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European Union tries to protect election from fake news

European Union tries to protect election from fake news

European Union tries to protect election from fake news

The European Parliament election campaign has begun. But this time, it’s not just political candidates who are facing scrutiny. Social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and Google are also under intense pressure to do everything they can to prevent their platforms being misused and manipulated, and to stop the spread of fake news.

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Finland is winning the war on fake news. Other nations want the blueprint

Finland is winning the war on fake news. Other nations want the blueprint

Finland is winning the war on fake news. Other nations want the blueprint

Helsinki, Finland (CNN) – On a recent afternoon in Helsinki, a group of students gathered to hear a lecture on a subject that is far from a staple in most community college curriculums.

Standing in front of the classroom at Espoo Adult Education Centre, Jussi Toivanen worked his way through his PowerPoint presentation. A slide titled “Have you been hit by the Russian troll army?” included a checklist of methods used to deceive readers on social media: image and video manipulations, half-truths, intimidation and false profiles.

Another slide, featuring a diagram of a Twitter profile page, explained how to identify bots: look for stock photos, assess the volume of posts per day, check for inconsistent translations and a lack of personal information.

The lesson wrapped with a popular “deepfake” — highly realistic manipulated video or audio — of Barack Obama to highlight the challenges of the information war ahead.

The course is part of an anti-fake news initiative launched by Finland’s government in 2014 – two years before Russia meddled in the US elections – aimed at teaching residents, students, journalists and politicians how to counter false information designed to sow division.

The initiative is just one layer of a multi-pronged, cross-sector approach the country is taking to prepare citizens of all ages for the complex digital landscape of today – and tomorrow. The Nordic country, which shares an 832-mile border with Russia, is acutely aware of what’s at stake if it doesn’t.

Finland has faced down Kremlin-backed propaganda campaigns ever since it declared independence from Russia 101 years ago. But in 2014, after Moscow annexed Crimea and backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, it became obvious that the battlefield had shifted: information warfare was moving online.

Toivanen, the chief communications specialist for the prime minister’s office, said it is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of misinformation operations to have targeted the country in recent years, but most play on issues like immigration, the European Union, or whether Finland should become a full member of NATO (Russia is not a fan).

As the trolling ramped up in 2015, President Sauli Niinisto called on every Finn to take responsibility for the fight against false information. A year later, Finland brought in American experts to advise officials on how to recognize fake news, understand why it goes viral and develop strategies to fight it. The education system was also reformed to emphasize critical thinking.


Media literacy across Europe

Finland ranked first out of 35 countries in

a study measuring resilience to the

post-truth phenomenon

Source: European Policies Initiative, Open Society

Institute – Sofia, March 2018

Graphic: Henrik Pettersson, CNN

Media literacy across Europe

Finland ranked first out of 35 countries in a study

measuring resilience to the post-truth phenomenon

Source: European Policies Initiative, Open Society Institute –

Sofia, March 2018

Graphic: Henrik Pettersson, CNN

Media literacy across Europe

Finland ranked first out of 35 countries in a study measuring resilience to the post-truth phenomenon

Source: European Policies Initiative, Open Society Institute – Sofia, March 2018

Graphic: Henrik Pettersson, CNN

Media literacy across Europe

Finland ranked first out of 35 countries in a study measuring resilience to the post-truth phenomenon

Source: European Policies Initiative, Open Society Institute – Sofia, March 2018

Graphic: Henrik Pettersson, CNN

Although it’s difficult to measure the results in real-time, the approach appears to be working, and now other countries are looking to Finland as an example of how to win the war on misinformation.

“It’s not just a government problem, the whole society has been targeted. We are doing our part, but it’s everyone’s task to protect the Finnish democracy,” Toivanen said, before adding: “The first line of defense is the kindergarten teacher.”

At the French-Finnish School of Helsinki, a bilingual state-run K-12 institution, that ethos is taken seriously.

In Valentina Uitto’s social studies class, a group of 10th-graders were locked in debate over what the key issues will be in next week’s EU elections. Brexit, immigration, security and the economy were mentioned with a flurry of raised hands before the students were asked to choose a theme to analyze.

“They’ve gathered what they think they know about the EU election … now let’s see if they can sort fact from fiction,” Uitto said with a smirk.

The students broke off into groups, grabbing laptops and cell phones to investigate their chosen topics – the idea is to inspire them to become digital detectives, like a rebooted version of Sherlock Holmes for the post-Millennial generation.

Her class is the embodiment of Finland’s critical thinking curriculum, which was revised in 2016 to prioritize the skills students need to spot the sort of disinformation that has clouded recent election campaigns in the US and across Europe.

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Students in Valentina Uitto’s social studies class research the issues at play in the upcoming EU elections as part of their critical thinking curriculum.

