Spaniards firmly believe ‘fake news’ influences public opinion and harms democracy, leading people to take decisions, adopt opinions and cast votes in a certain way based upon what they have read and shared – 83% of those interviewed in the latest Eurobarometer survey say so, compared with 76% across the rest of Europe.
And 78% of Spaniards say they often come across ‘fake news’, although only just over half believe they would be able to tell straight away whether a post on social media or a headline was not true.
The European Union set up a ‘Myth-Busters’ group in 2015 to combat ‘fake news’, which is becoming more difficult in the digital age where a story or post can find its way to millions of computer screens worldwide in fractions of a second.
It has stepped up the game sharply ahead of the elections in May when it suspects outside influences will attempt to sway voters’ views in a given direction.
What is ‘fake news’?
‘Fake news’ does not refer to spoof stories on satirical reporting sites, which are purely for entertainment and written in a way that it is unlikely they would be believed; these pages are immensely popular because they force readers to look at the funny side of current affairs. Instead, it refers to deliberate campaigns aimed to create hatred – for example, myths about immigration and certain cultures or religions – to steer public opinion in a certain way ahead of a crucial vote and to tarnish reputations.
“Basically, it prevents citizens from taking free and informed decisions and contributes to the polarisation of society,” says Spanish MEP Jaume Duch (second picture), director-general for media communications in European Parliament.
He commented this week that 156,000 Twitter accounts set up in Russia made posts about Brexit in the run-up to the referendum on June 23, 2016, and some experts have connected a cyber-espionage group targeting France ahead of the May 2017 presidential elections to the Russian Intelligence.
Nothing new there
But we can’t blame the internet for the invention of ‘fakes’. The earliest-known example on record dates back to January 1835, when The New York Sun claimed a British astronomer had discovered life on the moon through a telescope, including unicorns and human birds. Not only was this widely believed, but other media propagated the story until the original authors were forced to admit it was a hoax.
Electoral campaigns: ‘fake news’ season
With Spain’s local, regional and national elections happening in April and May along with the European Parliamentary elections, expect plenty of myths to appear on social media. Prior to the US presidential elections in 2016, ‘fakes’ appeared almost daily – they included claims about thousands of forged ballot papers in a warehouse in Ohio voting for Hillary Clinton, about Pope Francisco supporting Donald Trump’s candidature, about Barack Obama’s having banned the swearing of allegiance to the US flag in schools, and about Trump offering free one-way flight tickets to México and African countries for migrants who were willing to leave the United States.
Naturally, before and after the disputed Catalunya independence referendum, ‘fake news’ across Europe was rife, with claims about clandestine funding at EU level, comparing it with the Crimea conflict, and defaming Spain with exaggerations about unemployment and a ‘migrant crisis’.
April Fool’s Day in the UK and El Día de Los Santos Inocentes (‘Holy Innocents’ Day’), or December 28, in Spain, used to be traditional ‘fake news days’ in the spirit of fun and light reading – few people living in the UK in the 1980s will forget France’s having invented yolkless eggs, or about spaghetti plants. Nowadays, though, with ‘fake news’ being a very real problem for democracy and public opinion, these traditions seem to have been dropped as they are currently considered to be in poor taste. Perhaps in future, this will reverse, and we’ll once again see headlines in English-language media in Spain on April 1 claiming Local Police will be inspecting British expats’ homes and fining them if they find jars of marmite instead of paella spices.
A few relatively harmless ‘fakes’ have slipped through the net, although not always on Innocents’ Day or April Fool’s. There was the photo of a US woman who underwent cosmetic surgery to have a third breast implanted, in September 2014, and another about a woman who defecated on her boss’ desk the day she won the lottery jackpot and was able to give up work. Both of these were shared literally millions of times on social media.
Some of the most memorable December 28 Inocentadas in the Spanish media include a young man admitted to a psychiatric hospital to treat his ‘obsession’ with the left-wing party Podemos; a psychedelic new football strip for FC Barcelona for the 2016-2017 season; bargain clothing chain Lefties’ having taken on Queen Letizia as its ambassador and face of the brand – which many believed, because of her being as much a fan of the high street as of top designers such as her favourite, Felipe Varela – the Dubai Challenge Cup being renamed ‘the Bernabéu Cup’ after Real Madrid’s stadium; a new type of chorizo sausage specifically designed for paella being marketed (in reference to British chef Jamie Oliver’s culinary no-no – example shown in third picture – which earned him a flood of outrage from Valencians on Twitter), and plenty more about sports: Barça’s Gerard Piqué planning to retire in 2020 to become club chairman in 2021, and intending to rename the stadium ‘Waka Waka Camp Nou’ after his singer wife Shakira’s World Cup song and to make Barça branch out into tennis and poker.
