A Spanish government plan to fight disinformation has sparked complaints from the media and the opposition, which say it limits free expression and seeks to establish a “ministry of truth”.
The plan, which came into effect last month after it was approved by the National Security Council, outlines how government bodies — including intelligence agency CNI and the foreign and defence ministries — should respond to disinformation.
It uses the European Commission’s definition of disinformation as “verifiably false or misleading information created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public”.
The plan establishes four stages of action, starting with monitoring the internet to detect disinformation campaigns and ending with a possible “political response” from the government if it is deemed necessary.
This could, for example, be a diplomatic protest if there is proof that a foreign state is behind the campaign.
Intermediate steps involve working with the media and launching a government information campaign to correct the false information being spread.
The plan is Spain’s answer to a request from the European Union for member states to step up their fight against disinformation. Brussels has accused China and Russia of mounting targeted disinformation campaigns to undermine European democracy.
While the Madrid Press Association (APM) acknowledged the state needs to fight disinformation, it warned of an “obvious risk” that the plan would lead the government to act “more like a censor than as a guarantor of the truth”.
The plan “leaves everything in the hands of the government” and calls for the media to be consulted only “if needed”, said Luis Ayllon, an APM board member who used to work for the conservative daily newspaper ABC.
“The media should control the government rather than the government control the media,” he told AFP.
The leader of the rightwing Popular Party (PP), Pablo Casado, went further, accusing Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of “issuing an order to monitor the media” and “creating an Orwellian ministry of truth,” in a nod to George Orwell’s novel “1984” about a totalitarian state.
But many of the measures have been in place for some time, with the previous PP government monitoring social networks to detect disinformation campaigns linked to the Catalan independence drive three years ago.
Justice Minister Juan Carlos Campo rejected the criticism, telling the Senate on Tuesday the aim was to “fight disinformation campaigns” and not to “censor” news stories.
“It is not to say what is or is not the truth, nor to close web pages, remove broadcast licences or put journalists in jail,” he added.
As an example, the government has cited the need to be prepared for any disinformation campaign about being vaccinated against Covid-19 once a vaccine is available.
Like other EU nations, Spain has struggled to contain a flood of fake news on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, especially during election campaigns.
In the run-up to Spain’s April 2019 election, some 9.6 million voters — just over a quarter of the total — received WhatsApp messages deemed to be peddling false information, according to a study by online campaign group Avaaz.
Among the stories disseminated were claims that Sanchez had agreed to back independence for the northeastern Catalonia region and that his grandfather fought alongside General Francisco Franco during Spain’s 1936-39 civil war.
Alexandre Lopez-Borrull, a professor in information sciences at the Open University of Catalonia, said the government should have sought “maximum political consensus” for its plan in order to gain more acceptance in Spain’s polarised political climate.
“Many groups felt targeted,” he told AFP.
But Manuel R.Torres Soriano, a political scientist at the Universidad Pablo de Olavide in Seville who has written a book about disinformation, said the reaction from the opposition and the media has been “disproportionate”.
“It’s an attempt to administratively organise the work of different state bodies that already supervise disinformation. It does not create new capacities, nor does it interfere with anything,” he told AFP.
“Unfortunately, this plan to fight against disinformation has become fuel for acts of disinformation,” he said.