The school recently partnered with Finnish fact-checking agency Faktabaari (FactBar) to develop a digital literacy “toolkit” for elementary to high school students learning about the EU elections. It was presented to the bloc’s expert group on media literacy and has been shared among member states.

The exercises include examining claims found in YouTube videos and social media posts, comparing media bias in an array of different “clickbait” articles, probing how misinformation preys on readers’ emotions, and even getting students to try their hand at writing fake news stories themselves.

“What we want our students to do is … before they like or share in the social media they think twice – who has written this? Where has it been published? Can I find the same information from another source?” Kari Kivinen, director of Helsinki French-Finnish School and former secretary-general of the European Schools, told CNN.

He cautioned that it is a balancing act trying to make sure skepticism doesn’t give way to cynicism in students.

“It’s very annoying having to fact check everything, not being able to trust anything … or anyone on the internet,” said 15-year-old Tatu Tukiainen, one of the students in Uitto’s class. “I think we should try to put a stop to that.”

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Gabrielle Bagula (left), 18, and Alexander Shemeikka (right), 17, in the Helsinki French-Finnish School library.

In the school library, Alexander Shemeikka, 17, and Gabrielle Bagula, 18, are watching YouTube videos together on an iPhone and chatting about other social platforms where they get their news: Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit and Twitter but, notably, not Facebook – “that’s for old people.”

“The word ‘fake news’ is thrown around very often,” Shemeikka said, explaining that when their friends share dubious memes or far-fetched articles online he always asks for the source. “You can never be too sure,” Bagula agreed.

That’s exactly the type of conversation that Kivinen hopes to cultivate outside of the classroom.

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Students aged 5 to 8 gather in the library to read paperbacks and scroll through social media feeds.

“What we have been developing here – combining fact-checking with the critical thinking and voter literacy – is something we have seen that there is an interest in outside Finland,” Kivinen said.

But Kivinen isn’t sure that this approach could serve as a template for schools elsewhere. “In the end … it’s difficult to export democracy,” he added.

It may be difficult to export democracy, but it is easy to import experts, which is precisely what Finland did in 2016 to combat what it saw as a rise in disinformation emanating from accounts linked to its neighbor to the east.

“They knew that the Kremlin was messing with Finnish politics, but they didn’t have a context with which to interpret that. They were wondering if this meant they would invade, was this war?” Jed Willard, director of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Center for Global Engagement at Harvard University, who was hired by Finland to train state officials to spot and then hit back at fake news, told CNN.

Russia maintains that it has not and does not interfere in the domestic politics of other countries.

Behind closed doors, Willard’s workshops largely focused on one thing: developing a strong national narrative, rather than trying to debunk false claims.

“The Finns have a very unique and special strength in that they know who they are. And who they are is directly rooted in human rights and the rule of law, in a lot of things that Russia, right now, is not,” Willard said. “There is a strong sense of what it means to be Finnish … that is a super power.”

Not all nations have the type of narrative to fall back on that Finland does.


2019 World Press Freedom Index,

Reporters Without Borders

World Happiness Report 2019

Corruption Perceptions Index

2018, Transparency International

EU Social Justice Index 2017,

Global Gender Gap Report 2018,

2019 World Press Freedom Index,

Reporters Without Borders

World Happiness Report 2019

Corruption Perceptions Index

2018, Transparency International

EU Social Justice Index 2017,

Global Gender Gap Report 2018,

EU Social Justice Index 2017,

World Happiness Report 2019

2018, World Economic Forum

Global Gender Gap Report 2018,

2019 World Press Freedom Index,

Corruption Perceptions Index

EU Social Justice Index 2017,

Reporters Without Borders

2018, Transparency International

World Happiness Report 2019

The small and largely homogenous country consistently ranks at or near the top of almost every index – happiness, press freedom, gender equality, social justice, transparency and education – making it difficult for external actors to find fissures within society to crowbar open and exploit.

Finland also has long tradition of reading – its 5.5 million people borrow close to 68 million books a year and it just spent $110 million on a state-of-the-art library, referred to lovingly as “Helsinki’s living room.” Finland has the highest PISA score for reading performance in the EU.

And as trust in the media has flagged in other parts of the globe, Finland has maintained a strong regional press and public broadcaster. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2018, Finland tops the charts for media trust, which means its citizens are less likely to turn to alternative sources for news.

But some argue that simply teaching media literacy and critical thinking isn’t enough — more must be done on the part of social media companies to stop the spread of disinformation.

“Facebook, Twitter, Google/YouTube … who are enablers of Russian trolls … they really should be regulated,” said Jessikka Aro, a journalist with Finland’s public broadcaster YLE, who has faced a barrage of abuse for her work investigating Russian interference, long before it was linked to the 2016 US elections.

