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Wired - May 22, 2019

In Italy, the perpetrators spread a movie clip of a car being destroyed and pretended it was news footage of migrants wrecking a police vehicle. In Poland, they disseminated a fake news story about migrant taxi drivers raping European women. In Spain, they shared lies about Catalan separatists shutting down a child cancer center. In the UK, they shared a blog post with a beheading photo and a sensationalist headline, claiming "A Billion Muslims Want Sharia Law."

These are just a few examples of the ugly far-right propaganda and disinformation that has flooded Facebook ahead of parliamentary elections in the European Union this week. According to a new report by online activist group Avaaz, networks of fake accounts, pages, and groups have been spreading divisive, white-nationalist, anti-immigrant content throughout Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Poland, and Spain. In some cases, they posed as politicians themselves. In others, they created fan pages for political parties or alternative media organizations. Together, they amassed followings several times larger than the actual far-right groups operating within these countries.

As part of its investigation, Avaaz's global network of volunteers reported more than 500 "suspicious" pages and groups to Facebook. The company has since taken action against 77 of them, the report states, and has removed more than 200 accounts. Avaaz says those pages had nearly 6 million followers among them, three times as many followers as the actual far-right groups in those countries combined. The content they spread was viewed 533 million times over the past three months, according to the report. Just who exactly is behind these operations remains a mystery.

Facebook confirmed that it had taken some accounts and pages down, but did not provide specific numbers. “We thank Avaaz for sharing their research for us to investigate. As we have said, we are focused on protecting the integrity of elections across the European Union and around the world," a Facebook spokesperson said. "We have removed a number of fake and duplicate accounts that were violating our authenticity policies, as well as multiple pages for name change and other violations. We also took action against pages that repeatedly posted misinformation. We will take further action if we find additional violations."

The report underscores a persistent dilemma for Facebook. The company has gotten better at recognizing and removing election interference operations on its platform after coming under fire for how Russian operatives were able to target American voters during the 2016 presidential campaign. But despite efforts to protect elections in the EU and around the world from further interference, Facebook still hasn't found a way to keep all this toxic and manipulative content from spreading in the first place. Of course, it's not alone among social media companies. But Facebook's unparalleled size makes it a particularly powerful tool.

"With days to go until EU elections, Europe is drowning in disinformation. The size and sophistication of these networks makes them weapons of mass destruction for democracy, and right now they are pointed squarely at Europe," Christoph Schott, campaign director at Avaaz, said in a statement. "The most worrying thing is we’ve just scratched the surface. There could be much, much more out there."

Avaaz has been on a mission recently to get tech companies to take a more aggressive stance against disinformation. Earlier this month, the organization led a group of so-called fake news victims to Silicon Valley to meet with Facebook and Twitter. This report is part of that work. Over the course of a three-month investigation, Avaaz researchers and volunteers around the globe reviewed thousands of pieces of suspected disinformation, hate speech, and fake news, much of it submitted by the public through a crowdsourcing site that Avaaz created. They looked for signs that the pages, groups, and accounts connected to this content might be violating Facebook's policies around authenticity, violence, or hate speech, and shared their findings with Facebook. Facebook took action against some, but not all, of the accounts, pages, and groups Avaaz identified. ...
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