Campaign group takes down largest ever network of fake news

Civil society has a responsibility to fight against the ‘weaponisation’ of social media by extremists, argues Charity Digital News CEO Jonathan Chevallier.

Chloe Green | 14th Jun 19
Image of protestor with the word 'hate' on a sign. Campaign group Avaaz have uncovered and taken down a network of right-wing fake online news.

Volunteers and staff from campaign group Avaaz have uncovered and taken down a network of fake online news reaching an estimating 35 million people ahead of the European Parliamentary elections.

Following a Europe-wide investigation, the group warned that far-right news disseminators could weaponise social media at scale to hijack the EU elections using false or purposely misleading information.

Working from Brussels, Avaaz’s team of 30 uncovered a ‘massive web’ of over 700 Facebook pages, showing how these propaganda networks operate, coordinate, use fake accounts, and mislead people.

Some of this included white nationalist content target migrants, Holocaust denial, and divisive content covering a range of anti-immigration and anti-EU topics from far-right parties.

In the UK, over 132 posts, pages and groups were reported, reaching 100 million views a year and promoting banned figured like anti-Islam hate campaigner Tommy Robinson.

Overall, the group brought down networks of fake news that were racking up 3 billion views in a single year – enough to influence every voter in Europe twenty times.

Charity Digital News CEO Jonathan Chevallier commented: “This is great news.  For all those who care about a civil society, the fight against fake news and misinformation is critically important as if not tackled these undermine democracy, create division, hatred and violence and ultimately harm the weak, disadvantaged and vulnerable the most.”

“However, we can’t tackle these threats by demonising technology which in so many other areas is delivering such benefits. Instead we need to work with the tech suppliers to take down such content and this is a great example of civil society and big tech working together to take down some massive misinformation networks.”


An ethically aware third sector

With the ethics of big tech companies high on the news agenda, this year’s Charity Digital Skills Report asked charities for the first time how they are planning for the ethical challenges posed by digital innovation. Just over 1 in 4 (27%) are already looking at this challenge, while over half (58%) said that they know of the issues but aren’t planning for them as yet. Just 9% think these issues aren’t relevant to them.

In a recent article for Charity Digital News, Chair of the Charity Digital Code Zoe Amar argued that charities who operate in the digital world need to foster an awareness of the bigger issues around digital ethics and how the tech companies they deal with are meeting ethical standards.

“If you’re running a social welfare charity in Birmingham, the world of big tech companies in California may seem like another planet,” said Amar. “Yet the technology which these companies invented is interwoven into the fabric of our lives, from the smartphone in your pocket to the laptop on your desk. And it’s already affecting the people that you help.”

“The platforms and tools invented by big tech have changed the world, helping charities fundraise, communicate with more people and campaign at scale. I’m not suggesting we all burn our ipads and go off grid. But we should still ask questions about how these organisations are using our data and influencing behaviour, and what this means for how we work and the people we support.”