted to the citizens. They are exposed to fake news and also to a scaremongering discussion about concept of fake news, causing distrust into reporting and information in general. Such circumstances make the work of media outlets even harder and their economic sustainability more questionable.
Fake news had been previously mostly coming from foreign countries, with intention to influence outcome of certain social and political processes. Techniques in tracking down sources of such content became better and better, pushing those who are standing behind creation of fake news content to change strategies. Today, meddling from the outside is slowly vanishing, however there is a growing presence of domestic groups who engaged into public manipulation over social media. Those activities are mostly supported by the foreign actors such are Russia or China, who provide resources and know-how to domestic groups. This new strategy demands an answer in order to be able to handle the fake news` impact.
Authoritarian countries changed its strategy from wide-spreading false content from abroad to empowering domestic groups with know-how and resources for fake news` creation and dissemination.
In authoritarian states which are often accused to be in charge of creation of fake news narrative, the term “fake news” became a tool for justification of ever more repressive laws which allow governments to limit freedom of expression. These laws allowed governments such are those in Turkey, Russia, Tajikistan or Azerbaijan for further crackdown on opposition politicians, civil society activists and critical journalists, by their censorship, imprisonment and harassment, because of their attitude expressed over social media. These laws allowed them to consolidate efforts to control information dissemination in society, and empower the state to be the only one who could distinct true from false information. In this way, oversight role over governmental activities is highly limited.
In the name of fight against fake news, authoritarian regimes managed to tighten grip over information dissemination in the society through new laws.
Freedom of expression over Internet in Russia is highly limited, especially after government adopted in 2019 a new amendment which provided Roskomnadzor, the country’s media oversight agency, and many other state bodies to prohibit and censor online content which they categorize as “fake news”. This law, together with many others which prohibits insulting state or religion, is often used to silent critical voices in the society with high financial penalties, shutting down media outlets and imprisonment. Aside of many other extralegal tools that are used against them such are verbal and physical violence, intimidation and harassment.
The moment one shifted responsibility for monitoring and approving/censoring online content from democratic institutions to tech companies, threat to the freedom of expression received a new dimension. Sovereign function of state institutions is transferred to companies with no public control and accountability. This situation is currently happening in many developed democracies, such as in Germany, which adopted NetzDG, a law which stipulates huge fines for companies who do not censorship “illegal content”. This is directly endangering freedom of expression as one of the most important freedoms. As western democracies often serve as a role model for other countries, if similar laws are adopted in the countries where system of checks and balances is only weakly imposed, the right of the citizens to express themselves could become hard to obtain.
Democracies are often caught in a trap, wherein their reaction causes more harm than the event itself. Same applies to fake news. Struggle against fake news could potentially cause more harm to freedom of expression and democratic order than fake news themselves.
FAKE NEWS CREATION AND DISSEMINATION
To understand fake news and how one could deal with them, it`s been necessary to know a motivation behind fake news` creation and dissemination. According to many research, most common reasons for development of false content and its widespread dissemination are:
- Political motivation – Development of fake news with intention to manipulate public opinion for benefiting political actors – government or political parties, and manipulate political and democratic processes in the society. Often providing negative content of political opponents or those critical of their activities;
- Social motivation – Development of fake news with intention to cause social polarization on a certain issue or to attract wider public attention to certain topic in a process primarily benefiting certain social groups and not necessarily political actors;
- Commercial motivation - Development of fake news with sensationalist stories/content to achieve as big as possible outreach and to generate as high as possible revenue/financial gain.
As we noted several times in the report, manipulation of public opinion isn’t anything new. These practices occurred for decades in our societies, with the same intentions behind. However, its 21st century version called fake news grabs much more attention due to threat it poses to democracy, owing to increased efficiency in dissemination. Key of its success could be boiled down to two terms – internet technologies and trust, both deeply entrenched in social media.
From the technological aspect, social media channels drastically lowered price of dissemination, increased speed and broadened reach. There is no reason for entering deeper into explanation of this part. However, another important aspect that social media brought is trust.