“Just like any polluting companies or factories should be and are already regulated, for polluting the air and the forests, the waters, these companies are polluting the minds of people. So, they also have to pay for it and take responsibility for it.”

Facebook, Twitter and Google, which are all signatories to the European Commission’s code of practice against disinformation, told CNN that they have taken steps ahead of the EU elections to increase transparency on their platforms, including making EU-specific political advertisement libraries publicly available, working with third-party fact-checkers to identify misleading election-related content, and cracking down on fake accounts.

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Jessikka Aro scrolls through her Twitter mentions, pointing out the type of trolling and abuse she has faced online as a result of her investigations.

Aro’s first open-source investigation back in 2014 looked at how Russia-linked disinformation campaigns impacted Finns.

“Many Finns told me that they have witnessed these activities, but that it was only merely new digital technology for the old fashioned, old school Soviet Union propaganda, which has always existed and that Finns have been aware of,” Aro said. “So, they could avoid the trolls.”

The probe also made her the target of a relentless smear campaign, accused of being a CIA operative, a secret assistant to NATO, a drug dealer and deranged Russophobe.

Aro received some respite when, last year, the Helsinki District Court handed harsh sentences to two pro-Putin activists on charges of defamation – Ilja Janitskin, a Finn of Russian descent who ran the anti-immigrant, pro-Russia website MV-Lehti, and Johan Backman, a self-declared “human rights activist” and frequent guest on the Russian state-run news outlet RT.

It was the first time that an EU country had convicted those responsible for disinformation campaigns, drawing a line in the sand between extreme hate speech and the pretense of free speech.

Perhaps the biggest sign that Finland is winning the war on fake news is the fact that other countries are seeking to copy its blueprint. Representatives from a slew of EU states, along with Singapore, have come to learn from Finland’s approach to the problem.

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The scene outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Helsinki. Since 2016, government officials have trained over 10,000 Finns how to spot fake news.

The race is on to figure out a fix after authorities linked Russian groups to misinformation campaigns targeting Catalonia’s independence referendum and Brexit, as well as recent votes in France and Germany. Germany has already put a law in place to fine tech platforms that fail to remove “obviously illegal” hate speech, while France passed a law last year that bans fake news on the internet during election campaigns. Some critics have argued that both pieces of legislation jeopardize free speech. Russia denied interference in all of these instances.

Finland’s strategy was on public display ahead of last month’s national elections, in an advertising campaign that ran under the slogan “Finland has the world’s best elections – think about why” and encouraged citizens to think about fake news.

Officials didn’t see any evidence of Russian interference in the vote, which Toivanen says may be a sign that trolls have stopped thinking of the Finnish electorate as a soft target.

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Jussi Toivanen, who has traveled the country to train Finns, at his office in Helsinki.

“A couple of years ago, one of my colleagues said that he thought Finland has won the first round countering foreign-led hostile information activities. But even though Finland has been quite successful, I don’t think that there are any first, second or third rounds, instead, this is an ongoing game,” Toivanen said.

“It’s going to be much more challenging for us to counter these kinds of activities in the future. And we need to be ready for that.”

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Sex vouchers for migrants? The truth behind Europe’s fake stories

Sex vouchers for migrants? The truth behind Europe’s fake stories

Sex vouchers for migrants? The truth behind Europe’s fake stories

Ahead of the European Parliamentary elections later this month, analysts who study social media content say some populist politicians are capitalizing on voter misconceptions about the EU, to push misinformation on hot button issues like immigration.

Populist figures meanwhile, say open and critical debate about different cultures is being sacrificed at the altar of political correctness.

With populist parties tipped to make big gains in the upcoming election, fact-checkers from across the continent are now combining forces to debunk the tide of political misinformation.

We spoke to some of them about their most startling stories — and what they reveal about the issues dividing nations.

Sex vouchers in Greece

Velopoulos, the founder of the Christian nationalist Greek Solution party, is known by Greeks for his inflammatory style and his comments in March were no exception. “In Germany, the Syrian or the Afghan migrant goes, gets a coupon twice a week, goes to the brothel, does the work and leaves,” he told audiences on the Alert TV channel he appears on.

“This is the Europe I don’t like,” said Velopoulos, whose Greek Solution party currently does not have any seats in the European Parliament.

He warned that “in a short while, let’s say in 2021,” Greeks “might see” their government also giving migrants “free vouchers to go to the brothels of Omonia Square” in the capital Athens.

“And even that will be paid by the Greek citizens.”

CNN reached out to Velopoulos but he had not replied at time of publishing.

Migrants stage a protest at Athens central train station, in April this year, over travel restrictions.

