Berlin and Paris are taking steps to fight the expected manipulation of online information by foreign powers as they approach key elections, Germany in September and France next year.
At the start of June, France announced it will launch an agency in September to combat foreign disinformation and fake news, less than a year before its next presidential election.
French MP Laetitia Avia (La République en marche) welcomed the announcement, underlining the complementarity between the agency, which will focus on the origin of the threats, and the legislation, which will look at ways to mitigate their consequences.
“We know that there are foreign powers that invest millions of euros in disinformation tools and we would be very naive not to react,” she said
During the last French presidential election in 2017, groups linked to Russia were already accused of a massive hacking attack of then-candidate Emmanuel Macron’s new party.
“We’re right to be concerned,” MEP Sandro Gozi (Renew Europe), who serves as a member of the European Parliament’s Special Committee on Foreign Interference, told EURACTIV.
“This is not just about fighting interference but ensuring the integrity of our democracies and the integrity of our democratic process,” he said, adding that “it is unacceptable, whether it is decisive or not”.
However, Gozi highlighted that “the challenges of 2022 are not the same as in 2017.”
A new agency to address foreign disinformation
The new French agency is “not about correcting or restoring the truth,” Secretary-General of Defense and National Security (SGDSN), Stéphane Bouillon, told French lawmakers and emphasised that the agency will “be able to detect attacks when they come from abroad, to characterize them and thus be able to attribute them in a certain way.”
It is meant to help “politicians, diplomats, the judiciary and the press to realise that, out of the 400,000 tweets on this or that news item, 200,000 are coming from a bot farm in a foreign region or that a particular debate is coming from a troll farm”, Bouillon added.
On the EU level, such an agency will not be a first. The East Stratcom Task Force was created in 2015 after the European Council “stressed the need to challenge Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns”.
However, a special report by the European Court of auditors, published earlier this month, pointed to a lack of coordination and long-term funding and called the EU action plan to fight disinformation “incomplete.”
Legislative steps to tackle disinformation in Germany
Bouillon also said the French National Security would be closely watching September’s German parliamentary election.
German authorities are indeed preparing to tackle disinformation and fake news campaigns as well. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the accelerated shift towards digitalisation, the election is expected to be particularly vulnerable to those threats.
A report by the EEAS’s flagship project EUvsDisinfo already warned in March of systematic campaigns against Germany.
“No other EU member state is attacked more fiercely through disinformation than Germany,” the report stated. EUvsDisinfo Database has collected more than 700 disinformation cases targeting Germany, compared to 300 cases in France.
“Disinformation campaigns and fake news are a serious threat for democracy,” Hansjörg Durz (CSU), deputy chairman of the digital committee in the Bundestag, told EURACTIV. But regulations in the area are nonetheless problematic, as there is a trade-off between tackling disinformation and fundamental rights, like the freedom of speech.
MEP Gozi called it a “grey area”: “an area that lends itself to discretionary assessment and must obviously be placed under the ultimate supervision of public authorities”.
However, German legislators have recently taken steps to curb the problem, most notably with the adoption of the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG), which attempts to crack down on online hate speech and fake news and “set clear rules in regard to criminal remarks in social networks,” Durz emphasised.
Additionally, large online platforms are required to issue regular reports to explain which tools and procedures they use to automatically detect and delete disinformation. “This makes Germany one of the forerunners in the promotion of more transparency in social networks,” Durz said.
The French parliament will discuss similar obligations being introduced in the national law at the end of the month. The government had adopted in 2018 an “anti-fake news” law, which includes the possibility for a judge to order the removal of content that has been flagged as such within 48 hours.
“Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach”
Online platforms, by their scope, are expected to have a major part to play in this fight. According to Avia, disinformation “is the challenge of tomorrow”, for it is “a mechanism that develops and expands through the digital tool, which does not exist in the same dimension nor with the same consequences in physical space”.
“Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach,” insisted MEP Gozi, urging social media to tackle the fast-spreading of fake news, adding that “the question is not how to shut down troll factories in Russia, but rather how to counteract their effects”.
The EU’s future Digital Services Act, among other things, is aimed at regulating the platforms by transposing what is illegal offline to the online space. However, the issue of disinformation, Avia argued, is not adequately addressed in the current proposal.
She urged the French authorities not to wait for the DSA – which could take years before entering into force – to implement appropriate measures.
“We are in an emergency with the upcoming elections. It is better to work on a basis of cooperation and not on obligations imposed by law”, she said.
In LREM’s position paper on foreign interference and digital propaganda, Macron’s party suggested many measures: creating a reporting platform, establishing a blacklist of distributors of false information or raising more awareness on these issues, for instance.
They also took up Reporters without Borders’ recommendation to the DSA in which they suggested the regulation introduce obligations for “platforms to implement mechanisms to identify sources of information that meet standardized professional and ethical standards of self-regulation self-regulatory standards and to give them preferential treatment in terms of content prioritization”.
Facebook already relies heavily on its “fact-checker” media partners, 80 worldwide and four in France, all certified by the International Fact-Checking Network.
“It’s a big issue for the platforms, but it’s also a big issue for the government and for traditional media. I think the outcome lies in the collaboration between the three,” Avia concluded.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]