The EU has declared war on fake news. But leaders admit the aim is to make sure “anti-democrats don’t win at the ballot boxes”.
The EU has launched a “war” against fake news in a bid to protect next year’s European Parliament elections from outside interference.
Speaking this month, vice president of the EU Commission, Andrus Ansip, pointed the finger at Russia, saying: “There is strong evidence pointing to Russia as the primary source of disinformation in Europe.”
There is little doubt that Russia is a major source of fake news and “bot” accounts.
But what’s motivating the EU’s war, and what does it plan to do about fake news?
Helpfully for us at FactCheck, we have some insight into the EU’s strategy on this – because we were invited to an EU conference about fake news earlier this year.
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.
Ramón Luis Valcárcel Siso, the European Parliament’s vice president, laid this out in stark terms, admitting the campaign against fake news should aim to stop certain politicians from winning seats in the EU’s next election.
Speaking to journalists he said: “Your efforts are indispensable so that anti-democrats don’t win at the ballot boxes.”
He added: “Whether we are politicians, journalists, whether we’re fact checkers, or whether we work in an administration – we have a shared goal, which is to ensure the best expression of European democracy.”
Mr Valcárcel Siso was not just talking about fake news in general – he focused on one type in particular. “These falsehoods have one sole objective,” he said, “to destroy the European Union.”
The vice president admitted that he “might be accused of trying to carry out some kind of institutional propaganda on behalf of the European Union”. But he claimed that, faced with “division sowed by populists and nationalists, through a discourse of hatred, lies and half-truths and proven falsehoods,” the EU has “the legitimate right to defend the unity of European citizens”.
Mr Valcárcel Siso was clear that the fight against fake news was not just about protecting democracy – it was about protecting the institutions of the EU as well. And he did not seem to see a distinction between these two things.
“We are not trying to impose any political ideology through these institutions,” he said. “What we are trying to do is safeguard a system which serves the interests of 500 million citizens.”
Mr Valcárcel Siso said the purpose of the fact-checking conference was “to put an end to manipulation and falsehood to ensure that institutions are not undermined by those who want to destroy them”. Note that he said “institutions”, rather than “democracy”.
Mr Sisso blamed fake news partly on specific anti-EU ideologies. Speaking about disinformation he said that journalists distinguish “reality from invented fantasies of nationalists and populists”.
The vice president was not the only speaker to make these suggestions. For instance, EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel talked about “deliberate disinformation” which “saps citizens’ confidence and trust in our institutions”.
The EU’s strategy against fake news is set out more formally in a number of reports, reinforcing the sentiments made at the fact-checking conference. Their fears are not just that disinformation damages democracy and political discourse. They also warn about it eroding “trust in institutions”.
One report calls jointly for “the combating of fake news and any populist rhetoric”.
Another says: “The EU is often a target of disinformation campaigns designed to undermine its Institutions, policies, actions and values.”
It says the European strategy is necessary “in order to ensure effective and coordinated action and to protect the EU, its citizens, its policies and its Institutions”.
Perhaps it’s not surprising or wrong that the EU wants to defend itself. But it does suggest that its war against fake news may not be impartial. Indeed, it seems explicitly designed to protect the EU and its institutions, and stop Eurosceptic politicians making progress in elections.
When asked about its interpretation of fake news, the EU did not deny that it took a partisan approach.
These are not just words. The EU also wants action.
For instance, it says member states should intervene to change the way news is ranked on websites and social media platforms, to “dilute the visibility of disinformation by improving the findability of trustworthy content”.
It also wants to “ensure that online services include, by design, safeguards against disinformation”. And the EU says member states should “invest in technological means to prioritize relevant, authentic, and authoritative information where appropriate in search, feeds, or other automatically ranked distribution channels”.
An EU official confirmed to FactCheck that signatories of its Code of Practice “recognise the importance of diluting the visibility of disinformation by improving the findability of trustworthy content”.
When the EU held a public consultation on fake news in February 2018, Labour MP Ben Bradshaw submitted a personal response, calling for “concerted Government action by individual states and supranational action”. He suggested online platforms should “put reputable and regulated news organisations’ sites like the BBC top of their search engines”.
On its website, the EU wrongly claimed this response was from the “UK Parliament”, rather than a response in Mr Bradshaw’s “personal capacity”, as he claims. (The EU explained this was because “the respondent himself opted for the questionnaire expressly designed for legal entities”).
To compound the EU’s problematic stance on fake news, its own fact-checking abilities have been called into question. What the EU claims is “disinformation” can be a matter of debate.
In 2015, it set up a taskforce which has “debunked” thousands of examples of what it calls “pro-Kremlin disinformation”. (A caveat on its website admits: “It does not necessarily imply however that the outlet concerned is linked to the Kremlin or pro-Kremlin, or that it has intentionally sought to disinform.”)
Earlier this year, the Dutch parliament called for the taskforce to be shut down after it “wrongly listed articles published by Dutch media in its collection of cases conveying a ‘partial, distorted or false view or interpretation and/or spreading key pro-Kremlin messaging’.” A complaint was filed, claiming that it violates freedom of expression, but the EU Parliament has since claimed it has “overwhelming support” from “experts in the field”.