Velopoulos’ comments come as Greece emerges from nearly 10 years of austerity, where “populist politicians taking advantage of the continuing hardship still manage to get lots of traction among voters,” said journalist Thanos Sitistas Epachtitis, who originally debunked Velopoulos’ comments on the news site Ellinka Hoaxes.

The article is one of dozens featured on Fact Check EU, an independent project pulling together fact-checking reports from 19 media outlets across Europe. The outlets, including France’s Le Monde and Ireland’s The Journal, are all signatories of the International Fact-Checking Network.
Even though the sex coupon story is made-up, it “does try to exploit, manipulate and exacerbate the existing anti-immigrant sentiment in Greece,” said Lamprini Rori, a lecturer in politics at the University of Exeter and spokeswoman at the academic network Greek Politics Specialist Group.
Macedonia will change its name. Here's why it matters
She pointed to a 2018 poll by independent research and policy institute Dianeosis, that found just over 72% of Greeks believe there’s more crime because of the increase in migrants. The 2010 Greek financial crisis, coupled with an abrupt increase in refugees, had created “a poisonous cocktail for anti-immigrant sentiments,” said Rori.

Germany, which adopted a pro-immigrant stance following the 2015 refugee crisis and oversaw Greece’s financial bailout and austerity measures, has become a convenient “scapegoat” in these kinds of stories, said Rori.

The brothel story highlights another issue troubling conservative Greeks — the perceived moral decay of Europe, said Epachtitis. Greeks “have very strong feelings about religion — in our case, Orthodox Christianity — and are willing to listen to those politicians that promise to preserve it,” he added.

As for Velopoulos’ political future, Greece is due to hold a general election by the end of October — where his party is predicted to take just 2% of the national vote, according to Politico.EU.

Homophobia in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, populist politician Thierry Baudet has also perfected the fine art of an outrageous statement. But unlike Velopoulos, this has translated into big wins in the country’s March provincial elections, with his Euroskeptic Forum for Democracy, along with Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s party, gaining the most votes to become the joint biggest party.
In March, Baudet, who has been described as the “suave new face of Dutch rightwing populism,” blamed an increase in homophobia in the Netherlands on “uncontrolled immigration.”
Thierry Baudet, leader of the Forum for Democracy (FvD), on election night 2017.
The claim was investigated by Eufactcheck.eu. The project, run by the European Journalism Training Association, is fact-checking political claims with the help of more than 150 students and staff from 20 journalism schools across Europe.
The group looked at several research reports but could find no data to support Baudet’s claims about immigration and increased homophobia.

After reviewing recent LGBT studies, they concluded Baudet’s remark that homophobia had increased in the Netherlands was “generally untrue.”

The group also cited a 2015 police study on homophobic crimes in the Netherlands that found 61.8% of homophobic crime suspects had Dutch nationality. The fact-checkers said the police did not differentiate between immigrant and non-immigrant suspects.

Baudet had not responded to CNN’s request for comment at time of publishing.

Dutch church holds 800-hour service to save family from deportation

Baudet’s tweet pits the liberal attitudes of Dutch people — encapsulated in their acceptance of homosexuality — as under attack by immigration, said Claes de Vreese, Professor and Chair of Political Communication at the University of Amsterdam.

“Populists typically use strong rhetoric to create an image of a threatening outside group,” he said. De Vreese said Baudet’s claims were reminiscent of fellow far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who “also appropriated ‘gay rights’ as ‘Dutch rights’ under threat from immigration.”

Populist parties in Netherlands have a strange balancing act — defending a country known for its tradition of tolerance, with an uncompromising stance on immigration.

The next test for Baudet is whether he can ride his wave of popularity all the way to success in the European elections.

Islam and free speech

“Criticism of Islam is forbidden!” said a Facebook post from Germany’s far-right AfD politician Martin Sichert in March. The post added that according to the European Court of Human Rights, the “protection of Islam is more important than freedom of expression in Europe.”

Sichert was referring to the case of Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, an Austrian political scientist who in 2009 gave a seminar on Islam in which she compared the Prophet Mohammed’s relationship with a child to pedophilia. The seminar in Vienna was promoted by Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPO).

Sabaditsch-Wolff was convicted by an Austrian court of disparaging religious doctrines and fined €480. She appealed several times, but the decision was eventually upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in 2018.
According to German research news site, CORRECTIV, the AfD politician’s Facebook comments were “grossly oversimplifying a complex issue.” The group’s investigation into Sichert’s claims was featured on the site Fact Check EU.

“It cannot be concluded from the judgment of the court that the ‘protection of Islam’ is more important than freedom of expression,” said CORRECTIV. “The judgment does not even contain the phrase, ‘protection of Islam,'” it added.

