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#LaRéplique: Countering populist narratives on social media by fighting fake news and hate speech: how to turn “vicious circles” into “virtuous bubbles”

Populism on social media: four words that in the current context tend to shake the Brussels bubble to its core. While some directly think about the free space social media provide for and the countless possibilities they offer, others get anxious thinking about ways to regulate these spaces considering the role they play in the spread of populist narratives. The Establishment is slowly realising how far behind they are in terms of mastering the “social media tool”. This explains the –sometimes accurate sometimes misguided- vendetta the European Union has been leading over the last years against issues as broad as hate speech, fake news or populist parties on social media.

According to the Reuters Institute, 46% of European citizens used social media as a primary source of information in 2016. This number is even higher when it comes to the youth, and is only growing. This new deal makes what we see on social media and what we don’t matter: there is a correlation between or beliefs, our perceptions, and where we get our information from.

The so-called “populist“ parties and their leaders have more followers on social media than mainstream parties. For instance, the Front National as almost half a million likes on their facebook page and Marine Le Pen has almost 1.6 million. This might be explained by the theatrical aspect of their publications: it is no scoop that scandalous publications have more success on social media. And this popularity pays off : what if I told you populist narratives on social media greatly influenced the Brexit outcome?  In a long article written for The Spectator in January 2017, Dominic Cummings, the campaign director of the Vote Leave campaign, revealed that 98% of their budget was dedicated to digital communication. An example of this investment: the Vote Leave campaigners gave £3.5 million to Aggregate IQ (AIQ), a technology consultancy company, specialised in high-targeted Facebook advertising. Although it is barely impossible to prove for obvious methodological reasons, the Vote Leave campaigners give their communication strategy on social media credit for the vote outcome.

In Brussels, the institutions and a part of the civil society have realised the situation and the impact it could have in the future: many fear these narratives on social media contribute to the development of a post-truth hateful European society that rejects the so-called mainstream political parties and institutions. Some member states have called for a European response to the problem. In April 2017, the European Parliament held a debate on “Hate speech, populism and fake news on social media “. If the European Union is right in dealing with all these issues, some clarifications about what exactly we’re dealing with here are needed to avoid any jumble together.

Populism, hate speech and fake news: interconnected problems?

Social media, as any other sources of information, can shape the way we think: the content we see on them influences how we conceive the norm, and how we build our truths. Populism on social media is in that sense an issue, as populist narratives are omnipresent in that space. But populist narratives, like in the non-digital world, can come from various different actors and take many forms, from a tweet to a meme. Populism on social media can’t be reduced to simply being within each and every hate speech, fake information or renowned populist parties’ publication. Just like fake news and hate speech aren’t always populist publications.

However, it is true that hate speech and fake news are often tightly connected to populist narratives, or to a greater extent to demagogic discourses: fake news tends to strengthen the anti-elite narrative and often denounce the corruption and inefficacy of the ones in power, while hate speech reinforces the categorisation of certain groups of the society as threats to the “worthy” citizens.

Fighting these populist narratives in the digital world is not only about countering renowned populist parties in the digital space, it’s about trying to restrain the construction of mislead perceptions. At the European level, in the war against populist narratives, the fights against fake news and hate speech are decisive battles. These fights can’t however happen on the same battlefield: fake news and hate speech being different issues, they need to be answered with different-although similar- solutions.

On the dangers of crying wolf with post-truth and of falsely defining hate speech

From Donald Trump to Emmanuel Macron, many are those who call on “fake news” the second they doubt the information they glanced at. Misusing and overusing the terms “fake news”, and these phrases will end up loosing all their sense. Before dealing with the problem of fake news on social media, it is essential to properly define what we mean by “fake news”. The terms “fakes news” are often confused with notions such as misinformation or propaganda. “Fake news” are also different from “false news”: the word “fake” implies that the information was marketed, designed to look true, while “false” implies that it results from a mistake, voluntary or not. According to the Australian Macquarie Dictionary, which chose “fake news” as the “word of the year” 2016, “fake news” means “disinformation and hoaxes published on websites for political purposes or to drive web traffic, the incorrect information being passed along on social media”. Fake news is a disseminated false information, written deliberately in the intention of influencing the opinions of those who receive it.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, hate speech is an “abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation. “. If this definition seems correct, it raises legal challenges, as it doesn’t cover for many nuances. There are many types of hate speeches on social media: some of these are the expression of serious thoughts, some others just the expression of an ephemeral feeling, some are ironic-humoristic comments, while some are just randomly written comments that aim at representing nothing but the absurdity vision trolls wish to spread on the web. Some attack the European Union, when some others target anti-Europeans. Sellars (2016) even argued that legally defining hate speech is near-to impossible: this definition has to be broad enough to protect the victims of these hate speech, yet narrow enough to protect free speech. Knowing the definition of hate speech used by the European Union is the first step towards understanding the approach it has regarding the issue. According to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers’ Recommendation 97(20), “the term “hate speech” shall be understood as covering all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including: intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin.” More recently, the Council Framework Decision 2008/913/JHA of 28 November 2008 on combating certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law, cited in the European Comission code of conduct on countering illegal hate speech online of 2016, defines hate speech as « means all conduct publicly inciting to violence or hatred directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin. ».

