EU fight against disinformation must target propagators and protect fundamental rights

In a recent opinion, the EESC calls for more to be done to target the people and organisations that are at the source of disinformation, prioritising prevention rather than cure.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the threat posed by disinformation into sharp focus. Against this backdrop, following a critical assessment the European Commission published guidance in May 2021 aimed at strengthening the EU's Code of Practice on Disinformation to create a safer, more trustworthy online space.

In an opinion issued in response, the EESC says the Commission focuses too much on content and its moderation – and not enough on those who propagate it in the first place.

"The content is constantly changing and the platforms that are used evolve, but the main actors remain basically the same and the motives do not change", says Thierry Libaert, rapporteur for the opinion.
The EESC notes that disinformation is a booming business and welcomes the Commission's emphasis on countering its revenue-generating power. False information spreads six times faster than true information, is liked and shared more often, produces more activity, and attracts more attention, generating more visitors and hence more value and more advertising revenue.

As Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen recently revealed, far from combating the phenomenon, her employer had made it an integral part of its business model.

However, in order to better tackle disinformation at its source, the Commission should consider an "arsenal" of more binding economic, legal and financial tools that go beyond voluntary commitments by online advertisers.

"The European Union must acquire more capabilities to be able to fight effectively against disinformation, which is systematically spread by hostile powers, often driven by governments of certain third countries, among which are Russia and China", says the rapporteur.

National authorities need more support from intelligence services, the EESC says, while urging EU-wide cooperation and knowledge-sharing. However, with media freedom and legal systems at risk in several EU countries, the Commission must ensure that the fight against disinformation is not used as a pretext for limiting public freedoms – first and foremost freedom of expression.

Particularly for countries bordering Russia, the Commission should promote more action on content produced in languages other than English and focus more on lesser-known platforms, such as VKontakte, Rumble, Odysee, Gab and Parler, as well as on big names. While the former have smaller audiences, they can be less transparent and more easily target specific groups.

Because new networks are emerging all the time, the means they use are increasingly sophisticated (such as "deep fakes") and some applications straddle the line between a platform and a private messaging service (such as Telegram), new risks must be countered as soon as they are detected. (dm)