With Madrid’s highly-publicised measures to battle air pollution by restricting traffic in the centre, it was inevitable that an Inocentada would be published claiming the city planned to ban smoking in the open air and that the council was offering 100% grants to buy electric skateboards; whilst at the other extreme on the traffic front, press readers were momentarily taken in by reports that the Guardia Civil intended to buy a fleet of 650CV cars capable of travelling up to 350 kilometres per hour (218mph).
The difference between ‘fake news’ and Inocentadas, however, is that the latter are usually too silly to believe and, even if they are, the same publication will confess the next day and tease readers who have ‘been had’.
‘Fake news’ about the European Union
Despite its having been exposed as a tabloid hoax almost immediately afterwards, many Britons still believe the European Union will not allow straight bananas or curved cucumbers to be sold, and many more continue to believe the EU wanted to force livestock farmers to put cows in nappies to reduce their atmospheric methane gas output.
Other recent ‘fakes’ focusing on the European Union included a story starting in Bulgaria about how the bloc intended to ban snowmen because they were ‘racist’, another reaching Sweden which claimed the EU planned to ban Christmas lights in public so as not to ‘offend’ Muslims, whilst others included that the 28-nation committee wanted to prohibit certain national cakes and pastries and to regulate the amount of coffee per day a European citizen was allowed to drink.
Particularly harmful examples include a report in The Sun in December 2015 in which a journalist claimed he travelled to Syria pretending to be a refugee and then made it from eastern Turkey to Paris in six days without facing any border checks; another claim started in Romania about how the EU was a ‘gay dictatorship’ and wanted to ban religion.
The EU Myth-Busters team has exposed a string of what it calls ‘disgracefully untrue’ claims in tabloid media, including its alleged plan to ban yoghurt and cheese from school lunches, to criminalise gardeners with Rhododendrons, to ban the word ‘bankrupt’, to ban British car registration plates, to force a set quota of Roma gypsy MPs on the UK, the intention to create an ‘EU super-State’, and – one of the most frequently cited in recent years – that an EU Army is to be set up at the British taxpayer’s cost.
According to European Parliament, MEPs voted on a non-binding resolution on the ‘defence’ part of the bloc’s Common Security and Defence Policy, which had been agreed years earlier by all 28 countries, including Britain, and which stated that NATO must ‘continue to be the backbone of collective defence in Europe’ and that ‘any defence union must be agreed by all EU countries’ – or rather, instead of a continent-wide Armed Forces, the bloc was seeking to set up a framework for any future resource-pooling needs that may be necessary, and which would have to involve the unanimous agreement of all national leaders.
Media literacy: “You couldn’t spread fake news about football, for example,”
Jaume Duch recalls that ‘fakes’ have always been part of European history, but that deliberately-misleading information has ‘become more sophisticated and dangerous’ in recent years as its outlets now include private messages on social media.
“The reason fake news is successful is that the population is not sufficiently informed to be able to differentiate what is real and what isn’t – and that’s something which doesn’t happen in other areas,” Duch explains.
“For example, it would be very difficult to spread deliberate misinformation about football, because millions of people in the EU know too much about it.”
In some countries – in Europe and worldwide – ‘media literacy’ has become part of mainstream teaching in schools: how pupils can apply critical-thinking skills to what they read, understanding where the media seeks to influence, and where it is the readership which influences content, as well as how to fact-check and not to form opinions without clear scientific or statistical information.
Over-65s more likely to believe and share fake news, research shows
But although starting at a young age will help reduce the impact of ‘fake news’ in a generation or two, at the moment it is not so much children or teenagers who are at risk of being affected – as Spanish researcher Pablo Barberá of the London School of Economics found in his investigation into deliberate misinformation shared on Twitter during the last US presidential elections, readers aged over 65 were five times more likely than the under-25s to retweet ‘fakes’ – a trend he also found among those of more conservative rather than liberal or left-wing ideologies.
Andrew Guess of Princeton University found the over-65s to be seven times more likely to share ‘fake news’, and 2.3 times more likely to do so than those in the 45-65 age group.
Researcher Ana Sofía Cardenal of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (‘Catalunya Open University’, or UOC) carried out similar analyses focusing entirely on Spanish surfers but found there were not enough over-65s using social media to be able to conduct a meaningful study.
What she did find was a positive correlation between age and ‘selective exposure’, or that those of post-retirement age who did have a Facebook site showed similar content and were more inclined to share hoax stories in favour of a given political party or in detriment to another.
Why this occurs is not clear, although a Pew Research study showing a series of objective statements and another series of subjective opinions found that only 21% of the over-65s correctly identified which were ‘facts’ and which were personal views, compared with 46% of adults under 30.
Cardenal, Guess and Barberá all concluded that the results of their different studies were crucial in designing methods of reducing the diffusion of false news, by targeting the ‘baby-boomer’ generation.