Fake news and hate speech: fake issues?

“There is 20 million unemployed people in Europe. There is Islamist terrorism. There is immigration that has gone out of control. And what are you doing here in the European Parliament? You’re talking about hoaxes on Facebook. Fake news. For God sake, you all need to be taken to the doctor, all of you. “. It’s in these terms that Matteo Salvini, dedicated member of the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) political group, expressed himself in the European Parliament during a debate on “Hate speech, populism and fake news on social media “.  And he is not only one holding this opinion: many believe fake news and hate speech are fake issues, useless debates.

While these suspicious voices rise, countless examples of the negative impact fake news can have in the society can be given. A few days ago, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem accused the reporter Vanessa Burggraf of relaying some fake information: the reporter implied that the former French minister of education had led a reform on the French spelling system. Mrs Vallaud-Bellkacem immediately called on “fake news”, claiming that her ministry never led such a reform. This last assertion is true: the reform of the French spelling system was decided almost one decade ago, based on a report itself form 1990. It’s not the first time Mrs Vallaud-Belkacem is the victim of the fake news trolls: she was successively accused of being actually called “Claudine Dupont”, of making the learning of Arabic mandatory at school, and of having grown up as a shepherd girl in Morocco. Some other fake news had even more appalling effects. In a recent Ted Talk, Stephanie Busari talked about the impact fake news had in Nigeria in 2014. On April 14, Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls: these tragic events led to the creation of the popular #BringBackOurGirls hashtag. Some officials contested the reliability of this information, calling it fake, thus considerably delaying the implementation of the efforts to save these girls. All these examples are proven facts, not opinions or rumours, as evidenced by primary sources of information such as the “Bulletin Officiel” no3 of 2008 of the French Ministry or the testimonies of the mothers of these abducted Nigerian girls. Considering the impact some “fake news” have had in the society in the last few years, it’s getting harder and harder to believe the issue is not important enough to be dealt with.

Hate speech has also been accused of being a fake issue: many saw the fight political entities are leading against hate speech as a fight against what is not politically correct. Some others also argued that this vendetta only serves the interests of the Establishment, accusing this fight to be too often directed towards the discourses the so-called mainstream media and parties disagree with. Finally, it was pointed out that this fight might be useless, as the feeling of hatred is a human attribute, a natural instinctive emotion, that no authority has the legitimacy to control.

If some of these arguments are to a small extent accurate, they don’t disprove hate speech itself as a problem: they’re more of a denunciation of the illegitimacy and inefficiency of the policies lead so far. Hate speech is an issue for one first obvious reason: even in the virtual world, hate speech has a real impact in the non-digital world, as it has the power to hurt the feelings of the individuals and/or groups targeted. Multiple example of these real-life consequences can be found: a quick look at the statistics linking suicides to cyber-bullying is enough to understand the repercussions these speeches can have. And these direct consequences aren’t the only issue at stake when it comes to hate speech: just like fake news contribute to building false truths, hate speech contributes to reproducing stereotypes and feed the narrative that blames minorities for the majority’s issues.

Beyond appellations such as “fake news” or “hate speech”, we’re reaching a far deeper problem: the problem of the construction of a wrong knowledge, of false truth(s), and the perpetuation of misbeliefs. This problem is nothing new. Plato in his famous Allegory of the Cave already warned about the risks of mislead perceptions: the prisoners chained to the cave wall take for true reality nothing other than the shadows. The cave prisoners are incapable of distinguishing facts from fictions, partly because of external manipulations. This problem is a philosophical –more precisely an epistemological-one that societies have always had to deal with. What’s new here is the apparition of social media as new sources of information and the ability everyone has on these new platforms to become journalists and news propagators. The European Union’s task is in this context extremely complicated:  how can a political entity control the content posted on social media while preserving the freedom of speech right? Is this fight even technically possible?

Controlling posts on the Internet: on the risks of creating an Orwellian “Ministry of Truth and Love”.

