As election looms, Spaniards are hit by WhatsApp disinformation campaign

Spanish Prime Minister and candidate for reelection, Pedro Sanchez (C), gives a speech during an act as part of his electoral campaign in Santander, northern Spain, 19 April 2019. [EPA-EFE/Pedro Puente]

Spanish citizens have been subject to a series of disinformation campaigns ranging from fake news about Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez signing a Catalan independence deal, to conspiracies about migrants and propaganda against gay people, a new study has found.

The news comes as citizens in the country head to the polls on Sunday, as part of the Spanish general elections.

The report, conducted by the human rights group Avaaz, shows that around 9.6 million potential voters in Spain have been receiving WhatsApp messages deemed to be peddling fake news.

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Some of the stories disseminated over the instant messaging service, which is owned by Facebook, featured claims that Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s grandfather fought alongside Franco in the Spanish civil war and that Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena planned to set up open “sex zones” for gay people around the city.

As to the potential source of such scare stories, Avaaz Campaign Director Christoph Schott told EURACTIV that it was “impossible to tell,” but that there are clear thematic trends in the types of stories that kept cropping up during the research.

For example, 43% of the disinformation identified in the study was deemed to be an ‘Anti-Left/Anti-Sanchez’ sentiment, 14% Anti-immigration, and 10% Anti-LGBT/Anti-Feminist.

The study was conducted by using a combination of crowdsourced submissions from Avaaz members, data processing tools like Twilio and fact-checks by Spanish media.

Schott said that Spanish Avaaz members were asked to forward on examples of fake news they had received into a centralised WhatsApp group managed by Avaaz, in order to collect the content to be analysed.

“We found that participants in the survey had been sent disinformation messages completely out of the blue, or, perhaps more worryingly, they fake news had spread organically, by being shared amongst WhatsApp groups or forwarded onto from one WhatsApp user to another,” he said.

When pressed as to whether the decision to survey content only received from Avaaz members may have skewed the results somewhat, Schott cited Avaaz’s broad church of members from the “entire political spectrum” as a reason why the study could be regarded as well-balanced and proportionate. An Avaaz spokesperson also added that the poll was designed to be representative of different opinions across Spain.

EU raps Facebook, Twitter and Google for inaction on fake news

Online platforms are failing to make sufficient progress in the fight against disinformation, the European Commission warned on Thursday (28 December). As the European elections draw closer, the EU cybersecurity agency ENISA has called for national legislation in the fight against fake news.

Recent polls have suggested that as many as 30-40% of voters in Spain are still undecided as to who to vote for in an election that is set to pave the way for a multi-party parliamentary composition. It will be the third time in four years that Spaniards have cast their ballots in a national vote.

Schott struck a cautious vote in light of these figures. “With so many voters still undecided, the last thing they may see before they head to the polls may be a completely fabricated story,” he said. “These stories may tip the balance.”

While Sanchez’s ruling Socialists are expected to win the largest share of the vote, they will not receive enough support to govern alone. Polls say their seats in the chamber could increase by around 50, still short of the 176 seats required to form a government.

As a result, PSOE will be required to form an alliance, most likely with the leftist Podemos party and one of the Catalan separatist parties.

On the other side of the spectrum, however, there has been speculation that a right-wing grouping could be formed by PP, Ciudadanos and the far-right Vox party.

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WhatsApp has often escaped more intense scrutiny as part of the wider disinformation debate, while other platforms have taken the brunt of the blame for the dissemination of fake news.

Schott said he would like to see the company implement measures to allow users to more easily flag fake news content to fact-checkers as well as issue disinformation warnings to users.

At the time of reporting, WhatsApp hasn’t responded to EURACTIV’s request for comment.

Earlier this week, WhatsApp’s parent company, Facebook, announced that it had taken action against fake and duplicate accounts, in removing three Spanish far-right networks that had been managing 17 different pages.

The pages had been deemed to be peddling anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT and anti-Islam content. Before the takedown, the pages had accrued more than 1.4 million followers.

Across the continent more generally, the European Commission has been keen to tackle the risks emanating from fake news, in the run-up to the May European elections.

Towards the end of 2018, alongside a number of signatories including Facebook, Twitter and Google, the Commission launched the code of practice against disinformation, a voluntary framework that aims to quell the spread of fake news online.

The first issues of the compliance reports, published earlier in the year, heavily criticised the lack of effort made by the platforms, which Security Commissioner Julian King described in January as “patchy, opaque and self-selecting.”

However, more recently, the signatories have upped their game in compliance with the measures.

“We appreciate the efforts made by Facebook, Google and Twitter to increase transparency ahead of the European elections.” a joint statement from Commissioners Ansip, Jourova, King and Gabriel read on Tuesday (23 April).

“In particular, we welcome Google increasing cooperation with fact-checking organisations and networks.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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