The EU should get tough on fake news

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Regulating social media, developing media literacy and supporting independent quality journalism - these are some of the main prerequisites for combating disinformation and safeguarding EU democracy, says the EESC

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a public hearing to explore the impact of campaigns to boost voter turnout in the latest European elections and to analyse opportunities for fighting disinformation and ensuring that the public participates more in political decision-making in the EU over the next five-year institutional cycle.

The hearing revealed that despite successful information campaigns, which had mobilised a relatively high number of voters in the latest EU elections, Europeans had become increasingly exposed to an avalanche of fake news, poor quality journalism favouring sensationalism over impartial reporting, and social media content filtered to suit various commercial or political interests.

There have been some outstanding efforts made by EU institutions to reach out to the public, but the dangers are now greater than ever. The EU needs to adopt a much bolder stance on what it takes to make EU democracy resilient, lively and prosperous for new generations, said EESC member Marina Škrabalo in her introductory statement.

The hearing was held to gather input for the EESC's exploratory opinion on the effects of campaigns on participation in political decision-making, for which Ms Škrabalo is rapporteur.

The opinion was requested by the current Croatian EU presidency, which had pinpointed this topic as an area in which the EESC's input would guide their future reflection and action. Croatia would also look into how best to incorporate the EESC's opinion into ongoing Council discussions, the representative of the Croatian presidency, Irina Zorić, told the hearing.

We are aware that a meaningful and responsible participation of people in political decision-making is crucial for the European Union and its policies. In order to protect our democratic values, we will pay special attention to the fight against the dissemination of fake news, intolerance and disinformation on digital platforms, Ms Zorić maintained.

The opinion was also relevant for the Commission’s Democracy Action Plan that was currently in the pipeline, which would address the dangers of external intervention in EU elections and would, among other things, include proposals for ensuring greater transparency in paid political advertising and for increasing funds to support quality journalism, said Marie-Hélène Boulanger of the European Commission.

Apart from representatives from EU institutions and the Croatian EU Presidency, the hearing brought together top officials from the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), the East Stratcom Task Force of the European External Action Service, the EU DisinfoLab, Carnegie Europe and European Digital Rights (EDRI).

Lessons learned

Stephen Clark, Director for Liaison Offices in the EP’s DG for Communication, presented the results of the EP’s campaign for the 2019 European elections. It had been largely successful, having mobilised slightly more than 50% of the EU population to vote, and had secured a record high participation rate amongst young people.

Mr Clark put the success of the campaign down to the fact that it had had a local focus and that it had taken into account emotional aspects and a cause worth standing up for, in this case Europe. We realised that it was not enough to provide people with information but that we actually needed to engage with them and convince them to join us, he said. 

External and internal threats and unruly digital platforms

Yet it is not easy for the EU to reach out to the public in the current media landscape. Strategic placement of foreign infiltrated fake news and a drop in the quality of journalism and unbiased reporting are both responsible for endangering citizens' rights to be informed and to make informed political choices.

Disinformation the way that it is talked about today, as a symptom of the flaws – that is just the tip of the iceberg. The current disinformation coming from the Kremlin is the number one external threat factor that is undermining support for the EU, said Monika Richter of the East Stratcom Task Force, a specialised unit within the EEAS's strategic communication department focused on countering Russian disinformation operations in Europe and vis-à-vis the Eastern partnership countries.

This is political warfare, a deep and strategic threat to our way of life. The objective is to subvert the efficacy of our democratic process, and to fuel mistrust and our ability to defend our values and institutions, Ms Richter said, adding that we were now witnessing the domestication of pro-Kremlin disinformation tactics in political discourse and the rise of anti-democratic players across the EU.

Alexandre Alaphilippe of EU DisinfoLab warned of the need to focus equally on internal players producing fake news, which was often neglected. He also pointed to the lack of media interest in following up on stories after the initial buzz.

However, with political discourse and discussions moving to digital platforms in recent years, social media have become political battlefields and the main source of information for many Europeans. Remaining in private hands and with no public accountability mechanisms in place, these unregulated platforms have become the main culprits in the dissemination of fake news.

Ms Richter deplored the lack of an EU vision of what a constructive internet or digital sphere should be and her concerns were echoed by other speakers.

Platforms function as the gatekeepers of people's expression and participation, so we are dependent on their infrastructure but also on their community guidelines, which control how we see and what we see by controlling information, said EDRI’s Chloé Berthélémy. We need to address the general surveillance system that these platforms have put in place, with more protection in place for data!

Ricardo Gutiérrez, EFJ's General Secretary, maintained that the EU was very timid vis-à-vis digital platforms and was not pressuring them to do something about disinformation. Twitter has taken some steps, but Facebook is refusing to introduce any measures to counter fake news, and yet it has been identified by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism as the main vector of disinformation, he said.

With 14 journalists assassinated and many more assaulted, Mr Gutiérrez stressed that journalists had never before in the EU been under so much pressure. He called for a media ecosystem which is pluralist, independent and economically sustainable and which serves the public.

Richard Youngs of Carnegie Europe warned against a purely defensive approach to countering disinformation and securing higher voter turnout in EU elections. In his view, constructing messages that would focus on positive EU values would work better at galvanizing political participation.

The co-rapporteur for the opinion, Cinzia Del Rio, placed an emphasis on media literacy and civic education as means to help people develop a critical approach to the information content served up to them on a daily basis and to enable them to make informed decisions, in terms of both for whom to vote and their awareness about the EU.

Our objective should be to make sure that people can make an informed choice, regardless of their political standpoint. Disinformation seeks to destroy and undermine the EU’s political integration, Ms Del Rio concluded.

The EESC opinion will be presented at the EESC plenary session in March.

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