13 April, 2018

FAKE NEWS – Are They A Threat To Our National Security?

Recently, the European Commission, through the Communications Networks, Content and Technology, conducted a social research on fake news and misinformation in the online environment[1].

Of course, we are talking about statistics and it is well known that, depending on how you ask the question or read the conclusions, “truth” can be presented in different ways.[2]. However, the study data, carefully read, is most worrying.

A good example is the answer received to the question “how much do you trust or not the news and information that you access through the online newspapers and news magazines?”:

Of the 12.509 respondents (those who declared that they read online newspapers and news magazines) 68% trust more or less these sources. Of course, not all of us get information from the online environment, but the percentage of people who do it is growing. In 2016, 72% of Europeans accessed the online news on a daily basis or at least several times a week[3].


Where is the problem?

I see that there is a problem when nobody makes a difference and we pile together under the generous “online news sources”, both the Agerpress, BBC or Reuters sites, and CAPLIMPEDE.RO (“real news”) or ExclusiveNews.ro (“unpublished news”). Unfortunately, the European study does not make such distinctions. It would be difficult to do so as long as we do not even have generally accepted definitions for what could mean “credible news sources”.

In order to better understand the influence of the online environment, we must keep in mind that the study has made a distinction between “online news sources” and “news and information accessed through online social networks and messaging apps”, although, obviously, the two overlap:

It is clear that at European level, the combined influence of different online news sources is even greater than the Commission’s study manages to uncover. Some sources are just the online copy of institutions with great seniority and credibility (Reuters News Agency, for example, is 167 years old). At the same time, other “sources” are simple anonymous websites with more or less suggestive names that appear and disappear from one month to the next, often combined with massive social media presence beyond any control, but who benefit from audiences rivaling traditional platforms.

This is an area where we need to invest in deepening social research and to bring more information. The image that we have now is at least unclear. We need to properly assess both the influence and the real audience of sources of “alternative news”, as they self-title some[4].

Until then, all we can say is that at European level, the main channels for transmitting false news have an enormous audience and implicitly a significant influence on European citizens. This influence is reflected in the position on different subjects as well as in the voting decision and the political preferences.

It is a worrying reality and reflects a great vulnerability, against which the European Union is just in the phase of building a response.


How is the situation in Romania?

While the situation at European level is serious, the situation in Romania is even more worrying.

We start from the same question, “how much do you trust or not the news and information accessed through online social networks and messaging apps?”, This time only reported to those using these channels:

First of all, these sources are more widespread than news sites (N = 16,538 vs. N = 12,509).

Secondly, we notice that our country leads in this “top” with a cumulative confidence of 59%, well above the European average of 36%. If we add the number of Facebook users in Romania, which now probably exceeds 10 million (9.6 million in January 2017, after an increase of 15.66% in 2016[5]), we realize the huge impact of this “trust” of the Romanians.

These figures have not come from anywhere. In Romania’s case, they represent a trend already. This is confirmed by another study, conducted exactly one year ago, by GLOBSEC and focused on the Central and Eastern European area[6]. In that study, Romania also ranks first, with a triple value as compared to the average of the geographical area it belongs to:


How serious is the reality?

In order to figure out the gravity of the situation, the Commission’s research must be further pursued. On page 32 of the report, there is another question: “how confident or not are you that you are able to identify news or information that misrepresent reality or is even false?”

Apparently, the above data should represent good news and encourage us in the ability of individuals to discern in this ocean of information. Education, experience and common sense should give us the antibodies we need when obscure forces try to poison our minds and change our values, promoting daily a dangerous cocktail of truth and lies. In Europe, 71% of citizens say that they are able to make a difference between truth and lies, and in Romania, this percentage rises to 79%.


But this is just the perception of individuals. Is it confirmed by facts?

I did an experiment on a title that intrigued me in the daily news stream. A statement attributed to the International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde has inflamed the online environment in Romania, generating countless comments and criticisms: “The IMF: Elders live too much, and this is a risk to the global economy, something needs to be done”[7]. What drew my attention was primarily the source (FRIP.RO) and the consistent share of this “news”, by people with great experience, including in the media.

By protecting the identity of the persons concerned, the title appeared in the news feed as follows:

It seemed to be a recent statement, following an IMF meeting. But if we try to get to the original sources of the statements mentioned in the article, we will finally reach an anonymous blog post, dated April 15, 2012[8]!

The text of February 18, 2018, on FRIP.RO, reproduces almost entirely the 2012 post with an exception. Introduce a quote attributed to IMF general director Christine Lagarde: “The elders live too much and this is a risk to the global economy, something needs to be done.” Of course, this statement never occurred.

Looking further, we find that the FRIP.RO article is not singular. It is part of a group of similar appearances[9], which copied the same text up to the last detail, of course, without mentioning the source and claiming to be “original information”:

It is obvious that the situation is not a coincidence. In fact, some of the articles give a link to “karensmithdotblog”[10] as the source which published the text on February 9, 2018. The above collection of news titles are actually the classic image of a manipulative attack using fake news.

