Dutch MPs outraged by Russia's fake news influence on public opinion

The Tweede Kamer is shocked and outraged by reports from Minister Kasja Ollongren of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations that Russia and other countries are using fake news to try and influence public opinion in the Netherlands. "That fake accounts influence our democracy is life threateningly dangerous", CDA leader Sybrand Buma said to broadcaster NOS. The CDA and D66 are presenting a set of measures in the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch parliament, on Wednesday to prevent this from happening.

On Tuesday Ollongren sent a letter to the Kamer, informing parliamentarians that the Netherlands is targeted by Russian intelligence agencies, which use fake news to try and influence public opinion in foreign countries. She called the spreading of fake news dangerous to the Netherlands, and added that other countries than Russia are also using this tactic. Ollongren said that she will meet with media and technology companies to discuss how to tackle fake news. 

"If you know how many free elections have been influenced by Russia today, that's terrifying", Buma said to NOS, mentioning the presidential elections in the United States, the Brexit referendum and the referendum on independence in Catalonia as examples. "We ourselves have elections and a referendum soon." He called Ollongren's letter to the Tweede Kamer a first step. "It's good that the Kamer has been informed, but giving an answer in a week is impossible. This is just the beginning."

Countries trying to exert influence on each other, is not a new phenomenon, VVD parliamentary faction leader Klaas Dijkhoff said to the broadcaster. "But now they use more modern means, which can make it harder to filter out." He finds the freedom of the internet very important, but adds that this freedom is also used to spread disinformation. He called coping with this disinformation a new challenge. 

According to PvdA leader Lodewijk Asscher, Ollongren's letter is insufficient response to the threat facing the Netherlands. "The minister does nothing. This is such an urgent problem, then we must be able to trust that our vote is safe and that we are not manipulated", he said to NOS. He wants criminal measures to be taken against fake news, and that a solution be sought at a European level.

On Wednesday CDA parliamentarian Harry van der Molen and D66 parliamentarian Kees Verhoeven will present three proposals to combat the spreading of fake news, the Volkskrant reports. These include convincing Twitter and Facebook to be transparent about the algorithms they use in selecting what people see on their platforms, a government campaign to warn against fake news in the run-up to the municipal elections next year, and more information about the people who pay for political advertisements. 

According to Verhoeven, the government should approach Facebook and Twitter and appeal to their responsibility. "They always defended themselves by saying that they only offer a platform. But they are news channels with a vengeance", he said to the newspaper. He adds that the government shouldn't intervene directly, as that creates the danger of censorship. The two parliamentarians therefore want a different approach. "Make it clear to users that a timeline is determined by an algorithm", Verhoeven said. 

The two parties also propose a register that shows who pays for political ads, and for what purpose. This information should also be available on social media ads themselves. And the CDA and D66 want the government to launch a campaign warning against fake news in the run-up to the municipal elections in March. They suggest that the campaign be called 'Don't step in it', and be similar to the anti-phishing campaign called 'Hang up! Click Away! Call your bank!'. "Not everything you read is necessarily true. Such a campaign can help people to truly distinguish the true from the fake."

Dutch intelligence agencies MIVD and AIVD previously warned about fake news being used to influence elections and public opinion, naming Russia in particular. Speaking to RTL a few weeks ago, U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton also talked about Russian influence and the danger of fake news.