Imagine you’re using Facebook. You end up on the page of an NGO that helps migrants integrate themselves in the society. Now try to picture the comments below each publication on this page. As you probably correctly imagined, many of these comments are hateful ones. Some posted by false accounts, by people with no names, no pictures. Imagine deleting all these posts, or suing each of these individuals. It appears quite obvious that this legal fight will take years, if it ever comes to an end. Now imagine deleting every post that could qualify as “hate speech” or “fake news”, and suing everyone that has ever posted one of these publications. It would be technically impossible. The Internet has the reputation of being a space impossible to regulate. And this reputation is well deserved: the internet lacks of centralised control, the world wide nature of the posts makes it complicated to legally intervene, and the frequent anonymity/pseudonymity of the users makes it very complicated to identify who posted what. This problem is not only present on social media:  regulating hate speech and fake news in “real” public spaces is also extremely complicated as well, if not impossible.

Plus, beyond these technical aspects, controlling and censoring what is posted on social media goes against free speech.

When it comes to fake news, who can judge when an information is fake and when it is accurate? Many have warned about the risk of creating a “ministry of truth”: no one wants the institutions in power to control what news the public receives and which one don’t pass the test.  It is well known, and well understood, that a government with such power over the media can’t be called “democratic” anymore. Luckily, it seems like the European Union doesn’t whish to turn social media into the new books of Fahrenheit 451. During the debate on “Hate speech, populism and fake news on social media “, every party has expressed their reluctance to set up anything that would resemble even by far to a European system of censorship.

Another solution, that has long been advocated for by the European Union, is to encourage to social media giants to take their responsibilities and boost their efforts to tackle the problem. This is for instance what Andrus Ansip, European Commission vice-president in charge of the digital single market and of the digital economy and society, advocated for in a declaration in January 2017. Some digital tech leaders such as Facebook or Google adopted some measures to address the issue: for example, since March 2017, it is now possible to mark with a “flag” alleged “fake news” on Facebook. If this strategy could be efficient, as many MEPs underlined in the European Parliament, social media owners aren’t more legitimate to regulate these posts, and the users seeing their posts being deleted are likely to call on “censorship” and get even more attention.

The same problem can be evidenced when it comes to hate speech on social media: who has the legitimacy of differentiating a hateful discourse from humour for example? A ministry able to censor any content it identifies as “hateful” can’t be called democratic anymore, but rather tends to turn into an Orwellian “ministry of love”. After analysing the laws of several countries in the world, Sara Colvier finds out that hate speech laws have either been abusively used, or not used at all. She concludes that « the possible benefits to be gained by laws simply do not seem to be justified by their high potential for abuse ». Once again, the European Union has acknowledged these facts and so far has focused its actions on getting the IT companies of its side. In 2016, the European Union released a code of conduct on illegal online hate speech. This code encourages IT companies to combat the spread of illegal hate speech in Europe through a series of measures. The same critic made towards the strategy adopted here by the European Union can be made here: social media owners are no more legitimate than the EU to censor posts.

It is not the first time a political authority is facing the “free speech” dilemma: finding the balance between protecting potential victims of hate speech and fake news while trying not to censor abusively is a very complicate task. Yes, fake news and especially hate discourses shouldn’t be tolerated in any form of public space, whether it is social media or not. But at the same time laws restraining what people can say, whether it is on social media or elsewhere, have always failed: they’re not only technically inapplicable, they can turn into censorship devices. So far the European Union has understood these risks, and pushes IT companies to take measures against fake news and hate speech posts instead of intervening directly. The European Union should keep on focusing on strategies other than censorship to fight hate speech and fake news on social media.

The relevance of prevention: raising awareness to avoid the perpetuation of mislead practices

So where does the European Union go from here? If fake news or hate speeches can’t be forbidden, how can the European Union effectively fight them? The only area the European Union can directly intervene in is the information, prevention and education field.

When it comes to fake news, the European Union should provide for fact-checking websites, and most importantly teach its citizens the importance of checking the sources of an information before sharing and spreading. According Forbes, six out of ten articles shared are passed on without being read first. The European Union has already started to adopt policies consistent with this strategy: a website called “Les Décodeurs de l’Europe”, that aims at fighting fake news and fake rumours, was launched in 2016; the East StratCom task force of the EEAS has been sending weekly newsletter collecting disinformation stories since 2015 in order to tackle the Russian disinformation campaign; and the European Union regularly publishes illustrative diagrams on social media to warn about the dangers of spreading a non-verified news.

The European Union has also lead some prevention campaigns to dissuade social media users from employing hate speeches lightly. For example, between 2012 and 2014, the youth department of the European Council lead a “campaign against hate online”. Another example of this strategy: on the 7th of April 2017, the Maltese presidency of the EU Council, in partnership with the European Commission, held a conference in La Valletta to discuss how to effectively deliver positive narratives to counter hate speech online.

The most efficient fighters against hateful and fake narratives on social media are individuals. The EU has some leverage to make these individuals aware of their responsibilities. However, for those already convinced by populist narratives picturing the mainstream media and parties as liars, these strategies seem inefficient if not counter-productive.