The attack did not go unnoticed and at least two publications analyzed it (PRESSONE [11] and EVZ[12]), both focusing on deciphering the forgery. What those analyses are missing is the answer to one question: “Who is the author of the manipulation?” As in other cases, there are no answers, only suspicions. And they come from another question: “Who would have an interest in undermining the confidence of the Romanians in institutions such as the IMF, NATO or the EU?” I believe that the answer can be found somewhere, East of Romania.

Returning to the initial thread, we have the following elements:

– 64% of Romanians say they trust the news of online publications

– 39% of Romanians say they trust the news in social media

– 79% of Romanians say they can spot a false story

Let’s see how did react those who have been exposed to this manipulation. Their comments and reactions are available to us thanks to the social media:

Of the 20 people who commented the Facebook post (of which at least 15 have university degrees), only 6 (30%) realized it was a fake news. Also from the commentators, five have media experience, but three of them got upset on Mrs Lagarde for a statement she never gave.

Unfortunately, this brief analysis together with the figures accompanying it shows the gap between perception and reality, basically reversing some of the conclusions of European Commission’s study.

The inability to spot between truth and false, combined with the wrong impression that we can actually do so successfully, added to the enormous exposure such manipulations have – all are placing Romania in a very dangerous situation. Only Gandeste.Org and FRIP.RO gathered over 60,000 social media reactions to the discussed article. We are very vulnerable, and an external (or internal) force can always take advantage of this weakness of ours.


What could happen?

Let us consider Mrs Lagarde’s alleged statement as a school exercise. But keep in mind that reality is far more serious.

A few words on a blog generated hundreds of thousands of reactions and a lot of anger. What can happen when instead of a text we see a video, showing us an important leader (from Romania or international one), apparently making an even more shocking statement, possibly with an imminent threat that generates an immediate reaction? The technology exists already for years and it is available to the general public[13].

The fact that “fake news” can change the outcome of elections, not just in young democracies like Romania, but even in the most experienced, is a proven reality.

In the case of Romania, I think that if anyone has an interest in generating some “spontaneously” protests, it is possible. And it can happen even before the authorities can react in any way. Moreover, if such a move were to result in casualties, it is equally possible.


Under these circumstances, the conclusion is only one: fake news is a threat to national security.

The danger comes not just from the infection “power” of false news, but also from the lack of antibodies to protect us. Moreover, I do not think that the situation is different in Romania compared to other European countries. This is even more worrying, because within the European Union the vulnerability of one is the vulnerability of all.


What is the answer?

At European level, we work for an answer since 2015. At that time, the European Council[14] requested of the High Representative Federica Mogherini, to prepare an action plan on strategic communication, especially in response to aggressive campaigns conducted by Moscow.

The first concrete action was the establishment of East StratCom [15] in September 2015. It collects, analyses and reveals the various manipulation attempts.

The Commission’s actions are also supported by the European Parliament. A first example is the resolution of 23 November 2016 on the strategic communication of the EU to counter the propaganda of third parties against it[16], which was followed by the resolution of 15 June 2017 on online platforms and the digital single market [17]. The June 2017 document highlights the need for “actions against the dissemination of fake news” and “calls on the online platforms to provide users with tools to denounce fake news in such a way that other users can be informed that the veracity of the content has been contested”. It also asks the Commission to verify the possibility of legislative intervention to limit the dissemination and spread of false content. Another action was the letter[18] addressed to Ms Mogherini in March 2017, signed by several MEPs, asking for more resources for the East StratCom and an appropriate budget.

The Commission and Parliament also joined the Member States. Romania is a signatory, along with seven other European countries, of an open letter[19] addressed to Ms Mogherini in October 2017. The requirement is the same: more resources and increased power for the East StratCom.

In November 2017, the Commission launched a public consultation process to find answers to the fake news phenomenon and misinformation in the online environment. The consultation was continued with the establishment of the High Level Expert Group[20], made up of academics, online platforms, news media and civil society organizations. This group includes the Romanian Alina Bargaoanu, Dean of the SNSPA Communication and Public Relations Faculty. The group’s work will be concretized through a European strategy to combat the proliferation of false news, soon to be presented.

A part of the answer we need in order to defend ourselves against the manipulation and misinformation created by the fake news can be found directly in the above-mentioned study:

Journalists, national authorities, the press, citizens, social networks, European institutions, NGOs – all are mentioned as part of the response to stop the “fake news”. They represent short or medium-term measures that are very much needed.

However, we must be aware that the methods used by those who practice manipulation can adapt, and sooner or later they manage to bypass or pass through institutional measures and digital filters.

That is why I welcome initiatives such as those of Italy[21], who introduced an education program in 8,000 high schools to identify false news, or of Sweden [22], which offers a digital curriculum for the primary education cycle.

