What comes to your mind when you hear the term ‘online manipulation’? In the run-up to the EU parliamentary elections at the end of May, you probably think first and foremost of disinformation. But what about technical ways to manipulate voters on the internet? Although they are becoming more and more popular because they are so difficult to recognize and therefore particularly successful, they probably don’t come to mind first. Quite simply because they have not received much public attention so far. Firefox tackles this issue today: The ‘Firefox EU Election Toolkit’ not only provides important background knowledge and tips – designed to be easily understood by non-techies – but also tools to enable independent online research and decision-making.
Manipulation on the web: ‘fake news’ isn’t the main issue (anymore)
Few other topics have been so present in public perception in recent years, so comprehensively discussed in everyday life, news and science, and yet have been demystified as little as disinformation. Also commonly referred to as ‘fake news’, it’s defined as “deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media.” Right now, so shortly before the next big elections at the end of May, the topic seems to be bubbling up once more: According to the European Commission’s Eurobarometer, 73 percent of Internet users in Europe are concerned about disinformation in the run-up to the EU parliamentary elections.
However, research also proves: The public debate about disinformation takes place in great detail, which significantly increases awareness of the ‘threat’. The fact that more and more initiatives against disinformation and fact-checking actors have been sprouting up for some time now – and that governments are getting involved, too – may be related to the zeitgeist or connected to individuals’ impression that they are constantly confronted with ‘fake news’ and cannot protect themselves on their own.
It’s important to take action against disinformation. Also, users who research the elections and potential candidates on the Internet, for example, should definitely stay critical and cautious. After all, clumsy disinformation campaigns are still taking place, revealing some of the downsides of a global, always available Internet; and they even come with a wide reach and rapid dissemination. Countless actors, including journalists, scientists and other experts now agree that the impact of disinformation is extremely limited and traditional news is still the primary and reliable source of information. This does not, however, mean that the risk of manipulation has gone away; in fact, we must make sure to stay alert and not close our eyes to new, equally problematic forms of manipulation, which have just been less present in the media and science so far. At Firefox we understand that this may require some support – and we’re happy to provide it today.
A toolkit for well-informed voters
Tracking has recently been a topic of discussion in the context of intrusive advertising, big data and GDPR. To refresh your memory: When browsing from site to site, users’ personal information may be collected through scripts or widgets on the websites. They’re called trackers. Many people don’t like that user information collected through trackers is used for advertising, often times without people’s knowledge (find more info here). But there’s another issue a lot less people are aware of and which hasn’t been widely discussed so far: User data can also be used for manipulation attempts, micro-targeted at specific groups or individuals. We believe that this needs to change – and in order to make that happen, more people need to hear about it.
Firefox is committed to an open and free Internet that provides access to independent information to everyone. That’s why we’ve created the ‘Firefox EU Elections Toolkit’: a website where users can find out how tracking and opaque online advertising influence their voting behavior and how they can easily protect themselves – through browser add-ons and other tools. Additionally, disinformation and the voting process are well represented on the site. The toolkit is now available online in English, German and French. No previous technical or policy-related knowledge is required. Among other things, the toolkit contains:
- background information on how tracking, opaque election advertising and other questionable online activities affect people on the web, including a short, easy-to-digest video.
- selected information about the EU elections as well as the EU as an institution – only using trustworthy sources.
- browser extensions, checked on and recommended by Firefox, that support independent research and opinion making.
Make an independent choice when it matters the most
Of course, manipulation on the web is not only relevant in times of major political votes. With the forthcoming parliamentary elections, however, we find ourselves in an exceptional situation that calls for practical measures – also because there might be greater interest in the election, the programmes, parties and candidates than in recent years: More and more EU citizens are realizing how important the five-yearly parliamentary election is; the demands on parliamentarians are rising; and last but not least, there are numerous new voters again this May for whom Internet issues play an important role, but who need to find out about the election, its background and consequences.
Firefox wants to make sure that everyone has the chance to make informed choices. That detailed technical knowledge is not mandatory for getting independent information. And that the internet with all of its many advantages and (almost) unlimited possibilities is open and available to everyone, independent from demographics. Firefox fights for you.