In its war against disinformation, the European Union goes too far

The European Union wants to do more to combat the spread of fake news. The tools it uses, however, will hand too much power to the government.

Fighting fake news

When current European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker was asked by German newspaper Bild what advice he would give to his successor (we don’t know yet who it is going to be), the Luxembourger said:

“I would advise him or her to make more energetic public statements to counter the repeated attempts to smear the EU. The Commission should set up an anti-fake-news department, which would do nothing else but expose these lies. We have been too hesitant about this in the past.“

The word “smear” is clear, as it would only refer to false statements regarding the European Union. However, that is not what has happened in practice. The website “EUvsDisinfo” illustrates the point. The site was created by the European External Action Service (EEAS) East Stratcom Task Force in the wake of the annexation of the Crimean peninsula (part of Ukraine) by the Russian Federation  as an effort to debunk fake news stories. Media outlets like EUObserver raised concerns about the initiative. In March 2018, Amsterdam-based Arjen Nijeboer from Democracy International wrote:

“EUvsDisinfo claims that it is informed by a volunteer network of more than 400 experts, journalists, government officials, NGOs and think tanks. In reality, Dutch public broadcaster NOS discovered that of the claimed 400 volunteers, only 10 are really active.

Together they reported 75 percent of blacklisted articles, while one single jobless volunteer has been responsible for reporting no less than 25 percent of all 3,500 supposed cases of disinformation.”

In November, EUvsDisinfo “debunked” a Russian news article claiming that French president Emmanuel Macron urged EU member states to give up their sovereignty. EUvsDisinfo writes that in fact, the French president did not urge the EU countries to abandon their sovereignty. Yet Macron also said this in the same speech:

“We [EU members] will have to share, pool together our decision-making, our policies on foreign affairs, migration and development, an increasing part of our budgets and even fiscal resources, build a common defence strategy.”

Using an op-ed interpretation of a politician’s speech and branding it as fake news is disingenuous. Politicians will declare any characterisation of their speeches of which they disapprove as biased and fake and could thus censor voices throughout the EU. All the more worrying is that the EU produces fake news media database and generally marks the accused outlets as origins of disinformation. Just imagine what would happen if the current President of the United States had that power: one wouldn’t find single trusted media outlet.

The EU’s plans

As of now, the European Union has laid out five key areas of action against fake news:

  • monitoring of advertising
  • removing politically-motivated advertising that is non-transparent
  • ensuring “service integrity” by eliminating programed accounts that auto-generate content
  • creating “responsible” online users
  • integrating research partners into the fight against fake news

This is the expectation of the European Union  in regard to voluntary regulation by big tech companies such as Google and Facebook. In February, the European Commission published a press release in which it explained that the efforts of the internet giants are not sufficient (only three months after the publication of their requests).

Facebook was criticised because the site did not communicate the number of accounts deleted. Google has not demonstrated to a satisfactory degree its commitment to combating the publication of fake news. Twitter has not done its job at all, the European Commission tells us, because political advertising is not adequately controlled.

In March, the Commission presented its “Rapid Alert System” against misinformation. The aim: to protect the Union directly against attacks “against the values of the European Union” through the sharing of information between Member States. The announcement was welcomed by the European Council (the member states of the EU). What we don’t know is who will lead the task force and what kind of information will be shared between the states.

Going too far

One of the potential candidates to lead the European Commission, German centre-right politician Manfred Weber, backs blocking fake names on social media.

Fortunately, many  newly elected members of the European Parliament are seeing things in a more nuanced light. They believe that media literacy is the solution to reducing problems caused by fake news and some express their worries regarding what seems to be the establishment of a “Ministry of Truth”. 

However, it is not the European Parliament that holds the ultimate power in this debate. Unless parliamentarians were to declare the issue a priority in their confirmation vote for a new European Commission, their opinions can be disregarded by the EU’s executive in Brussels.

The measures proposed by the European Commission go too far: it is fundamentally dangerous to hand the government the power to decide which news is or is not accurate. The first consequences of this philosophy have already been manifested by the ominous “EUvsDisinfo”. If the EU continues to promote these tools, we’ll see many more instances of censorship and misguided actions against journalists all across the continent.

This article was first published by Values4Europe.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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