available languages: english April 3, 2019

The big tech companies and many experts are concerned with attacks on the integrity of the European Parliament elections taking place at the end of May. They fear that systematic disinformation campaigns will try to sway voters in one or another direction. A review of current monitoring efforts by German civil society organisations suggests that campaigns on relatively accessible social media channels are likely to be detected, however, closed chat groups like WhatsApp are increasingly used and cannot be monitored. These were some conclusions of a meeting on 29 March in Berlin, that DRI held with the Mercator Foundation and with support of the German Foreign Office, gathering some 25 representatives of civil society groups and academic research initiatives.

Most participants agreed that significant disinformation campaigns from abroad or from within Germany try to bolster support for right-wing extremism. Nevertheless, some participants felt that it is useful for some groups to have an agnostic approach to monitoring, even if in the end they confirm that right-wing extremism remains the biggest problem of social media platforms.

The various initiatives that monitor social media use differing methods. Some have a long-standing profile in qualitative monitoring of right-wing extremism. Although they work with limited resources, they know the networks of influencers and note when disinformation or hate speech campaigns are launched. Other initiatives built significant teams to monitor the EP elections in particular. Academic research projects are not primarily geared to publishing real-time analysis or to intervene with social media firms, but they publicly release first tentative research results. Some of them cover not only Germany but also other EU partner countries.

Representatives of Twitter and Facebook highlighted their activities to reduce disinformation and to ensure that engagement on their sites is authentic. Facebook now believes that some aspects of electoral integrity, such as the handling of paid advertising, should be better regulated in law rather than left for tech firms to decide. DRI presented key findings of its soon to be published study comparing the practice of traditional election observation with social media analysis of elections.