As France and Germany Gear Up for Elections, the Fight Against Fake News Begins
Russian President Vladimir Putin was speaking on the closing panel of the fourth Arctic Forum in the Russian city of Arkhangelsk on Thursday when he was asked a question unrelated to the challenges facing the region. Beginning to smile, the panel’s moderator, CNBC’s Geoff Cutmore, asked: “I just want to be very clear about this, you and the Russian government did never try to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, and there will be no evidence found?”
To laughter and applause from the audience, Putin replied: “Read my lips—no! ” He uttered the last word in English, pointing at his mouth for emphasis and bulging his eyes at Cutmore. Then, evidently satisfied with his answer, he leaned back slightly as the panel moved on.
In the German city of Essen, David Schraven wasn’t laughing. The founder of Correctiv, Germany’s first non-profit investigative newsroom, was deeply concerned about Russian interference ahead of Germany’s federal elections on September 24. In that election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, praised by many in Europe as the last hopes for Western liberalism, will run for a fourth term as leader.
He may have reason to be. On Wednesday, Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the American Senate Intelligence Committee warned that Russia was likely acting to disrupt the upcoming elections in France—set for April 23 and May 7—and Germany. “What was a very covert effort [to interfere] in 2016 in the U.S., is a very overt effort, as well as covert, in Germany and France,” Burr said during a press conference. (Russia has repeatedly denied all allegations of election interference.)
Tech firms and news organizations in both France and Germany seem to agree with Burr. They are determined that both countries’ elections will not be shaped by the same forces that influenced the U.S. presidential elections. During an unusually bitter campaign, fake news flooded social media channels and websites, with Facebook and Google coming under heavy criticism for not doing more to combat it. Among the more lurid stories was a report saying that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for president and that police had found an FBI agent linked to Hillary Clinton’s email leaks dead in an apparent murder-suicide.
The number of fake news stories in Germany has already increased though the country’s elections are still six months away. Schaven and his team suspect that Russia may be behind some of the fake news clogging up social media sites ahead of the German elections. Far-right groups and other extremist actors, he says, are likely behind the rest. Fortunately, Correctiv has a plan to combat this.
In the week beginning April 3, in partnership with Facebook, it will roll out a tool that allows German Facebook users to flag a story that they believe to be false. Correctiv’s team will then check the story and if it’s inaccurate, the article—thanks to Facebook’s news algorithm—will appear lower down on users’ news feeds. Facebook will also mark the story as “disputed,” and include an explanation about what’s wrong with the article. Facebook account holders will then receive a warning if they try to share the piece.