Disinformation campaigns are becoming increasingly sophisticated and are developing without sufficient regulation, according to civil rights activists, who say the European Commission’s reliance on the self-regulation of social media platforms is no longer enough.
Concerns that fake news can influence political decisions were high in the EU even before the election of US President Donald Trump or the Brexit referendum. In 2015, the Commission set up a dedicated department, the East StratCom Task Force
The task force combs the Internet for statements that are factually false or distorted and pays particular attention to Russia, which, according to the Commission, continues to be behind most disinformation campaigns.
But that’s no longer enough, says Fadi Quran, campaign director at the civil rights platform Avaaz.
“Focusing on foreign intervention by Russia is focusing on ‘Disinformation 1.0’, the first generation of disinformation. But now we are at a new level which we call ‘Disinformation 2.0’ and which is much more advanced,” says Quran.
New generation of fake news campaigns
Russia trains local groups in the EU, says the civil rights activist, which then further develop and improve Russia’s strategies. “It is completely inefficient to just focus on Russia and foreign disinformation,” Quran says. Disinformation is becoming more and more complex. Russia and other actors can cover their tracks by working at the local level, he says.
Prior to the European elections in May 2019, Avaaz investigated disinformation disseminated on social networks concerning the six largest EU member states. The result: “There was much more disinformation activity that appeared to be homegrown which looked like Russian disinformation but it’s local,” says Quran.
He calls on the EU Commission not to focus exclusively on Kremlin-related disinformation and to extend the mandate of the East StratCom Task Force.
“The disinformation tactics used by malicious actors, both internal and external, are evolving as quickly as the measures adopted to combat them,” Julian King, the outgoing EU Commissioner for the Security Union, told EURACTIV. King is one of four Commissioners responsible for tackling disinformation campaigns in the Juncker Commission.
Continuous research and adequate resources are therefore essential to successfully combat fake news campaigns, wherever the content is put online, the Commissioner says.
The focus on Russia is not wrong, says King. “Disinformation strategies are often first promulgated by Russian and pro-Kremlin linked sources,” the Commissioner says, defending the Commission’s approach.
Since the beginning of the year, the East StratCom unit has identified over 1,000 cases linked to Russian sources. More than twice as many as in the same period in 2018.
Lack of political will
The increase in false information on the Internet is linked to the European elections in May 2019. However, the election year does not stop with the EU elections. In some member states, parliamentary or presidential elections are due in the coming months.
“Elections are a national competence, and member states bear the responsibility for ensuring they are properly protected against attempted foreign interference,” says Commissioner King. However, the Commission is prepared to support the member states wherever possible.
Fadi Quran of Avaaz expects disinformation will once again be spread in a targeted manner around the upcoming national election campaigns, especially in those countries where society is deeply divided and right-wing or populist parties are strong, such as Poland, Austria – and possibly also Italy.
According to Quran, the political will to take action against fake news is particularly small where right-wing and populist politicians profit from disinformation campaigns.
But Quran locates a lack of political will to fight disinformation effectively even in those EU member states where moderate forces are in power. The reason is ignorance, he says.
“Many politicians across the Union don’t really understand how Facebook, YouTube or Twitter can define the public narrative,” says the campaign director. Falsified information spread via social media platforms can have an impact on decision making on a massive scale, so Quran. “Some politicians just do not realise the level of the threat,” he says.
Self-control vs. regulation
The EU Commission, in contrast, understood the danger early on, posed by deliberately spread false information, says the civil rights activist, but the institution must take more decisive action against it. Currently, the Commission is relying on a “Code of Practice” that encourages social networks to monitor content themselves.
This code of conduct is not sufficiently implemented by Facebook, Youtube and Co., says Quran. Avaaz, therefore, calls for a legally binding regulation of social media platforms. If the civil rights organisation were to decide, all users who have received fake news on social networks would first be informed about it and would then receive the correct information.
Security Commissioner Julian King does not want to rule out binding rules for social networks in the future. But only if the ongoing evaluation of the Code of Practice does not produce a satisfactory result for the EU Commission.
The designated Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and her commissioners, who will take office at the beginning of November, will then have to deal with it.
Fadi Quran of Avaaz advises the new commissioners not to lose any more time: “They have to move to regulate disinformation before disinformation ends up regulating European politics.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Sam Stolton]