Mainstream news outlets have eagerly reported on a study by the Avaaz campaign group, claiming far-right disinformation groups have been spreading fake news in the lead up to EU elections — but is the group all that it seems?
The Avaaz network bills itself as social action group bringing “people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere” and it’s latest study claims that more than 500 suspicious groups and Facebook pages are operating across major EU countries and spreading election disinformation to boost far-right and anti-EU parties ahead of crucial parliamentary elections.
The disinformation networks, Avaaz claimed, are even more popular than the pages belonging to official right-wing and anti-establishment groups and parties — and that they have been engaged in everything from sharing white supremacist content to Holocaust denial.
Outlets from the Washington Post in the US to the Guardian in the UK have reported on the study, which was released just days before Europeans go to the polls — but reading the reports gives a clear impression that Avaaz is a non-partisan and independent group, when the reality is much different. Avaaz is not simply studying these elections, it is actively campaigning.
While Avaaz claims it accepts no money from governments or corporations, it is tied to other social action groups Res Publica and Moveon.org (which has been partly funded by left-wing Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros) — and its co-founders, Ricken Patel and Tom Perriello, have a history of supporting a US imperialist agenda. Patel has previously worked for the US State Department and Amnesty International, while Perriello is a former US congressman who voted in favor of continuing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Soros was also a major campaign contributor to Perriello. Is this really the kind of political action group that should be cited by the media without proper context?
Independent journalists have had suspicions about Avaaz’s own activity for years, noting its strong pro-establishment and globalist leanings, which have even translated into outward support for US regime change wars around the world. When the group is not pushing for no-fly zones in Libya and Syria, or agitating for regime change in Venezuela and Iran, it is actively supporting centrist, neoliberal political figures across the EU and US. Patel told the EUobserver last year that the “majority” of people across Europe “stand with” German Chancellor Angela Merkel and has also actively supported French President Emmanuel Macron with online videos and petitions.
While Avaaz is seemingly very concerned with the plight of citizens in places like Venezuela and Iran (it was also actively involved in promoting Iran’s ‘Green Revolution’ in 2009), it appears to be less concerned with the lives of ordinary Europeans. The group has targeted the anti-Macron Yellow Vest movement in France and framed the protesters easy targets for spreading “fake news” — and to put the icing on the cake, blamed the swift spread of this alleged fake news on Russia, another of Avaaz’s favorite targets.
Indeed, unsurprisingly, media reporting on so-called election meddling ahead of EU elections has taken on an anti-Russia hue, with many suggesting that disinformation groups are simply ‘copying Russian tactics’ from the 2016 US election, when the Democratic Party claimed Russian disinformation campaigns were a major factor in Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump — a claim for which there remains exactly zero evidence.
One of these reports on the alleged copycat tactics quotes Ben Nimmo, a former NATO press officer, cited with regularity by mainstream journalists as though he is an impartial source. Like clockwork, Nimmo popped up ahead of the EU elections to claim that “domestic actors” across Europe are now simply “doing what the Russians had already been doing” — because it’s easier to blame Russia for social discord in Europe than failed leadership and unpopular policies.
Once again, it appears that many of the groups claiming to help people recognize fake news online are some of the biggest and sneakiest purveyors of disinformation themselves — and they are frequently promoted by mainstream news outlets — if they are selling the correct narrative, that is.
Mainstream media continue to quote the founders of cybersecurity firm New Knowledge as credible experts on Russian disinformation tactics, even after the firm was exposed by the New York Times for having run its own disinformation campaign during a 2017 Alabama senate race. The New Knowledge crowd set up fake Russian social media accounts to ‘support’ one candidate and then worked to publicly brand him as Moscow’s pick.
By not even mentioning Avaaz’s own sketchy links, and very clear political leanings, Western news reports citing its studies as completely credible and independent are simply engaging in their own kind of disinformation.