Fri, Sep 07, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Right-wing sites swamp Sweden with ‘junk news’

POLARIZING:A study analyzed tweets about Sunday’s election and articles shared from ‘junk news’ sites. The authors said junk news was playing a significant role

Reuters, LONDON and STOCKHOLM

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, center, campaigns door-to-door in Enkoping on Wednesday.

Photo: AFP

One in three news articles shared online about the upcoming Swedish election come from Web sites publishing deliberately misleading information, most with a right-wing focus on immigration and Islam, University of Oxford researchers say.

Their study, published yesterday, points to widespread online disinformation in the final stages of a tightly contested campaign which could mark a lurch to the right in one of Europe’s most prominent liberal democracies.

The authors, from the Oxford Internet Institute, labelled certain Web sites “junk news” based on a range of detailed criteria.

Reuters found the three most popular sites they identified have employed former members of the Sweden Democrats party; one has a former lawmaker listed among its staff.

It was not clear whether the sharing of “junk news” had affected voting intentions in Sweden, but the study helps show the impact platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have on elections, and how domestic or foreign groups can use them to exacerbate sensitive social and political issues.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, whose center-left Social Democrats have dominated politics since 1914, but are now unlikely to secure a ruling majority, said the spread of false or distorted information online risked shaking “the foundations of democracy” if left unchecked.

The institute analyzed 275,000 tweets about the Swedish election from a 10-day period last month.

It counted articles shared from Web sites it identified as “junk news” sources, defined as outlets which “deliberately publish misleading, deceptive or incorrect information purporting to be real news.”

“Roughly speaking, for every two professional content articles shared, one junk news article was shared. Junk news therefore constituted a significant part of the conversation around the Swedish general election,” it said.

A Twitter spokesman declined to comment on the results.

Facebook, where interactions between users are harder to track, said it was working with Swedish officials to help voters spot disinformation. It has also partnered with Viralgranskaren — an arm of Sweden’s Metro newspaper — to identify, demote and counterbalance “false news” on its site.

Joakim Wallerstein, head of communications for the Sweden Democrats, said he had no knowledge of or interest in the party sympathies of media outlets.

Asked to comment on his party’s relationship with the sites identified by the study, he said he had been interviewed by one of them once.

“I think it is strange that a foreign institute is trying to label various news outlets in Sweden as ‘junk news’ and release such a report in connection to an election,” he said.

Swedish security officials say there is currently no evidence of a coordinated online attempt by foreign powers to sway Sunday’s vote, despite repeated government warnings about the threat.

However, Mikael Tofvesson, head of the counterinfluence team at the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), a government agency tasked with safeguarding the election, said the widespread sharing of false or distorted information makes countries more vulnerable to hostile influence operations.

“Incorrect and biased reporting promotes a harder, harsher tone in the debate, which makes it easier to throw in disinformation and other deceptive tools,” he said.

Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher from the Oxford Internet Institute’s Project on Computational Propaganda, said most of the “junk news” in Sweden supported right-wing policies, and was largely focused on issues around immigration and Islam.

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