Sichert told CNN he “firmly stood by” his comments. In a lengthy statement, he said: “If we deny ourselves an open and critical debate about different religions or cultures, we are basically sacrificing our freedom of speech and expression on the altar of political

“It is not the Islam that is being criticized here,” said Sichert of his Facebook post. “But the politics and courts, who are failing to uphold and protect our fundamental rights — all in fear that this may be uncomfortable to some.”

The case sheds light on a bigger issue troubling many right-wing, and some centrist, voters in Germany, according to Werner Patzelt, a political analyst who has closely followed the rise of the right-wing movement. And that is “the feeling that all kind of criticism of Islam is forbidden under the flag of political correctness.”

The “EU itself does not exert any pressure of political correctness,” Patzelt added. But, he said, in the eyes of right-wing populists, the EU is nevertheless the “invented or felt enemy” because its policies hinder nation states’ abilities to protect themselves.

The AfD, once on the fringes of politics, is now the third-largest party in Germany following big gains at the 2017 election.

And within days, populist parties across the continent could take their national successes to a European level.

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Australian politicians are using WeChat to target voters. But fake content could end up costing them

Australian politicians are using WeChat to target voters. But fake content could end up costing them

Australian politicians are using WeChat to target voters. But fake content could end up costing them

It’s the first time, social media experts say, that politicians from both of Australia’s main political parties are making a proactive push on WeChat to win over the country’s ethnic Chinese population, which has almost doubled in a decade.

They say it’s a positive step in engaging with a community which doesn’t always consume mainstream media and that has found itself caught in the political crossfire in the past.

But as WeChat increasingly becomes a campaign battleground ahead of Saturday’s election, it’s also become home to misinformation.

Some users have shared a screen shot of a tweet which appears to show Labor leader Bill Shorten — a frontrunner for Prime Minister, according to recent polls — saying: “Immigration of people from the Middle East is the future Australia needs.”

But there’s a problem: The tweet is not from Shorten’s verified account and his campaign told CNN he did not send that tweet.

Labor is so worried about the effect of false posts that it has written to Tencent, WeChat’s Chinese parent company, according to CNN affiliate SBS.

WeChat’s parent company Tencent did not respond to CNN’s questions on if it had received a letter from the Labor party, and what it is doing to prevent the spread of misinformation. However, WeChat users are able to download a filter to identify possible rumors, and can report groups if they are concerned by the content.

A new kind of campaign

During Australia’s last federal election in 2016, the eastern Melbourne electorate of Chisholm voted Liberal after almost two decades with a Labor MP. The winning candidate had an additional weapon in her arsenal: An underground campaign on WeChat.

WeChat boasts over 1 billion users worldwide, and has an estimated 3 million users in Australia according to marketing company Bastion China. Well-known figures and media outlets can make public posts, but most content is shared behind closed doors — either peer-to-peer, or in WeChat groups which can have up to 500 members.
There are more than 1.2 million Australians of Chinese descent — 5.6% of the country’s population — and almost 600,000 speak Mandarin at home, according to the country’s 2016 Census. A survey last year by Chinese media researchers Haiqing Yu and Wanning Sun found 60% of Mandarin speakers in Australia used WeChat as their main source of news and information.
In Chisholm, where almost 20% of residents are of Chinese ancestry, the Liberal party led a WeChat campaign in 2016 focused on three issues: Backing its management of the country’s economy, opposing same-sex marriage, and criticizing Safe Schools, a program to ensure schools are safe for all LGBTQ students.
“It was lowest-common-denominator politics,” the Labor candidate for Chisholm, Stefanie Perri, told The Guardian at the time. Gladys Liu, who spearheaded the Liberal Party’s WeChat campaign and who is a Chisholm candidate this election, said if Labor policies were good, they could dominate WeChat. “But Chinese don’t like their policies,” she told The Guardian. CNN has reached out to Liu for comment.

This time around, Labor is determined not to lose the battle on WeChat.

Haiqing Yu, who researches China’s digital media at Melbourne’s RMIT University, said Labor lacked a clear social media policy towards the Chinese community during the last election, while the Liberals used WeChat effectively and won. This election, there has been a clear change in Labor’s strategies, said Yu.

Recent posts from the "Bill Shorten and Labor" WeChat account and the "Scott Morrison" WeChat account.
An account entitled “Bill Shorten and Labor” makes Chinese-language posts almost every day from the campaign trail, and Shorten has hosted a live discussion on WeChat, fielding questions from voters.
The Liberal Party, too, has been continuing its efforts to win Chinese Australians over. In February, Prime Minister Scott Morrison opened a WeChat account, and since then has been posting Chinese-language articles detailing his policies and encouraging people to vote for him.

