Note: this piece was initially supposed to be published by a media outlet prior to the European elections. This unfortunately did not work out in the end, but I still want to share this op-ed with the readers of this blog.
The countdown is on for the European elections, which will give some new direction to the politics of the European Union for the next five years. But everything about the structure of the current campaign is confusing and made to sabotage eurosceptics.
“Fake news” surveillance
In 2015, after the invasion of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine by the Russian Federation, the European Union identified the threat of election misinformation from Moscow as a vital threat. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine about Eastern Ukrainian separatist and pro-Russian regions, which followed the annexation of Crimea, inspired Brussels to fact-check news online in order to avoid pro-Russian sentiments, and counter propaganda which destabilise European democracies. As a result, the European External Action Service (EEAS) East Stratcom Task Force created an action plan, including a number of tools to combat fake news.
One of these tools is the website EUvsDisinfo.eu, created to debunk fake news stories from all over Europe. In January last year, two Dutch websites discovered that they had been labelled as fake news by EUvsDisinfo. The Eurosceptic websites had criticised Ukrainian politics and were subsequently labelled as fake news by the EEAS task force, which did not want to retract the article. As a result, EUvsDisinfo was handed a subpoena. To be clear: a fake-news fact-checking website under the purview of the EU was unwilling to clear up fake news it had produced itself.
Similar stories had emerged when opinion writers labelled Macron as being against national sovereignty. EUvsDisinfo “debunked” the piece, even though the quoted part of Macron’s speech was open to interpretation. When pressed by Channel 4 News UK about concerns regarding the website, EU officials in Brussels were very blatant. The British broadcaster writes:
“In September, journalists from across Europe gathered in Brussels to discuss fact-checking. Many EU officials used the opportunity to give their own views on fake news.
Some of them clearly believed that the battle against misinformation was actually a battle against Eurosceptics. They saw their mission in this fight as defending the EU and its institutions.”
Most problematic of all: during election season, these institutions are on high alert. Stories “debunked” on EUvsDisinfo have long-term consequences. Once labelled as fake news, people and/or organisations are put on a fake news perpetrator list, which Brussels calls untrustworthy outlets.
French advertising restrictions
Whomever had the intention of advertising political content in France in the past weeks, will have received this message.
We are contacting you in order to inform you that following the adoption of a new law in France, we ask you to temporarily interrupt, between April 15 and May 26, 2019, in France and its overseas territories, advertisements promoting content relating to public debates. This rule will be lifted after the European elections.”
For the most part, this rule hurts non-establishment parties, which communicate more effectively through social media or by posting ads through services such as Google. Since internet ads are also more cost-effective, political parties with larger existing budgets (which under public funding of political parties, they attribute to themselves through the government) have another advantage.
The rule however doesn’t only hurt political parties. Given its vague definition of “public debate”, even publishers and media outlets, promoting a new book or a political newsletter, are hit by the law. Hilariously, the French government itself had its ads taken down by Twitter over Paris’ fake news legislation. Twitter argued that the government’s ad – which called upon users to vote in the election – did not specify who paid for the ad. Under new rules, France requires are actors who run ads to disclose where the funding comes from.
“Don’t vote if you’re a eurosceptic”
Meanwhile in the Czech Republic, the European Union is officially funding paid advertising which uses a different strategy. In multiple ads, famous Czech influencers are telling eurosceptic voters not to go to the polling booths on election day, and that only pro-EU people should turn out to vote. Here and here are two examples.
In a private conversation, a dietician who runs an blog online tells me that other Czech contacts of hers have been invited to the European Commission in Brussels: flown in, hosted, dined, and explained how they will be a part of the EU’s campaign against euroscepticism. Even the Czech boy and girls scouts are involved – which is no wonder, since they are also funded by the European Union.
For my American audience, picture this: a Democrat-controlled U.S Congress, which allocated funds to campaign finance, would run an official campaign with the United States government logo on top, telling Donald Trump supporters not to show up to vote. That is, in essence, what the European Union does.
The day it backfires
In the European Union, we don’t worry about election interference: we do it ourselves. The EU is scared beyond belief that this time around, the dream of a United States of Europe could experience a significant setback in the elections coming up this week. If conservatives, reformists, and eurosceptics indeed do end up taking the Parliament by storm, as they likely will in the UK, many policies and procedures could be slowed down, which is devastating for EU idealists and fanatics.
Whether or not the fact that governments are doing everything to sabotage fair and open campaigns will have an influence, remains to be seen. You could call it a daring prediction, but I do believe that on the day most people start to realise what is going on behind the scenes of this dubious election system, it will seriously backfire.
Pictures are Creative Commons.
Thanks for liking and sharing!