Being surrounded by online friends only and facing huge noise of content, made social media platforms a perfect channel for fake news` dissemination. First, people are finding themselves in a friendly environment – the one of trust. Thus, there is a higher probability that they are going to believe to the content shared by their friends, regardless of whether it is false or not. This is especially the case if the content shared confirms their already existing opinion or belief on a certain topic. Also, according to one Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom analysis “What can be done to tackle fake news”, people who doubt that given fake news item is true can be made to believe it through repeated exposure, for which social media, and especially Facebook, are suitable for. On top of that, many studies have shown that people are “scrolling” through social media content in the state of low awareness, making them prone to receive and accept certain information. Another perspective of trust is increased distrust among people. A huge noise produced around the very term fake news makes people skeptical about content they are reading and unsure whether the information is coming from trusted or untrusted sources. This is especially problematic in cases when they need to be informed prior to political or social decision they are going to make.
IMPACT ON ALL THREE PILLARS OF POLITICAL FREEDOM
Fake news impact political freedom in various ways, as could be seen from all stated above. Hence, it attracted attention of the Freedom Barometer, to have dedicated a special report to it. Political freedom in this index is separated to 3 pillars:
- Free and Fair Elections;
- Absence of Unconstitutional Veto Players;
- Press Freedom.
In the same way, impact of fake news can be separated to these pillars.
Main purpose of fake news is to systematically nourish the public with misinformation, in order to manipulate political processes. This manipulation is most often related to electoral processes in many countries. The term itself was coined amid intentions to manipulate public opinion ahead of US presidential elections in 2016. Therefore, fake news hinder citizens to make an informed decision based on true and objective information, depriving them of one of their basic rights – a right to information. Thereinafter, this phenomenon directly hinders freedom and fairness of electoral process.
Citizens in Turkey are heavily exposed to fake news content. According to Reuters institute, almost every second Turkish citizens was faced with made-up content, measured only in one week. Crackdown on democracy and freedom over the last couple of years in Turkey is followed with huge increase of social media manipulation ahead of electoral processes, referendum or to prevent / alleviate large number rallies against government. Fake news orchestrated campaigns are often directed to discredit political opponents, critical journalists and activists through blatant campaigns against them. Leading opposition politician Ekrem Imamoglu faced such campaign ahead of elections for the mayor of Istanbul, where he allegedly said in a video that he will bring a terrorist group to run the country.
2018 Presidential elections in Georgia saw similar developments, however this time coming from both sides – ruling and opposition one. Numerous Facebook pages appeared and noted high increase of activity directed at discrediting one or another leading political figure in the election campaign.
From the analysis provided by Freedom Barometer it could be concluded that most common unconstitutional veto players are domestic ones. Be it wealthy businessman, politicians without constitutional power, or actors like religion or security forces. Fake news` trend allowed foreign countries to undermine sovereignty of democratic institutions of one country by undermining democratic processes, either directly from abroad or indirectly through empowering domestic groups for such actions. This placed them on a list of potential unconstitutional veto players.
Ukraine public sphere is faced with intense pro-Kremlin misinformation campaigns aimed at promoting Russia interests among Russian speaking citizens in the country. These campaigns are mostly organized and placed from Russia through pro-government media outlets, sharing a content which is also often published in Ukrainian media and spread wide over social networks.
In democratic societies, media play a role of an oversight control mechanism over all three branches of power. However, with the increased presence of fake news, their power is decreasing, amid confusion regarding trustworthiness of the information. That has often led to distrust redirected toward more balanced media outlets. Also, another problem is in the commercial aspect. In order to compete with high number of false information that pops out, journalists are faced with pressure to produce more in less time, resulting in lowering of journalism standards.
Fake news impact also the other aspects of freedom, as measured by Freedom Barometer Index, such as rule of law and economic freedom. Most notably, falsified information is often used to cause social divisions and instability through manipulation with identity and minority issues, resulting in worsening of the human rights situation in those countries. In recent years, falsified information was spread so as to incite fear among European citizens from the impact which the increased influx of migrants could have on the future fabric and outlook of their societies. More about this could be found in country analyses of Freedom Barometer Index.
Author: Ivan Despotović, Analyst of political freedom in Europe
 Action Plan against Disinformation, Joint communication to the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, Brussels, 05.12.2018.
 The Global Disinformation Disorder, 2019 Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation, University of Oxford, 2019
 What can be done to tackle fake news?, Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, 2019