Why target Chinese voters?

It might seem strange that politicians are devoting time and money to Chinese-language campaigns on WeChat: ethnic Chinese are still a minority in Australia, and politicians on both sides engage in anti-China rhetoric.

In a video that emerged in March of remarks made in September, Labor Party politician Michael Daley claimed that young Australians were being “replaced by young people, from typically Asia, with PhDs.” Daley apologized for his comments, and later stood down from his position as New South Wales Labor leader so as not to be a distraction.
In February 2018, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was lambasting the Liberal-led government, accusing it of launching an “anti-Chinese jihad” which had caused Chinese-Australians “unnecessary anxiety.”

Months before, in December 2017, Labor Senator Sam Dastyari resigned over his alleged interactions with a Chinese donor amid growing concerns over China’s influence on Australia’s political parties and university campuses. When he resigned, he insisted he always acted with integrity.

Australian Labor Party's Senator Sam Dastyari fronts the media in Sydney on September 6, 2016, to make a public apology after asking a company with links to the Chinese government to pay a $1,273 bill incurred by his office.

Labor joined WeChat in early 2017 as a way of “continuing our conversation with Australia’s Chinese community,” according to a campaign spokesman.

“Labor is the only party of government in Australia that proactively supports multiculturalism because we recognize our diversity makes us a stronger and a more cohesive nation,” the spokesman said.

A spokeswoman for Liberal Party leader, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, said they did not comment on campaigns.

But there’s another reason politicians might be targeting Chinese Australian voters. Many live in swing seats — and in what promises to be a tightly-contested election, these could be the key to victory.

Barton, Banks, Parramatta, Reid and Chisholm are all marginal electorates, and each have large ethnic Chinese communities that make up over 16% of their population. Together, those five seats alone have more than 150,000 ethnic Chinese — 12.5% of the country’s ethnic Chinese population.

Tony Pun, chairperson of the Multicultural Communities Council of New South Wales, said there was still a sense in the Chinese community that politicians were only engaging with them in a superficial way. “They only connect with us because they want our votes,” he said.

RMIT’s Yu said that in a way, politicians were killing two birds with one stone. In a country where politicians from both sides had previously engaged in anti-China rhetoric, candidates could win support from ethnic Chinese voters — and demonstrate their commitment to multiculturalism.

The spread of false content

Politicians can make public posts and communicate with their voters in groups, where they can address myths and rumors. But they can’t respond to everything — there are still many WeChat groups and chats they might not even be aware of.

In group chats seen by CNN, Chinese Australian voters discussed election issues and shared memes. Many were merely critical — such as a photo mocking members of the Shorten campaign who got stuck driving under a tunnel — but some are fabricated or misleading.

In addition to the doctored Shorten tweet, some users shared rumors about the impact of Labor’s promise to increase the number of refugees, and claims that a Labor government would close every power plant in the country.

A public account on WeChat posted a story that referenced other memes, including another of Shorten with red characters which read: “Green cards for all refugees!”

A paper published by cyber propaganda researchers found that the coalition government had also been targeted by online propaganda and much of it had come from accounts affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, broadcaster ABC reported.

“It’s a problem that all social media platforms face,” said Sun, a professor of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Technology Sydney who specializes in Chinese media. “But WeChat makes it harder to trace the origin of the sender of information.”

Like WhatsApp, messages can be easily forwarded to numerous groups, with no sign of where they originated. Because most of the information is shared in private invitation-only groups, it’s challenging to monitor what is being sent.

A different ecosystem

In China, online content is heavily censored and WeChat is no exception. Messages deemed to have sensitive content — anything from the US-China trade war to the #MeToo movement, according to a Hong Kong University project — do not make it through.

Users in Australia who get their news mainly from WeChat won’t get the whole story.

“They exist in another ecosystem that’s shaped and largely controlled by the Chinese Communist Party,” said Adam Ni, an expert on China-related issues at Macquarie University.

This poses an issue for politicians using WeChat for debates. They may avoid topics deemed by Chinese censors to be off-limits, for fear of being blocked.

Labor Opposition leader Bill Shorten speaks during the Labor Campaign Launch on May 5, 2019 in Brisbane, Australia.
In a live forum on WeChat in March, Shorten was asked a series of questions about telecommunications giant Huawei, Chinese interference in Australia, and negative views in Australia of the Chinese Communist Party. He answered none of them, according to an ABC report.
In a statement to CNN, a Labor spokesman said the party had never experienced any censorship of its communications on any social media platforms. Shorten’s campaign told ABC, “We do not tolerate any outside interference that seeks to undermine our free and fair society.”

But Fergus Ryan, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who focuses on Chinese social media and censorship, said it was concerning that any discussion on WeChat was subject to censorship from Beijing by default.

