Spain's Socialists romp over fake news to electoral win

Date Posted: April 30, 2019 Last Modified: June 30, 2023
Spain's centre-left Socialist party, led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, was victorious in Sunday's general election. Photo: Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE)

The centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, came victorious in Sunday's general election. The party captured 29 per cent of the vote, winning 123 seats in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies. But the Socialists, till even the last minute, had seemed to be facing in uphill task, particularly in the wake of virulent disinformation campaigns waged by the far right Vox pary, which eventually the country's parliament for the first time since dictator General Franco's rule came to an end in 1975.

Just days before the country went to the polls, campaigning site Avaaz released a report claiming that around 9.6 million potential Spanish voters had been recipients of a largescale fake news propaganda executed on the WhatsApp platform. The study found that Spanish citizens had been the subject of a series of disinformation campaigns which were overwhelmingly right-wing. The study looked at just 14 days (April 11-24), at the height of the election campaign.

The stories that were most widely circulated were fake reports, including a story that the Pedro Sanchez had secretly signed a treaty for Catalan independence and another claiming the Madrid mayor’s supposed plans to set up “sex zones” for gay people across the city. The study concluded that 43 per cent of the messages were anti-Left, 14 per cent were anti-migrant, 10 per cent were homophobic.  The results were based on a combination of crowdsourced submissions from Avaaz members, data processing tools like Twilio and fact-checks by Spanish media.

The study analysed memes and images that were often shared among the right-wing channels, but said that WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption made it difficult to provide a detailed viewership estimate which rendered it difficult to analyse. A representative survey with Metroscopia, on the other hand, showed that up to 9.6 million potential Spanish voters (26.1 per cent) had received such misleading content.

“This report is a warning to every voter in Spain,” said Avaaz campaign director Christoph Schott in a statement. “WhatsApp is a beautiful tool to connect with friends and family, but it’s slowly being turned into social media’s dark web—a place where lies and hate go viral without any public scrutiny. With the Spanish elections at risk of following what happened in the US and Brazil, WhatsApp must immediately warn all its users and step up their cooperation with independent fact-checkers." This trend was particularly troubling as 89 per cent of Spanish citizens were using the messaging app, Avaaz noted.

This report came close on the heels of Avaaz’s April 12 report which pointed out several groups on Facebook spreading disinformation and indulging in alleged hate speech. These groups mostly posted anti-immigration, anti-LGBT, and anti-feminist content, according to the report. Last week, the tech giant took down these groups which had a follower base of nearly 1.7 people citing these pages broke the platform’s rules.

Unlike other social media platforms, WhatsApp has often escaped more intense scrutiny under a wider debate against disinformation. This enabled it to become the playground of right-wing groups, with populist right-wing party Vox looking to win these elections based on its controversial use of social media interactions according to the latest opinion polls.

This was what raised doubts as to whether the Socialists would indeed be able to surmount the fake news blitzkrieg. With polls suggesting that 30-40 per cent of Spaniards still unsure of who to vote for, Schott warned, “With so many voters still undecided, the last thing they may see before they head to the polls maybe a completely fabricated story”. He cautioned, “These stories may tip the balance.” Eventually, those did, and did not. The Socialists will form a coalition government, but fell short of a majority in Parliament. Vox, on the other hand, has entered the legislative space after bursting into Spain's political scene only last year.

That said, WhatsAppp was also accused of political meddling in response to its move to unexpectedly block a channel of the Socialists less than a week before the elections. WhatsApp defended the move claiming that the account had violated its terms of use which do not allow mass messaging or third-party programs to automate messages. While Podemos accepted that it had been using the channel for automated mass messages, it contended that other parties had been doing so as well, “This is discriminatory behaviour, interference from a company in an electoral process, which… affects the quality of our democracy,” in a Twitter post”.

A source close to WhatsApp claimed that controlling misinformation was a difficult challenge saying, “Everything (fake content) is all on the basis of suspicion, it is impossible to know whether or not someone is sharing fake content." Avaaz had called on WhatsApp to implement emergency measures ahead of the elections both in Spain and the European Union. Its recommendation included issuing a disinformation warning to all users in Spain and Europe, implementing an hourly forwarding limit and buttons for users to easily report fake news.

Across Europe, there has been concentrated efforts by the European Commission to tackle the risks of disinformation, before the May European elections. Towards the end of 2018, with a number of signatories including Facebook, WhatsApp and Google, the Commission launched a voluntary framework which aims to curb the spread of online fake news. It looks to be seen if these measures will reflect a curb in the spread misinformation in the run-up to the European elections.