The European Commission has come out with an unambiguous message against China’s efforts to spread disinformation related to the coronavirus outbreak in Europe. It is the first time the EU executive has publicly called out China for its role in spreading fake news.
A communication on ‘Tackling COVID-19 disinformation’ was presented by Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová and High Representative Josep Borrell on Wednesday (10 June), in which foreign actors such as Russia and China were named and shamed for their role in propagating coronavirus-related fake news.
“Foreign actors and certain third countries, in particular Russia and China, have engaged in targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns around COVID-19 in the EU, its neighbourhood and globally, seeking to undermine democratic debate and exacerbate social polarisation, and improve their own image in the COVID-19 context,” the communication states.
Examples of such disinformation, the Commission says, include false advice such as ‘drinking bleach or pure alcohol can cure the coronavirus’ or conspiracy theories, like the claim that coronavirus is ‘an infection caused by the world’s elites for reducing population growth’.
During a pre-announcement briefing with Brussels journalists on Tuesday (9 June), Vice-President Jourová had made her feelings clear on China’s campaign of disinformation in Europe.
“We have, for the first time, decided to name China in our report. I’m glad we did this because if we have evidence we must say it,” she said. “It’s time to tell the truth.”
However, the Commission could not respond to EURACTIV’s question concerning what evidence had been collected on the type of disinformation campaign China has embarked on, and whether or not China’s operation was a similar state-led initiative as Russia has conducted.
Russia’s actions in the field of online propaganda and fake news have long been in the crosshairs of the Commission, particularly the activities of Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which leads online influence campaigns on behalf of government clients.
The European External Action Service (EEAS) Strategic Communications and Information Analysis Division was established as part of the East Stratcom Task Force in 2015 and has predominantly analysed disinformation emanating from Russia, impacting EU member states.
Borrell hinted on Wednesday that more efforts could be directed towards campaigns emanating from the Far-East, but he did not say whether or not a separate division would be set up to cover this geographic area.
EEAS China Scandal
The naming of China as a propagator of disinformation comes following a public scandal in the EEAS, in which the EU’s foreign affairs branch denied media reports that it toned down allegations made against China as part of a report into state-led disinformation campaigns, following pressure from Beijing.
Chinese officials in Brussels had originally been alerted to the publication of the report following a leak of a working document calling out China for its role in spreading disinformation.
The EEAS eventually published a public version of the document last Friday (24 April), which still levelled accusations against China, but had also toned down its language in confronting Beijing so directly for its role in disseminating fake news.
Borrell later admitted that Chinese officials had “expressed their concerns” over the leak of the draft Commission publication.
Code or practice against disinformation
More broadly, the Commission’s communication published this week also reviews the measures taken by the online platforms to combat online disinformation related to the coronavirus, for the platforms that have signed the EU’s code of practice against disinformation.
In this vein, the platforms have been urged to provide monthly reports including “more detailed data on their actions to promote authoritative content, improve users’ awareness, and limit coronavirus disinformation and advertising related to it.”
They have also been told to increase cooperation with fact-checkers, across all EU languages, as well as inform users that have interacted with disinformation.
The code of practice against disinformation was introduced by the Commission in October 2018, in a bid to combat fake news in the context of the May 2019 European Parliament elections. Jourová said on Wednesday that the Chinese video-sharing platform TikTok had recently become the code’s most recent signatory.
However, for some working in civil society, the code is insufficient in imploring the platforms to take a concrete stand against the spread of disinformation online.
“At a time when lies about COVID-19 are literally costing lives, Brussels cannot keep shying away from the heart of the debate: Regulate disinformation, or one day it will regulate us. Vice-President Jourová’s call to arms must urgently become a comprehensive regulatory effort,” Luis Morago, Campaign Director at Avaaz said in a statement.
Digital Services Act and Democracy Action Plan
Meanwhile, the Commission is still set to publish its assessment on the efficacy of the code, which is expected in the near future. Jourová noted on Wednesday that the lessons learnt from the implementation of the code will feed into the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Democracy Action Plan, both to be presented before the end of the year.
The DSA aims to regulate the online ecosystem across a range of areas including political advertising and offensive content, while the Democracy Action Plan will seek to further protect elections in the EU from foreign interference.
However, Jourová said on Wednesday that neither measure would feature ‘hard regulation’ and that she prefers an approach that preserves freedom of expression.
She noted that the Democracy Action Plan would focus on how to “reduce the impact” of disinformation in the context of elections,’ rather than outlaw it entirely.
[Edited by Sam Morgan]