“The whole process is so opaque that it’s difficult to know what is censored and what isn’t censored,” he said.

There are also security issues associated with the accounts, said Ryan. Both the current Prime Minister’s “Scott Morrison” WeChat account and the “Bill Shorten and Labor” WeChat account are registered to Chinese nationals. The “about” page of Morrison’s account says it was registered in January this year to a man in Fujian province, while the “Bill Shorten and Labor” account is registered to a man in Shandong province, and was originally set up with a name that references a tea garden.

The “Australian Labor Party” account, however, is verified and registered to the Party.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a press conference on November 22, 2018 in Sydney, Australia.

When CNN asked Labor if the account registration posed a security risk, a spokesman disputed the registration information, saying that it was operated by an Australian resident who is an Australian Labor Party employee. Scott Morrison’s press secretary did not respond to a request for comment.

A growing interest

Despite security, censorship, and the spread of misinformation, Ryan said politicians should not stay off WeChat.

Instead, they should make an extra effort to communicate with Chinese-speaking voters using other platforms which are not censored.

“I do think it’s, from one perspective, good that they’re doing this outreach to one segment of the population,” he said. “It’s probably unreasonable to say that they shouldn’t use these platforms altogether.”

The Chinese New Year Lantern Festival at Tumbalong Park on February 12, 2016 in Sydney, Australia.

Wilfred Wang, a lecturer in communications and media at Monash University, believes the impact might have been overstated.

He pointed out that Chinese-Australians encompass a wide range of backgrounds, from people whose families have lived in the country for generations to international students.

While recent arrivals from mainland China would be likely to use WeChat, they might not be eligible to vote, most not being Australian citizens. “I think most Chinese voters won’t take those political related news on WeChat too seriously,” he said.

RMIT’s Yu said there were a range of views in the Chinese community about politicians engaging with them on WeChat. But one thing was for sure — Chinese Australians had shown unprecedented enthusiasm in this year’s election, she said.

“WeChat has definitely made it much easier and more open to engage in politics,” she said. “The Chinese community has grown bigger. It has strong views, is politically active, and looking for a voice and representation in the Federal Parliament.”

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Sex vouchers for migrants? The truth behind Europe’s fake stories

Sex vouchers for migrants? The truth behind Europe’s fake stories

Sex vouchers for migrants? The truth behind Europe’s fake stories

Ahead of the European Parliamentary elections later this month, analysts who study social media content say some populist politicians are capitalizing on voter misconceptions about the EU, to push misinformation on hot button issues like immigration.

Populist figures meanwhile, say open and critical debate about different cultures is being sacrificed at the altar of political correctness.

With populist parties tipped to make big gains in the upcoming election, fact-checkers from across the continent are now combining forces to debunk the tide of political misinformation.

We spoke to some of them about their most startling stories — and what they reveal about the issues dividing a nation.

Sex vouchers in Greece

Velopoulos, the founder of the Christian nationalist Greek Solution party, is known by Greeks for his inflammatory style and his comments in March were no exception. “In Germany, the Syrian or the Afghan migrant goes, gets a coupon twice a week, goes to the brothel, does the work and leaves,” he told audiences on the Alert TV channel he appears on.

“This is the Europe I don’t like,” said Velopoulos, whose Greek Solution party currently does not have any seats in the European Parliament.

He warned that “in a short while, let’s say in 2021,” Greeks “might see” their government also giving migrants “free vouchers to go to the brothels of Omonia Square” in the capital Athens.

“And even that will be paid by the Greek citizens.”

CNN reached out to Velopoulos but he had not replied at time of publishing.

Migrants stage a protest at Athens central train station, in April this year, over travel restrictions.

Velopoulos’ comments come as Greece emerges from nearly ten years of austerity, where “populist politicians taking advantage of the continuing hardship still manage to get lots of traction among voters,” said journalist Thanos Sitistas Epachtitis, who originally debunked Velopoulos’ comments on the news site Ellinka Hoaxes.

The article is one of dozens featured on Fact Check EU, an independent project pulling together fact-checking reports from 19 media outlets across Europe. The outlets, including France’s Le Monde and Ireland’s The Journal, are all signatories of the International Fact-Checking Network.
Even though the sex coupon story is made-up, it “does try to exploit, manipulate and exacerbate the existing anti-immigrant sentiment in Greece,” said Lamprini Rori, a lecturer in politics at the University of Exeter and spokeswoman at the academic network Greek Politics Specialist Group.
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She pointed to a 2018 poll by independent research and policy institute Dianeosis, that found just over 72% of Greeks believe there’s more crime because of the increase in migrants. The 2010 Greek financial crisis, coupled with an abrupt increase in refugees, had created “a poisonous cocktail for anti-immigrant sentiments,” said Rori.

