Is the EU doing enough to fight Fake News?

, by Lewis Powell

Is the EU doing enough to fight Fake News?
Fake news is increasingly considered a threat to our democracies. Photo credit: Mike MacKenzie

The decade of the 2010s is when many of us in Europe and beyond would have heard the words ‘Fake News’ for the first time. Since then, we have become familiar with claims that we live in a “post-truth" world, in which misinformation is a serious threat to democracy. Its danger cannot and should not be underestimated. During the 2016 US presidential election in 2016, BuzzFeed found that the top 20 fake news stories received more engagement on Facebook than the top 20 election stories from 19 major media outlets. This shows the extent to which fake news is present in our societies and to which it has the potential to influence elections. The question must be asked as to whether the EU is doing enough to teach the next generation media literacy skills to stop this threat to democracy.

Being from the UK, I am more than familiar with fake news, both in the form of misinformation (wrong information without malice) and disinformation (intentionally wrong information intended to deceive), as well as the right-wing press which often acts as the propaganda arm of the Conservative party, especially during election season. In fact, the UK is ranked 33rd in the World Press Index for 2019, joined closely with Spain and France at 29th and 32nd. Moreover, when it comes to trust and freedom of the press as well as media literacy, the Scandinavian countries come out of top. In terms of net trust in TV, Sweden comes out on top closely followed by Denmark. Similarly, in terms of radio, the most trusted media source, Sweden, Denmark and Finland lead the way. In terms of international trends, 52% as a global average believe there is some or a great deal of fake news in written media, 52% in TV and Radio and 62% online. In the last 5 years net trust in the media has decreased globally in all forms of media. (Newspapers and magazines -16%, TV and radio -16%, and online websites and platforms -12%). Clearly more has to be done to tackle this problem as a fall in trust in the media could pose a threat to our democratic institutions.

Finland’s Fight Against Fake News

Leading the fight to tackle fake news and is Finland who is educating primary school students how to combat fake news and are teaching them media literacy skills. This has been on the education agenda for Finland since 2014 when the country was being targeted by fake news stories from Russia. It is therefore no surprise that Finland sits 1st in the media literacy index at 78, compared to the UK, France and Italy at 60, 59 and 51. The rest of Europe must follow suit in increasing media literacy in the future generations as the fight against fake news is part of the fight to maintain democracy. Jussi Toivonen, chief communication officer for the Finnish Prime Minister’s office agrees, stating ‘’This affects all of us. It targets the whole of Finnish society. It aims to erode our values and norms, the trust in our institutions that hold society together.’’ Toivonen is absolutely right. The media must be trustworthy if people are to have faith in our institutions and democracy as a whole. Without a critical diverse media operating on the basis of fact-based journalism, democracy cannot prosper. Democracy can only be legitimate if the public are well informed and the media hold institutions to account. Without such infrastructure propaganda can reign supreme and the establishment can trick the public into voting against their interests. If the public doesn’t have trust in the media than how can they possibly have trust in democracy. In a 2018 survey of over 27,000 people in the 28 EU member states, only 1 in 5 (19%) had high trust in the media. On the polar opposite side of the spectrum, 39% of respondents had either low or no trust in the media. A crisis of faith in the media is a crisis of democracy. So the question must be asked: what is the EU doing on a macro level to protect democracy and fight back against the post-truth phenomenon?

What the EU is saying

Last year the European Parliament condemned Russia, China, Iran and North Korea for their disinformation campaigns in Europe. It stated that actions ‘’which seek to undermine the foundations and principles of European democracies as well as the sovereignty of all Eastern Partnership countries.’ would not be tolerated. MEPs also called for the EU to extend the East StratCom Task Force (created in 2015 to promote active communication of EU policies to its eastern European neighbours and beyond (Russia itself)) into a grander structure within the European External Action Service (the service that manages the EU’s diplomatic relations with countries outside the bloc and conducts foreign and security policy) to directly deal with Russian disinformation.

The EU has also called for social media services like Facebook or Twitter to do more to combat fake news and remove them from their site and want them to be regulated via law. The EU also adopted legislation in March 2019 to protect elections from data misuse following the Cambridge Analytica/ Facebook scandal (https://www.politico.eu/article/cambridge-analytica-leave-eu-ukip-brexit-facebook/) from the findings on the UK Brexit referendum in 2016. In this instance, it was found that the data analytics firm did work on behalf of Leave.EU and the United Kingdom Independence Party to target voters during the Brexit referendum after illegally scrapping data from millions of Facebook users) The legislation introduced in 2019 financial sanctions against political parties and institutions who deliberately misuse personal data.

Anna Fotyga, a Polish MEP and member of the ECR group, said at the time ‘’Disinformation poisons hearts and minds. We can no longer deny the fact that our institutions and societies are targeted by the Kremlin’s hostile propaganda, which is part of a broader strategy. Fortunately, we are more experienced, determined and united to counter such activities. Our answer depends on resilient societies, transparent media and encouraging pluralism while avoiding censorship.’’

How should the EU respond?

More recently the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) hosted an event with Stanford Universitylast month about how democracies should respond to the disinformation dilemma. Alex Stamos, Director of Stanford Internet Observatory and former Facebook Chief Security Officer, talked in depth about Russian interference in the US Presidential Election in 2016 and on memetic warfare as a propaganda strategy and a form of information warfare. He also talked about Russian hacking and how more infrastructure is needed to protect from electoral interference.

Paul Nemitz, a special advisor for the European Commission, stressed that Russian disinformation campaigns are not the only problem. He said that ‘’free press has gone down the drain’’ since Google and Facebook have 80% revenue share of new online advertisements. Nemitz says these companies are contributing to the ‘’democracy crisis’’. He emphasised the need for technology intelligentsia to work with institutions in order to revitalise democracy through active engagement and unity. He explained that he believes such firms don’t know how to engage with democracy and that active communication is needed between institutions and technology giants in order to protect democracy. Nemitz believes it’s important to protect private and public press and mentions examples of this being destroyed with 14,000 journalists losing their jobs in the US last year and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to destroy the BBC in the UK. Nemitz suggests an active policy is needed to strengthen these institutions and that blaming Russian interference alone would be naive.

What action is the EU planning?

However, the European Union is taking action. Vera Jourova, Vice President of the European Commission and Commissioner for values and transparency, is in charge of this fight against disinformation. She is leading the European Democracy Action Plan which will be the guideline for measures and policy to counter disinformation and ‘Fake News’. This will be released at the end of the year and Wojtek Talko, part of Jourova’s team, spoke about the need for the EU to work with technology, foreign affairs and election experts to protect democracy. They call for an end of the gentlemen’s agreement with technology giants and to take direct action in stopping the spread of disinformation. Talko states that the long term solution is with education, like what Finland is doing,’’to vaccinate society from the virus’’ and make people understand that Facebook isn’t the news.

Erika Widegren, CEO of Re-Imagine Europa (a research and advocacy organisation), talked about how the digital age is the third media revolution, after writing and print, and that modern solutions are needed to react to this much deeper landscape change. She utters the words of Winston Churchill to personify the importance of this reaction: ‘’We shape the buildings we live in, then the buildings shape us.’’ This reaction from the EU seems promising and Jourova will be hoping she can shape these buildings with her European Democracy Action Plan. All this sounds promising but actions speak louder than words. Time will tell whether the EU did enough to defend its democracy and end the misinformation crisis.

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