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15th Sep 2019

Feature

Fake news or hacking absent in Dutch election campaign

  • Pirate Ancilla van de Leest had her doubts about the influence of fake news on the Dutch elections. (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Even the digitally savvy activists of the Pirate Party still use analog campaign methods.

“Hello, can I offer you a flyer?”, the party's leader, Ancilla van de Leest, asked passers-by in Amsterdam on Tuesday (14 March).

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  • The leader of the Dutch party, Denk, helped to distribute a rumour about discrimination without checking it (Photo: Peter Teffer)

The two men on their way to Amsterdam's LGBTQ film festival kindly rejected her offer.

“Do go out and vote, though,” she responded.

One day before the elections for the Dutch lower house of parliament, Van de Leest's party is predicted by an aggregate of six polls to receive around 1 percent of the votes, which for the first time could be enough for a seat.

If elected, Van de Leest hopes to increase the level of debate on digital affairs.

“The level of knowledge [about technology] is really low,” she said about the current members of parliament, adding that MPs often admit so themselves.

While the role of technology was not a prominent campaign theme, it did play an important procedural role.

After the election campaign in the United States, politicians, government authorities, and media in the Netherlands became highly attentive to the risks of fake news and foreign hacking.

Pirate candidate Ancilla van de Leest told EUobserver that she had her doubts about the influence of fake news.

“I have seen very little fake news,” she said. “Even if someone shares fake news, in particular on platforms like Facebook or Twitter, that will be immediately followed by hundreds of comments that point to the actual truth. There is a self-cleaning mechanism.”

Last week, Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad published a report confirming Van de Leest's assessment.

The daily looked at a hundred political news items that were often shared on social media. While some were misleading or exaggerated, none were actual fake news - in accordance with the definition of a fabricated, politically-motivated story disguised as news.

NRC explained the lack of a proliferation of fake news in the Netherlands by pointing to economics.

During an electoral campaign in the US, a country of 320 million inhabitants, the distribution of fake news with catchy headlines, accompanied by advertisements, can be an interesting business model. By contrast, the Dutch population of 17 million, who converse in a much less widely spoken language, may just be too niche.

Alternative facts

Another trend was however present during the campaign - the use of the alternative facts.

Several MPs during the election campaign gave statements discrediting official government sources, or claiming things without adequate proof.

The 50PLUS party for example, which says it defends the interests of the elderly, questioned life expectancy figures coming from the Dutch national bureau of statistics.

The Denk party, which seems to attract mostly voters from immigrant backgrounds, claimed that “some” Dutch doctors discriminate.

Denk MP Tunahan Kuzu said that he had seen “signals” that some doctors would “pull the plug” (as in: let them die) on patients with an immigration background quicker than with other Dutch people. He later admitted he had no evidence for that claim and that he would investigate, but by then the rumour was already out.

This behaviour is reminiscent of president Trump's tweeting, who, “after setting off a firestorm with no proof ... calls for an investigation to find the missing evidence,” the New York Times wrote recently.

Pirate MP-hopeful Van de Leest said she also saw that strategy with the anti-EU politician, Geert Wilders. But she also partly blamed the mainstream media.

She pointed out that some politicians “say untruths in the hope that the press will elaborately write about them, which then happens.”

So far, it looks like Dutch voters will mostly decide based on actual news, events, and opinions.

Turkey

Foreign affairs will play a role, more than most would have thought a week ago.

The Netherlands entered a severe diplomatic row with Nato ally, Turkey, over the weekend, when the two sides clashed over whether Turkish ministers could campaign in the Netherlands for a Yes vote in a Turkish referendum.

On Tuesday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Turkish-Dutch citizens not to vote for Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, or anti-Islam MP Wilders.

His remark came a day after Rutte said he did not believe Turkey is trying to influence the Dutch elections.

Erdogan's interference in an EU country's national elections is diplomatically uncouth, but fits with the Turkish leader's usual behaviour.

Russia

Nevertheless, if any foreign government would have been predicted to influence the Dutch elections, until recently most people would probably have put their money on Russia.

Following the events in the US, several Dutch politicians warned against the danger of a similar interference in the Netherlands.

Dutch MP Kees Verhoeven, from the centrist pro-EU D66 party, said in January that it was “obvious” to him the Russians would try to influence Wednesday's elections.

Foreign minister Bert Koenders said at the time that there was no concrete evidence for a Russian intervention, but that he was “not naive about it”.

The Dutch security and justice minister at the time, Ard van der Steur, said the in same month that “underestimating” the risk of foreign hacking to influence elections was “dangerous”.

In that context, interior minister Ronald Plasterk apparently felt he had no choice but to act quickly when news came out that the computers used to register votes were vulnerable to tampering.

The actual voting is done with pencil and paper, and counting at the polling station is done by hand, but Plasterk took an additional step, demanding that if the electoral districts use computers to count the votes cast, those should not be connected to the Internet.

Discrediting the opponent

While covert operations to hack elections are by definition difficult to prove or rule out, a source in the European Union's cyber-security agency said that political cyber attacks are not about directly hacking elections.

“It is about discrediting your opponent,” said the contact with the European Union Agency for Network and Information Security (Enisa).

The source told EUobserver that member states have not asked Enisa for advice on how to deal with protecting their electoral processes.

“Usually they tend to deal with these issues by themselves,” the source said, adding that it is “a highly politically sensitive issue”.

The source noted that 100-percent IT security does not exist, but that a lot can be done by using secure systems and being educated.

Dutch GreenLeft candidate Kathalijne Buitenweg recently told EUobserver that she was told by her party to switch e-mail addresses, so that she could have one with double verification security.

“I don't think that the Russians are thinking: oh we need to [hack] that Mrs Buitenweg. But on the other hand, I can't assess that, so I should just stick to what the professionals say,” she argued.

Pirate party leader Van de Leest said that the question of whether foreign powers are trying to hack the elections is actually “irrelevant”.

“You have to secure your system in such a way that you don't need to have that discussion in the first place,” she added.

Later on Tuesday, there was a cyber attack that affected some Dutch voters. Two online apps that help voters compare parties' positions were made temporarily inaccessible.

The motive and origin, often the case with such a so-called Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, was unknown.

EUobserved

MPs and media create Brexit hacking scare

A report by British MPs said it cannot rule out that a cyber attack caused a voter registration website to crash, but also admitted it had "no direct evidence" of Russian or Chinese influence.

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