Germany, which adopted a pro-immigrant stance following the 2015 refugee crisis and oversaw Greece’s financial bailout and austerity measures, has become a convenient “scapegoat” in these kinds of stories, said Rori.

The brothel story highlights another issue troubling conservative Greeks — the perceived moral decay of Europe, said Epachtitis. Greeks “have very strong feelings about religion — in our case, Orthodox Christianity — and are willing to listen to those politicians that promise to preserve it,” he added.

As for Velopoulos’ political future, Greece is due to hold a general election by the end of October — where his party is predicted to take just 2% of the national vote, according to Politico.EU.

Homophobia in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, populist politician Thierry Baudet has also perfected the fine art of an outrageous statement. But unlike Velopoulos, this has translated into big wins in the country’s March provincial elections, with his Euroskeptic Forum for Democracy, along with Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s party, gaining the most votes to become the joint biggest party.
In March, Baudet, who has been described as the “suave new face of Dutch rightwing populism,” blamed an increase in homophobia in the Netherlands on “uncontrolled immigration.”
Thierry Baudet, leader of the Forum for Democracy (FvD), on election night 2017.
The claim was investigated by Eufactcheck.eu. The project, run by the European Journalism Training Association, is fact-checking political claims with the help of more than 150 students and staff from 20 journalism schools across Europe.
The group looked at several research reports but could find no data to support Baudet’s claims about immigration and increased homophobia.

After reviewing recent LGBT studies, they concluded Baudet’s remark that Homophobia had increased in the Netherlands was “generally untrue.”

The group also cited a 2015 police study on homophobic crimes in the Netherlands that found 61.8% of homophobic crime suspects had Dutch nationality. The fact-checkers said the police did not differentiate between immigrant and non-immigrant suspects.

Baudet had not responded to CNN’s request for comment at time of publishing.

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Baudet’s tweet pits the liberal attitudes of Dutch people — encapsulated in their acceptance of homosexuality — as under attack by immigration, said Claes de Vreese, Professor and Chair of Political Communication at the University of Amsterdam.

“Populists typically use strong rhetoric to create an image of a threatening outside group,” he said. De Vreese said Baudet’s claims were reminiscent of fellow far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who “also appropriated ‘gay rights’ as ‘Dutch rights’ under threat from immigration.”

Populist parties in Netherlands have a strange balancing act — defending a country known for its tradition of tolerance, with an uncompromising stance on immigration.

The next test for Baudet is whether he can ride his wave of popularity all the way to success in the European elections.

Islam and free speech

“Criticism of Islam is forbidden!” said a Facebook post from Germany’s far-right AfD politician Martin Sichert in March. The post added that according to the European Court of Human Rights, the “protection of Islam is more important than freedom of expression in Europe.”

Sichert was referring to the case of Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, an Austrian political scientist who in 2009 gave a seminar on Islam in which she compared the Prophet Mohammed’s relationship with a child to pedophilia. The seminar in Vienna was promoted by Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPO).

Sabaditsch-Wolff was convicted by an Austrian court of disparaging religious doctrines and fined €480. She appealed several times, but the decision was eventually upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in 2018.
According to German research news site, CORRECTIV, the AfD politician’s Facebook comments were “grossly oversimplifying a complex issue.” The group’s investigation into Sichert’s claims was also featured on the site Fact Check EU.

“It cannot be concluded from the judgment of the court that the ‘protection of Islam’ is more important than freedom of expression,” said CORRECTIV. “The judgment does not even contain the phrase, ‘protection of Islam,'” it added.

Sichert told CNN he “firmly stood by” his comments. In a lengthy statement he said: “If we deny ourselves an open and critical debate about different religions or cultures, we are basically sacrificing our freedom of speech and expression on the altar of political correctness.

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“It is not the Islam that is being criticized here,” said Sichert of his Facebook post. “But the politics and courts, who are failing to uphold and protect our fundamental rights — all in fear that this may be uncomfortable to some.”

The case sheds light on a bigger issue troubling many right-wing, and some centrist, voters in Germany, according to Werner Patzelt, a political analyst who has closely followed the rise of the right-wing movement. And that is “the feeling that all kind of criticism of Islam is forbidden under the flag of political correctness.”

The “EU itself does not exert any pressure of political correctness,” Patzelt added. But, he said, in the eyes of right-wing populists, the EU is nevertheless the “invented or felt enemy” because its policies hinder nation states’ abilities to protect themselves.

The AfD, once on the fringes of politics, is now the third-largest party in Germany following big gains at the 2017 election.

And within days, populist parties across the continent could take their national successes to a European level.

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