I think these examples and the results they give can be replicated in other Member States, and Romania should be among the first countries to do so. It remains to be seen the exact content of such an educational program, the curriculum, and the starting age. But in the world we live today, we cannot talk about “too young for…”. As early as possible, pupils must learn to interact with information, seek the truth, and spot the lies.

What is missing from the measures identified by the Commission’s research is the long-term response and this is education. Education is a long-term protection measure that offers to the public the highest degree of immunity from manipulation.


[1] FL464 Fake News and Disinformation Online, Survey conducted by TNS Political & Social at the request of the European Commission, Directorate-General for Communications Networks: http://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/survey/getsurveydetail/instruments/flash/surveyky/2183

[2] Darrell Huff, How to lie with statistics, 1954: https://archive.org/stream/HowToLieWithStatistics/Huff-HowToLieWithStatistics#page/n0/mode/2up

[3] How frequently do you use the internet to consume or access online press or news content?: https://www.statista.com/statistics/658279/online-news-usage-frequency-eu/

[4] www.alternativenews.ro

[5] 9,6 milioane de conturi de utilizator de Facebook in Romania: http://www.facebrands.ro/blog/2017/01/9-6-milioane-conturi-utilizator-facebook-romania/

[6] GLOBSEC Trends 2017: Mixed messages and Signs of Hope from Central and Eastern Europe: https://www.globsec.org/publications/globsec-trends-2017-mixed-messages-signs-hope-central-eastern-europe-2/

[7] FMI: „Bătrânii trăiesc prea mult şi este un risc pentru economia globală, trebuie făcut ceva”: https://frip.ro/fmi-batranii-traiesc-prea-mult-si-este-un-risc-pentru-economia-globala-trebuie-facut-ceva/

[8] IMF Requests That Pensions be Lowered Because of “The Risk That People Will Live Longer Than Expected”: https://jsmyth.wordpress.com/2012/04/15/imf-life-expectancy/

[9] National.ro; Gandeste.org, Jurnalul.ro; Anonimus.ro; AntenaSatelor.ro; liberlandraceblog.wordpress.com; CriticArad.ro; informatii-agrorurale.ro; ziarulfaclia.ro; romaniacurata.ro; lupuldacicblogg.wordpress.com; stiri-extreme.ro

[10] Christine Lagarde: „Batranii traiesc prea mult si este un risc pentru economia globala, trebuie facut ceva” https://karensmithdotblog.wordpress.com/2018/02/09/christine-lagarde-batranii-traiesc-prea-mult-si-este-un-risc-pentru-economia-globala-trebuie-facut-ceva/

[11] O minciună cu bătaie lungă: șefa FMI și declarațiile “satanice” despre bătrânii care “trăiesc prea mult”: https://pressone.ro/sectiuni/o-minciuna-cu-bataie-lunga-sefa-fmi-si-declaratiile-satanice-despre-batranii-care-traiesc-prea-mult/

[12] Șoc și groază! FMI vrea să grăbească sfârșitul pensionarilor sau să-i salveze?: http://evz.ro/fmi-sfarsitul-pensionari.html?v=347635&page=1

[13] Artificial intelligence is going to make it easier than ever to fake images and video: https://www.theverge.com/2016/12/20/14022958/ai-image-manipulation-creation-fakes-audio-video

[14] Concluziile intalnirii Consiliului European din 19-20 martie 2015 (pct. 13): http://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-11-2015-INIT/en/pdf

[15] Don’t be deceived: EU acts against fake news and disinformation: https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage_en/32408/Don%27t%20be%20deceived:%20EU%20acts%20against%20fake%20news%20and%20disinformation

[16] Rezoluţia Parlamentului European din 23 noiembrie 2016 referitoare la comunicarea strategică a UE pentru a contracara propaganda părților terțe împotriva sa: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+TA+P8-TA-2016-0441+0+DOC+XML+V0//RO

[17] Rezoluţia Parlamentului European din 15 iunie 2017 referitoare la platformele online și piața unică digitala: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+TA+P8-TA-2017-0272+0+DOC+XML+V0//RO

[18] Open Letter of European security experts to Federica Mogherini: Please start taking the Russian disinformation threat seriously! http://www.europeanvalues.net/mogherini/

[19] Mogherini urged to do more on Russian propaganda: https://euobserver.com/foreign/139573

[20] Măsuri împotriva știrilor false: Comisia creează un Grup de experți la nivel înalt și lansează o consultare publică: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-17-4481_ro.htm

[21] In Italian Schools, Reading, Writing and Recognizing Fake News: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/18/world/europe/italy-fake-news.html?_r=0

[22] Strengthened digital skills in school: http://www.regeringen.se/contentassets/acd9a3987a8e4619bd6ed95c26ada236/informationsmaterial-starkt-digital-kompetens-i-skolans-styrdokument.pdf