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Facebook flooded with fake news ahead of EU elections, study finds

Millions of Facebook users were exposed to disinformation, advocacy nonprofit Avaaz says.

Graphic by Pixabay/Illustration by CNET

Facebook has been flooded with disinformation ahead of the EU elections despite efforts by the social network to stop fake news from going viral, a study by nonprofit advocacy group Avaaz found. 

During the last three months, Avaaz researchers found 550 pages and groups along with 328 profiles that appeared to be spreading disinformation in Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Poland and Spain. Avaaz, which reported the accounts to Facebook, said the social network pulled down 77 pages and groups as well as 230 profiles. 

By then, the damage was already done. Disinformation posted by groups, pages and accounts that Facebook removed were viewed an estimated 533 million times over three months, according to the study. 

The findings, released Wednesday in Europe, raise questions about whether Facebook's efforts to fight election meddling and fake news are working.

"The size and sophistication of these networks makes them weapons of mass destruction for democracy, and right now they are pointed squarely at Europe," Christoph Schott, a campaign director at Avaaz, said in a statement. "The most worrying thing is we've just scratched the surface. There could be much, much more out there."

The European Parliamentary election will take place between May 23 and May 26. A Facebook page is similar to a profile, but are used by businesses, organizations and public figures. A group is an online space that Facebook users join to discuss and learn about various topics. 

Avaaz is urging Facebook to get fact-checkers to issue corrections for the disinformation, which the group defines as false or misleading content. Avaaz also wants Facebook to inform users if they've seen or interacted with disinformation or followed a page that the social network pulled down or demoted because of this problem. The group is asking Facebook to "clean up its house" and proactively look for suspicious activity on the social network tied to the EU elections. 

The 53-page report shows that whoever was behind the disinformation campaigns used various tactics such as changing a page's name after it garnered followers to spread fake news. In the UK, groups and pages supported people that Facebook banned for being "dangerous" such as British far-right activist Tommy Robinson. Pages and groups in other European countries spread anti-immigration, racist or white nationalist content, according to the study. In Germany, some users posted Nazi symbols such as the swastika or the Hitler salute. 

Facebook didn't respond to a request for comment. The social network, though, has been trying to convince the public along with lawmakers that it's doing more to fight fake news and election meddling. In March, the social network pulled down 137 Facebook and Instagram accounts, pages and groups from the UK that misrepresented their identities. The tech company has also been working with journalists, researchers and other groups to find ways to fight misinformation more quickly. And it's been expanding a tool that lets users learn more about who posted a political ad along with whether a Facebook page changed its name. 

But all those efforts haven't been enough to appease some of Facebook's most vocal critics like Avaaz. Earlier this month, the group brought fake news victims to the Bay Area to show Facebook, Twitter and Google that their actions have real consequences. The group also created the cardboard cutouts of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in Washington DC last year when he testified before Congress. 

"Disinformation is being used to deceive people and stoke anger and distrust in our politics, and the concern is that we'll see the impact in the European elections this week," Schott said.