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Media hype and moral panic: fake news and populism in the Netherlands

What led towards an election result that did not live up to Geert Vilders’ hopes and everyone else’s fears? Where does fake news fit in this picture, and what lessons are there to be learned?

As an expat who has lived and worked in the Netherlands for 3 full years by choice, speaks the language and has a special connection with the country, i think of it as my second home.

As a citizen of the world, a Greek native who lives in Germany and works with US organizations on a daily basis, i believe politics is something everyone should have informed opinions on.

As a professional and researcher who has been working on the intersection of technology and media for years, i have a keen interest on media operation and manipulation.

All of that has come together in the form of ongoing research on fake news and their spread and influence in different parts of the world, starting with the Netherlands in the light of the recent election.

The Netherlands may not be what you think it is

The Dutch are practical people, as the inhabitants of a small piece of land below sea level and stuck in between bigger countries ought to be. They say that “God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands”. This reference to the way the Dutch have been fighting to build and secure their homeland by means of dikes and polders also hints at something else.

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It hints at a society with an open and inquisitive spirit, but perhaps also with a dose of its own pride and self assurance. The Netherlands is typically perceived of as a country that is prosperous, advanced and liberal. And it is, by most standards.

It has been a haven for progressive thinking, resulting in scientific progress and colonial expansion, artistic refinement and the establishment of modern capitalism. Dutch merchants set sail in the 17th century, establishing the Netherlands as a colonial empire in the East and the West, from the Dutch Antilles and South Africa to Indonesia.

The Amsterdam Stock Exchange was the first in the world, an iconic remnant of a historic era of discovery and prosperity. All of that was built on exploration and trade, but also on conquest and slavery.

The Netherlands has a more than 20 percent non-majority ethnic Dutch population, 10 percent of which are Indonesians, Surinamese and Dutch Caribbeans from former or current colonies, as well as Turks and Moroccans who originally came as part of guest worker programs, or were born to families who did.

This is where the Dutch multi-cultural society has its roots: slavery and immigration. People like Spinoza and Descartes may have been the Einsteins and Teslas of their time, but the vast majority of people flocking to this small piece of land was not part of a brain-drain: they were everyday people who were forced, in one way or another, to leave their homes and find refuge and a new home.

Now the Netherlands is trying to come to terms with its past, present and future.

Immigration, integration, populism, misinformation

Amsterdam is a cosmopolitan city. It attracts many tourists and has a vibrant expat community. Typically, most expats and tourists stay on the beaten track, where the grass is green and the girls are pretty and everyone seems to be blending in and getting along. Off the beaten track however, even in Amsterdam, things may be a bit different.

Headscarfs are almost as common as bicycles in Amsterdam. Image: Peter Dejong/Associated Press

Headscarfs are almost as common as bicycles in Amsterdam. Image: Peter Dejong/Associated Press

There is of course the infamous Bijlmer, the closest it gets to a ghetto in Amsterdam – although people who have been to “real” ghettos would probably not know what to make of it. And there are also the “normal” residential areas, the Indische Buurts and the Surinamer pleins, and the groups of brown-skinned Moroccan men and headscarf-wearing Turkish women.

There are headscarf-wearing women of immigrant descent who work in banks and shops and roam the city, and there are others who seem to hardly speak the language or leave their houses. There are also locals who only care about who you are and what you do, and others who are quick to raise eyebrows judging on the way you look and sound. As someone who looks and sounds Turkish when speaking Dutch, i know this first-hand.

And then of course, there is Geert Wilders. The man who has risen to prominence, like his more successful counterpart in the US, in big part by inflicting nationalistic sentiment and demonizing foreigners and Islam in particular. Wilders, initially met with dismissal and laughter as a sort of cult populist figure, was leading the polls prior the this week’s election.

His party did not end up winning the election, and even if he had most other party leaders had ruled out the possibility of entering a coalition required to form a government with the PVV. However observing the rise of PVV, especially with respect to the use of (social) media, and drawing parallels with the US may offer some insights applicable to other contexts and countries as well.

To understand Wilders, one must also look into the country’s recent past: the assassinations of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh that shocked Dutch society and put tolerance into question, the demonisation of Islam, the controversy over Zwarte Piet that is a tell-tale for the tension between past, present and future in this country.

Wilders is a big Trump fan, as he has stated and shown on many occasions. Of course, the PVV is not the GOP, and the US and Netherlands have many qualitative and quantitative differences. But there are also some things the two countries share, including a rising wave of xenophobia and populism that work in tandem, feeding on each other and manifested in what has been called the epitomization of anti-fragile messages: making America -or the Netherlands- great again.

Across the pond: from the US to the Netherlands

The Netherlands, like the US, ranks among the leaders in digital penetration index. Broadband and mobile internet are widely used, and social media play an increasingly important role as a source of news for most people. Like Trump, Wilders is a prominent social media figure, with a substantial number of followers that far exceeds that of his party.

WildersFollowing

Wilders is the most popular among Dutch political leaders on social media. His popularity far exceeds that of his party and seems to be linked to events relevant to his agenda. Image: Financial Times

In the US, the use of media (social or traditional) to transmit dubious information, or what has been called “fake news”, was a key theme in the course leading to the election. Trump has repeatedly bashed traditional media outlets as spreading fake news and his campaign has made heavy use of social media to promote their version of the truth – a tactic that Wilders has praised and adopted.

The origin of fake news in social media and its influence in the US election have been extensively discussed and partially investigated. The effect of fake news is hard to measure, and research suggests it may have been overestimated. It is also difficult to get concrete facts and establish connections between the Trump campaign, advanced methods used for social media outreach, the relation between the two and the effect it has had.

