How disinformation is likely to impact the 2024 European elections and what can be done to fight it

Photo of Ms Violeta Jelic speaking from podium

Speech delivered by Violeta Jelić  at Connecting EU 2023 conference "European elections 2024: Why vote?"

Dear President, dear members, dear guests,

It is a pleasure to be here today and to open a debate, which is not only timely, but also crucial ahead of the next EU elections which will be difficult in the current geopolitical turmoil surrounding the EU.

If the past elections are any indication for the future, there is a risk that disinformation will spread false narratives, misleading information, and fabricated stories with the intention of influencing voters' opinions.

Disinformation has been compared to an atomic bomb in our information ecosystem”, a problem so insidious that it allows hate, anger and conspiracy theories to spread faster than truth. In the words of the journalist and Nobel peace prize winner Maria Ressa, it makes democracy a dream”.

From war in Ukraine to Covid-19, and now conflict in the Middle East, disinformation today is shaping major global events.

Commonly used as an umbrella term to represent a wide range of tactics, techniques and procedures, this "atomic bomb" spans from misinformation to propaganda, from hostile narrative to hybrid warfare.

Disinformation tears apart the fabric that holds our societies together. It destroys people’s faith in traditional news sources – which have ethical standards and legal responsibilities to report the facts, often more complex and less viral than a simplistic hostile narrative and manipulate public opinion.

Disinformation also undermines people’s trust in governments and other public institutions. It is usually designed to appeal to our worst impulses, fears and prejudices – all in an attempt to divide and conquer a society on the information battlefield.

In the past elections, there have been concerns about foreign actors, engaging in disinformation campaigns to influence voters. These campaigns often involve the dissemination of divisive content, the amplification of extremist views, and the sowing of discord to undermine trust in democratic processes.

TAKE the French elections of 2017 when disinformation campaigns targeting candidates, particularly Emmanuel Macron, spread false information and hacked documents were circulated on social media in an attempt to influence public opinion and disrupt the election.

TAKE the BREXIT referendum in 2016, where allegations of targeted advertising and the spread of false claims, contributed to a divisive atmosphere during the campaign. Same happened in the Catalonia independence referendum in 2017 which was also marked by concerns about disinformation.

And in 2019 during the European elections, various European countries reported instances of misleading information, with concerns about foreign interference and the spread of divisive narratives.

Protecting citizens from these threats and giving them the tools to identify disinformation is our public duty.

The EU has been actively working to address the issue of disinformation. In recent years, the EU put in place a voluntary code of practice which encourages online platforms to take measures to combat disinformation.  Rapid Alert System and fact checking and media literacy programs to help citizens identify and resist disinformation via critical thinking and digital literacy skills.

One can just scroll through the EU website EUvsDisinfo which aims to debunk and counter false information and disinformation campaigns targeting the EU to understand the huge work it requires, particularly at the time of elections.

We at the EESC are also very much committed to DEBUNKING.

On 12 June, the EESC launched its first event on fighting disinformation, kick-starting an awareness-raising campaign ahead of the European Parliament elections in 2024.

The event, which gathered prominent figures from the civil society, media and youth organisations, highlighted the need for a more bottom-up approach with a strong civil society network countering disinformation on the ground.

What came out of that discussion is:

  1. disinformation should be fought by more information and not by censorship. Sanctions and measures could work for some time. But we should let information circulate freely and make it accessible to the public. Quality and authoritative journalism instead of influencers can also help defeat disinformation. This means we need to address the increasing violence and   intimidation directed at journalists in EU Member States, as is any political interference in the media. More support for public service and independent media and for investigative journalism, as well as for developing anti-trust measures to combat media concentration and monopolies of media ownership must be at the core of our action.
  2. A joint effort by civil society organisations, government and independent media is required to set up a firewall against information manipulation which is gaining more and more ground and it is used as a weapon for foreign interference. Civil societies on their own can't defeat disinformation. What they can do is to organise and take action together by pushing big tech companies who own social media platforms for more accountability. At the same time, they should ask government to put in place more regulations and reinforce the legislative framework of these platforms.
  3. Young people should be the focus as they need to have the skills and knowledge to process this high volume of information.

Last year, the EESC held its youth event on disinformation titled The Truth about Lies where a number of recommendations were issued, particularly the one that "EU Member States should initiate national- and European-level public campaigns providing information about the dangers of disinformation and how easily fake news can polarise people and spread hate speech."

Dear guests, dear colleagues,

There can be no social and economic prosperity without a democratic decision-making system which is rooted in informed, active and committed Europeans who share the same broad framework of values and trust.

It is absolutely crucial that the EU invests more money and effort in political competence-building and in developing the media literacy of all Europeans from all ethnicities, classes and local communities. We do not have time any more for polarisation and segmentation in knowledge and capacity to participate.

Disinformation is an atomic bomb, as Maria Ressa said, but we can invest we need to do our outmost to invest in the non-proliferation of this nuclear weapon.

I look forward to this panel discussion.


Work organisation