EU fight against disinformation must target propagators and protect fundamental rights

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In a newly adopted opinion, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) recognises the European Commission's determination to fight disinformation. However, it calls for more to be done to target the people and organisations that are at the source of it, prioritising prevention rather than cure.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the threat posed by disinformation into sharp focus. The rapid spread of false, inaccurate or misleading information – via social media and other digital platforms – has cast doubt over protective protocols and slowed vaccine uptake. It has split society and burdened public health systems, putting lives that are already threatened by the virus at even greater risk.

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. A self-regulatory tool, the Code of Practice has been in force since 2018 and is signed by the main online platforms operating in the EU.

In an opinion issued in response and adopted almost unanimously on 9 December, 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 approach must be one of prevention rather than cure, and the Commission's work must focus on the causes rather than the consequences.

The EESC notes that disinformation is a booming business and welcomes the Commission's emphasis on countering its revenue-generating power. As Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen recently revealed, far from combating the phenomenon, her employer had made it an integral part of its business model. False information spreads six times faster than true information, is liked and shared more often, produces more activity, and attracts more attention. It thus generates more visitors, and hence more value and more advertising revenue. Unwittingly, European companies spend more than EUR 400 million on disinformation sites.

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.

Call for increased capabilities

The EESC warns that codes of conduct alone will not be enough to counter state-sponsored efforts to spread disinformation.

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. Similarly, in addition to ongoing discussions with Facebook and other big-name platforms, it should focus more on lesser-known ones such as VKontakte, Rumble, Odysee, Gab and Parler. While these have smaller audiences, they can be less transparent and more easily target specific groups. Disinformation often originates on these more confidential platforms before quickly reaching a wider audience.

With disinformation packaged and disseminated in increasingly sophisticated ways, the EESC recommends rapid action as soon as a new risk is detected. Because new networks are emerging all the time, because the means used are increasingly sophisticated (such as "deep fakes"), and because some applications straddle the line between a platform and a private messaging service (such as Telegram), action must be taken as soon as a new type of risk is detected.

The EESC also asks for a bigger role for civil society in the fight against disinformation. Businesses in particular must be given a major role in tackling disinformation, as they can lose a lot of money or be exposed to major reputational risks, but other civil society organisations can also be harnessed to combat disinformation.

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