The certification of election results was never a big story in the US, let alone in Europe - until this year. With accusations of massive voter fraud alive and well, the accompanying legal process is now presented by many as the ultimate test of American democracy.
Almost a month after election day in the United States, misinformation about voting continues to flourish online - in the US of course, but in Europe, too. And just as it threatens the essence of American democracy, it is also threatening to sow distrust in the electoral process in Europe ahead of crucial elections.
NewsGuard, a company that rates the credibility of news and information sites, has counted more than 40 French, Italian and German-language websites that published false claims about the 2020 U.S. election. "We all knew that the US Democrats were planning to manipulate the elections… But what has happened in the last few days goes beyond what even those who feared electoral fraud expected, in scale and audacity," wrote a German blog on November 5.
On November 26, a French far-right website explained why "the ongoing coup" in the US was "threatening the world". The coup that the site was referring to was not the unsubstantiated claims by President Trump and his supporters to overturn a legitimate election but to the election itself.
In Germany and France, Russian outlets RT and Sputnik, known for publishing false information to disparage Russia’s rivals, joined in on the conspiracies. Even local and detailed instances of alleged fraud, rooted in the intricacies of the American electoral system, found a home on popular misinformation sites in Europe. From "Sharpiegate" in Arizona to allegations of dead people voting in Nevada, European readers were exposed to hyperlocal misinformation narratives powering the overarching idea of massive fraud. False claims have also been shared on countless European social media accounts.
With federal elections in Germany and regional elections in France coming up in 2021, and French presidential elections just 18 months away, European leaders have reasons to worry.
In the spring of 2020, US-centric QAnon conspiracies - which claim that US President Donald Trump is on a secret mission to rid the world of a cabal of elites who control a Deep State that hides a sprawling network of "pedocriminals" - spread to Europe, where they slowly morphed and adapted to local narratives, thus attracting more followers. In the same way, US-born election hoaxes could well start targeting European electoral processes and adapt to their own nuances and complexities.
At least one hoax seems likely to follow that pattern: the idea that mail-in voting significantly increases incidences of voter fraud. In Germany, mail-in voting is fairly common and has even increased in recent years. And in France, where it was abolished in 1975 - precisely because of fraud, notably in Corsica - some politicians are calling for its reintroduction to help boost voting levels, which have been brought down by the pandemic.
"Can’t the behaviour of these (American) cheaters who stirred up a coup be compared to that of the French left?" the far-right French website Riposte Laïque has already posited. "Yes, the French electoral system is more sophisticated than the American one: mail-in voting has been forbidden since 1975… But there are many other, legal, ways to stuff ballot boxes and influence an election".
QAnon sites have proven prime spreaders of baseless claims on the US elections, and despite crackdowns on Q content on Facebook and Twitter, the popularity of QAnon European websites has skyrocketed in recent months. For example, QActus.fr, a French-language site ranked 1,300 in terms of online engagement in France in late July, is now ranked 293, according to data from NewsWhip, a social media analytics company.
Misinformation websites are not the only spreaders of US election misinformation. Some European politicians have also backed narratives about widespread voter fraud. In Italy, Guglielmo Picchi, a member of parliament for the right-wing party The League, wrote on Facebook that Democrats were trying “to steal the election”. In Germany, Beatrix von Storch, deputy party leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD), tweeted on November 7: "Who has won the #USElection2020 is far from certain. And that is a good thing: it is up to a democratic constitutional state to eliminate massive evidence of election fraud".
By the time election day came in the US, claims of a rigged process had circulated for months. The fact that Americans had been exposed to them for so long allowed new allegations to go viral quickly. Research has shown that "even a single exposure (to false claims) increases subsequent perceptions of accuracy". That’s why European leaders should be concerned that hoaxes related to the very heart of our democracies are being allowed to circulate unchecked for so long before their citizens head to the polls.
Months of uncertainty and anxiety around the pandemic have eroded the already weak trust in the mainstream media in Europe, and many popular misinformation websites intend to further promote the idea that large media outlets are hiding the truth. Now is the time to help readers understand which sources they can trust, and which ones have a long history of peddling hoaxes before they stop trusting democracy altogether.
- Chine Labbe is Managing Editor (Europe) for NewsGuard Technologies
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