As a response to mounting public opinion, traditional media and political leadership pressure, Facebook, the most widely used social media platform in the world, has initiated collaborations with 3rd party fact-checking organizations in a number of countries including the Netherlands.

Although the details pertaining to the collaboration were not finalized at the time of writing, Facebook will from now on delegate disputed items in the Netherlands for resolution to Nieuws Checkers. Nieuws Checkers is an initiative in which students from the Master course in Journalism in the University of Leiden perform fact checking on a voluntary, best effort basis.

Nieuws Checkers is led by Dr. Peter Burger, a Lecturer in Journalism and New Media in the University of Leiden with with over 25 years of experience as a fact checker and researcher on fake news who shared his views.

We also reached out to Dr. Rens Vliegenthart. Vliegenthart is a professor for Media and Society and a board member at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research, and a co-chair of the political communication division of the Netherlands-Flanders Communication Association.

Fake news may not be what you think it is

To begin with, what really is fake news? For Vliegenthart, “fake news is news that is deliberately fabricated and incorrect to reach a certain (political) goal, while pretending to deliver objective information/facts – it might be less clearly supporting a certain political actor than propaganda does, but aims might be similar”.

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In news, like in most other things, it’s not usually black or white, true or false. There are different shades of gray. Image: First Draft

According to Burger, “we need to define both ‘fake’ and ‘news’. Apart from the standards we already adopt, we think we need more sophisticated distinctions, based on the material reported as ‘fake news’ by Facebook users. We’re going to need some time to calibrate our understanding of fake news”.

Apparently, the definition of both ‘fake’ and ‘news’ in a world of “alternative facts” is not entirely objective, to put it mildly. But even where there can be agreement on the facts, the dichotomy between “true” and “false” may be misleading. In the real world, things are not usually black and white, but shades of gray.

Even though there is no consensus on the definition of fake news as of yet, there are steps in that direction. First Draft’s Claire Wardle wrote about the different types of problematic information she saw circulate during the US election and has since then been working on defining different types of misinformation and disinformation.

First Draft is a nonprofit coalition formed in 2015 to raise awareness and address challenges relating to trust and truth in the digital age, and includes the likes of CNN, Reuters, Facebook and Twitter. Wardle, currently leading strategy and research for First Draft, was the Research Director at the TowCenter at Columbia J-School and has co-founded Eyewitness Media Hub.

Wardle argues there are seven distinct types of problematic content that sit within our information ecosystem, on a scale that loosely measures the intent to deceive. Wardle also believes that the motivations for the creation of this type of content as well as their dissemination mechanisms should be taken into account.

This is work in progress, but needs to be seriously considered and discussed in the media industry and beyond. Wardle stresses the power of visual information, or memes, arguing people are much less likely to be critical of visuals. She cites a BuzzFeed article on a group of US Trump supporting teenagers that connected online to influence the French election in April.

This group shared folders of ‘meme-shells’ so even those who can’t speak French can drop visuals into hashtag streams, aiming to achieve what others boasted to have achieved in the US: to “meme” Trump into the White House.

Media hype and moral panic

And what about the Netherlands? At the time of writing, the collaboration between Nieuws Checkers and Facebook had just been announced, so there were no real data to report on. During the week prior to the election, the Public Data Lab in collaboration with the Digital Methods Initiative held a data sprint on fake news in the age of social media.

Google trends for fake news in the Netherlands. There are peaks in popularity, which peaked after Wilders'infamous photoshopped Tweet

Google trends for fake news in the Netherlands. There are wide variations in term popularity, peaking after Wilders’ infamous photoshopped Tweet

The sprint consisted of hands-on work to research the making, circulation, responses and controversies associated with fake news, and a day of talks by prominent researchers in the area. It was part of a Public Data Lab project to develop a field guide to fake news in US and European politics, with the aim to contribute towards the field guide. Since this initiative also had no results to share at the time of writing, we turned to Burger and Vliegenthart for answers.

Vliegenthart believes that fake news is not (yet?) a problem in the Netherlands, as there is little of it and has no clear impact. Burger on the other hand reports he has come across numerous instances of fake and heavily distorted news spouting anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-EU propaganda in PVV tweets. He says that when confronted with the invalidity of their claims, PVV members invariably downplay the issue: “ok, this one may not be true, but that does not change facts”.

In any case there does not seem to be any orchestrated effort to spread fake news of the “Macedonian” kind, which Burger attributes to the limited interest the Dutch population has for fake news creators, both in terms of numbers and language. He also says the tradition of non-polarization in Dutch politics plays a part.

Vliegenthart points out that the country has become more polarized and the communication style and perhaps use of facts for politicians has changed, but does not believe fake news played a role in it; it might however grow as a consequence of polarization. All in all, fake news does not seem to be a thing in the Netherlands.

There is more hype than substance apparently, and even the hype is not much: although there have been a few references in the press and a few statements concerning “nepnieuws”, they are mostly centered around one incident: a Photoshopped image of one of Wilders’s opponents, the leader of the D66 party.

The image showed Pechtold among a group of Saria protesters suggesting if this is the next step.

“It’s media hype and moral panic” says Burger. “Fake news is a real problem worth studying, but it’s largely exaggerated in our case”. Vliegenthart points out that there is criticism on the ‘mainstream media’, not only from the PVV, but also from the new party DENK that largely consists of Dutch people with an immigrant background, but although people increasingly use a wide variety of sources to get informed, that does not mean that we see a big rise of fake news.

After all, Geenstijl is geen 4chan.

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