“Don’t feed the trolls”: on the difficulty to fight erroneous and hateful narratives without reinforcing vicious circles

Despite all these measures, fake news and hate speeches are still spreading like wild fire on social media. How can this be explained?

Fake news is not an issue that can simply be tackled by more prevention and more control. Individuals frequently relaying and reading fake news are, like every one else, in so-called social media bubbles. Each individual is stuck in a bubble, where he gets all his news from and where nearly no other source of information enters. Our social circles usually like and follow the same contents we do. If they don’t though, algorithms such as the ones used by Facebook and Twitter will make sure that what we mostly see on our social media feed are news similar to the ones we read. The more we like and share some news, the more similar news will be suggested to us. These bubbles are the modern versions of the caves Plato once described in his allegory. And just like the prisoners of the cave, the longer individuals stay in their bubbles, the more convinced they will be about their truth, thus doubting every other fact presented to them. And the fact that fake news describes entities such as the European Union as providers of fake news themselves doesn’t help. Here we have our paradox: how can the European Union warn individuals about fake news when a part of the population perceives it as a provider of fake news itself? How can giant tech such fight “fake news” when they’re perceived by “fake news” believers as corrupted themselves? The strategy led by the European Union to prevent and inform the citizens only works before the bubble feeds itself from these policies, before the prisoners gets stuck far too deep in their caves.

Trying to break these bubbles isn’t a solution for those already stuck in it. Suddenly blinding the prisoners with dazzling light might scare them deeper into their caves. However, trying to “reunite” some bubbles together could be solution. The problem here mostly lies in algorithms, that reproduce the real-life social phenomenon of offering us only what we want to see and what we believe in. It also lies into the common demonization of someone else’s bubble. Changing the algorithms, if possible, could allow bubbles to connect with each other, thus opening up not only the minds of the ones under the spell of populist narratives, but also our owns: only by interacting with each other we can understand the other side’ narrative and thus better counter it. Only if the EU finds a way to widen everyone’s horizons can vicious circles turn into prosperous social media bubbles.

Fighting hate speech at the EU level can also lead to a reinforcement of a vicious circle. In an article published in March 2017, the journalist Catherine Zheng argues that using trials to limit hate speech « provides populist politicians with a platform to air their grievances, but also validates a pernicious narrative—that far-right politicians and parties are victims of political elites who seek to silence them ». She gives the example of two trials of politicians often accused of being populists: Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilder. Both managed to present these trials as attempts to silence the truth. In terms of prevention policies, trolls feed on campaigns such as the ones lead by the EU so far. Anyone who has ever tried to argue with a “hater” or a “troll” online knows that bringing them to see reason is near to impossible. Prevention campaigns are essential in order to prevent the creation of some new “haters”, but are usually inefficient to change the minds already made.

The European Union is thus stuck in a vicious circle. Ignore fake news and hate speech, and they’re free to spread themselves and influence left, right and centre without any restrictions. Confront them through censorship or prevention measures, and they might feed on these policies. This paradox is inherent to democracy itself: freedom of speech can lead to creating debates of opinions rather than truths.

Treating the disease rather than the symptoms: the importance of taking into consideration the roots of the “populism on social media” problem.  

Populism on social media can’t be erased or fought through any direct policy. However, hate speech and fake news, even if not always populist publications, often use an anti-elite rhetoric, and tackling these issues is a first step towards diminishing the impact populist narratives have on social media.

But fighting fake news and hate speech is no easy task: beyond the technical difficulties of identifying and punishing each and every populist publication, censoring these publications endangers free speech and might even feed the problems fought against. Prevention and education measures are the main options the European Union has, and these policies might be efficient in order to avoid the reproduction of misguided practices. However, the European Union has a limited impact, as the campaigns they’re leading mostly preach to the converted.

So what can the European Union do to avoid these backlash effects? More research on these backlash effects are needed in order to evaluate to what extent policies such as the ones lead by the European Union can effectively counter hate speech and fake news on social media. Despite their arguably limited impact, prevention measures shouldn’t be given up on, as they can prevent more fake news to be shared and more hate speech to appear. Changing the algorithms creating the social media bubbles could also be a solution.

But most importantly, the European Union should take into account the reasons why populist narratives, hate speech and fake news are so popular on social media. As no disease is ever cured by only treating the symptoms, the European Union could also address the roots of the fake news and hate speech problems, too often ignored. These issues evidence a lack of trust from the civil society in the traditional political system. This trust can’t be rebuilt on censorship, but rather through more democracy and more transparency. Kostadinka Kuneva, European MEP for the European United Left party, wisely reminded the European Parliament that fake news, for example, were more likely to spread were transparency was more opaque: “The answer we should give can only be one: everything should come to light”.

Camille Guey


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Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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