Since then, the taskforce has limited its focus “solely on Russian media and on media in the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood”. But problems with the taskforce’s strategy appear to have continued.
In comparison to other fact-checking services, its website boldly labels each story “disinfo” without providing a very detailed analysis. When put under closer scrutiny, the alleged “disinfo” sometimes turns out to be far less clear-cut.
For instance, in November the EU’s site tried to debunk an article from a Russian news website which used the headline: “French President Emmanuel Macron urged EU countries to abandon their sovereignty.”
The EU’s site claimed this was factually incorrect, saying: “In fact, the French president did not urge the EU countries to abandon their sovereignty.”
However, the interpretation of Mr Macron’s speech is debatable. Although the EU didn’t acknowledge it, the French president went on to say: “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.”
Some people might argue that this equates to member states handing over sovereign power. Others would disagree. But this is a matter of opinion and interpretation. So the EU were probably too quick to label this as “disinfo” following “a recurring pro-Kremlin narrative”, and describe their own riposte as “disproof”.
Despite this, an EU official defended the taskforce saying: “The approach is not to categorise ‘fake’ and ‘non-fake’, but to detect and expose disinformation. The focus is on disinformation themes originating from and manipulated by Russia; it is not aimed at ‘populist rhetoric’ and does not target freedom of expression.”
A source familiar with the EU Taskforce said the Macron example was “very close to the border”, and said it wouldn’t have been listed as “disinfo” if the same thing had been published by an EU news outlet.
But they claimed it was “absolutely not the intention to try and take a partisan approach at all”.
The source claimed: “What we can’t do is gaze into people’s hearts and souls and address their motivation, so we would try to restrict it to whether we see this as an incorrect or distorted message that is in line with the Kremlin messaging.”
However, they went on to admit some of the “disinfo” listed on the website may “have a large element of truth in them”.
In other words, not only could the “disinfo” turn out to be largely correct, there is also no guarantee that it was written deliberately to follow Kremlin messaging. The question is, then: why call it “disinformation”?
Speaking at the EU’s fact-checking conference, the head of the European Parliament’s Spokesperson’s Unit Marjory Van Den Broeke, had this assessment of people who believe fake news: “I think it’s simply something to do with people’s reptilian brains.”
She suggested that – rather than simply correcting fake news – the EU should try and copy its style. She told the conference: “What we are also going to try and do is to say ‘ok maybe we can also look into this phenomenon better and try and appeal, from our side, to the reptilian brain’, rather than saying ‘no, this is wrong’.
“… What are the narratives that appeal so much to this reptilian brain of people? Can we identify that?’” she said.
“Let’s put this on the table, why do people hate us so much? And then try to show in an equally – or almost equally appealing way – that actually, things are different from what you think. We’re not monsters, we’re not ogres.”
Responding to FactCheck, an EU spokesperson said that Marjorie Van Den Broeke was not proposing to copy fake news by putting out false claims, but merely that “we need to reflect on the form that our information should take in order to be able to really communicate with people”.
However, her position is reflected in an EU report, which argues: “Fact-checking is based on facts, while beliefs and emotions would have a stronger influence in the audience. Some fact-checking initiatives could be unsuccessful in dismantling false news due to their very technical nature.”
Transparency campaigners have long encouraged the EU to publish more information about MEPs expenses and allowances – especially after the UK expenses scandal in 2009.
Critics of the EU often claim it is corrupt and wasting money, so you might think that a large part of the EU’s strategy to tackle fake news would involve publishing more accurate information about finances and expenses.
At the moment, some EU officials like Michel Barnier – the man leading the Brexit negotiations for the EU – are not obliged to declare their financial interests under EU rules. Meanwhile, an EU court recently ruled that MEPs’ €4,416-a-month expenses would be kept secret. Critics said the decision means “the misuse of expenses will continue in the shadows”.
However, some officials at the fact-checking conference suggested that transparency was not a major problem.
When asked to make a commitment on transparency, one EU politician at the event angrily rebuffed the idea saying: “I find this slightly insulting”. Philippe Lamberts, who co-chairs the Greens/EFA political group, went on to say: “I’ve been nine years a professional politician. I’ve been 28 years in politics. I’ve built my career on credibility, on the things that I’m say are backing up by fact. That has been my job all along. You may not believe this, but that is the fact.”
Marjory Van Den Broeke added: “Why is it, somehow, the EU always needs to be better than everybody else? And if it isn’t, we get clobbered.”
She explained: “Things that are apparently accepted in a national context – because you don’t see any stories or upheaval about it – are being criticised, quite vehemently often, when it comes down to the European Parliament.”
In its 2018 consultation on fake news, the EU made no mention at all of political transparency. Instead, it only discussed the transparency of social media sites, saying that “reliable” news sources could be made more prominent than unreliable ones.
Responding to this article, an EU official claimed that “virtually all information about European Parliament is publicly accessible on its website,” and pointed out that MEPs (unlike officials like Mr Barnier) do have to publish a declaration of financial interests.
The EU official claimed that Mr Lamberts was “actually upset that HE was asked about this, while transparency has always been a key point for himself and for the Greens,” and said Marjory Van Den Broeke’s statement “doesn’t mean that the European Parliament shouldn’t practice transparency”.