Facebook has taken down dozens of pages spreading fake news about migrants and immigration. The move came after the online activist group Avaaz discovered virtual networks of disinformation operating across Europe.
Ahead of the EU elections, the US-based Avaaz online activist group monitored far-right disinformation networks for three months. They published their findings on Wednesday.
Avaaz discovered around 500 suspicious pages and groups while researching far-right propaganda in Germany, France, the UK, Spain, Poland, and Italy. Facebook has thus far removed 77 of them. The removed pages alone had 5.9 million followers.
The EU is "drowning in disinformation," Avaaz campaigner Christopher Schott told broadcaster DW. "What we've seen is a vast usage of fake accounts and a vast usage of misleading tactics." He added that "disinformation tactics are being used to pretend that a specific issue which is often very hateful or very racist or anti-migrant is more popular than it actually is."
Disinformation and hate speech
As one example of far-right propaganda, Avaaz points to an Italian page supporting Matteo Salvini's League party. The page published a video which allegedly shows migrants smashing a police car. The video is actually a movie scene, and the report has been debunked several times, but it is still "widely shared," Avaaz says in the report. Similarly, a page in Polish used a screenshot from a movie to support a fake news story about migrant taxi drivers raping women.
Right-wing politicians were among those who spread disinformation. Avaaz points to German AfD politician Peter Schmalenbach, who shared a fake quote on migration attributed to EU Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans. The AfD official accused Timmermans of wanting to "wipe out" European states.
The activists also found posts in German that defended Holocaust denier Ursula Haverbeck and that showed images with swastikas on them. (In Germany, denying the holocaust and sharing pictures of a swastika is illegal.)
Tactics to spread their message
In France, Avaaz identified multiple pages uploading identical content to boost the visibility of their messages. The pages did not use Facebook's "share" function but instead posted the content as original on every page. Avaaz points to three identical posts, which speak of France being "invaded by millions of foreigners" who "rape our children, your women, and declare war on us."
Another tactic used by far-right pages is to start a group under an inconspicuous title and to then gradually change the name to fit a far-right message. This way, they can serve up far-right and nationalist content to users who might otherwise not follow a far-right page. An example from Spain is the page "watchmoviesforfree.es" - its title was changed to "Watch Movies", then to "Movies of Spain", and then to "Fight for Spain." An Italian page that started as a platform for farmers in northern Sicily and ended up as a page supporting the far-right League party.
Avaaz wants corrections from Facebook
In addition to removing 77 pages, Facebook has also taken down 230 individual accounts since being contacted by Avaaz. The activists said this was an "unprecedented" cleanup of the platform, but said it was "nowhere near enough."
"They've done an emergency operation but social media is so sick that that's not enough," Schott said. "You have to do a full-body scan, do the work themselves and not have a few wonderful 'elves' do that work for you. And that's what we call on Facebook to do."
‘If you see something, report it!’
Avaaz says that users themselves also have to be vigilant. If you see a Facebook post with particularly alarming content, you should check other sources of information including reliable news sites.
If you think you have found something that is untrue, you can report it to Facebook by clicking on the three small dots at the top right of the page. Facebook says it guarantees the anonymity of all users who report false or abusive content.
You can also report content to Avaaz by following this link. This applies to all social media, including Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp. "Internet users must be vigilant on all platforms, " Avaaz spokesperson Julie Deruy told InfoMigrants. "Our survey focused only on Facebook, in only six countries and in the last three months. Suffice to say that this is only the tip of the iceberg."