European election candidates consider next steps for EU media policy

Graphics of Facebook pages created by the Russian troll factory are displayed during the House (Select) Intelligence Committee hearing on 'Russia Investigative Task Force: Social Media Companies' on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, USA, 01 November 2017. [EPA-EFE/SHAWN THEW]

Lead candidates for the upcoming European elections are pondering ways of safeguarding the media sector’s integrity in light of persistent economic challenges and emerging threats like Russian disinformation.

Jessikka Aro, a Finnish investigative journalist, was one of a group of “disinformation victims” who arrived at the doorsteps of social media giants in Silicon Valley on Thursday (9 May), urging them to “recognise the deadly damage” fake news can cause.

Russian authorities are “definitely” targeting the upcoming EU elections with fake news, according to an undercover investigation she conducted at the St Petersburg Internet Research Agency (IRA), otherwise infamously known as the Russian “troll factory.”

Following her landmark investigation in 2015, Aro faced five years of coordinated attacks, including “death threats and harassment.”

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Facebook said on Sunday (12 May) it had taken down numerous Italian accounts on its platform that were false or were spreading fake news ahead of a European parliamentary election later this month.

After meeting a number of executives from Facebook and Twitter last week, Aro said that Russian disinformation campaigns are being planned “years in advance” and that workers at the IRA are being encouraged to produce content that would contribute to the perception that Europe is “corrupt” and that “it should be dissolved.”

The meeting was set up by the human rights group Avaaz and was described by the organisation as “highly emotional” to the point of “bringing social media employees to tears.”

Meanwhile, in another investigation conducted by the group, Facebook announced on Sunday (12 April) that it had taken down 23 Italian Facebook pages with over 2.46 million followers, which had been deemed to be spreading disinformation and divisive anti-migration, anti-vaccine and anti-Semitic content.

In response, a Facebook spokesperson said that the company is “committed to protecting the integrity of elections within the European Union and in the whole world.” In 2016, the firm set up a new centre in Dublin to monitor disinformation in Europe.

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The Greek government has lashed out against Facebook, after the social media platform decided to partner with a “controversial” fact-checker in the country. Athens says it is now prepared to raise the issue at an EU level, unless it gets satisfactory answers.

EU’s future media

Now, many in Brussels are starting to consider the measures that could come after the EU’s voluntary framework against fake news, the code of practice against disinformation.

Signatories to the voluntary code, which establishes a self-regulatory set of measures to stifle the spread of fake news, include Facebook, Twitter and Google.

“There’s much more the EU can do within its remit of competence,” said Wout van Wijk, executive director at News Media Europe, a trade body in Brussels.

“The Commission should prioritise policies that support free and independent professional news media, which finds itself under pressure both politically and financially,” he told EURACTIV.

“We would even argue in favour of a media policy strategy.”

Along this axis, Angela Mills Wade, executive director of the European Publishers’ Council, told EURACTIV that the “Commission should remain vigilant” against current threats to the media sector.

Where there are challenges to media freedom at the national level, the EU’s executive arm should “be prepared to intervene when the rule of law is undermined, which in turn threatens press freedom,” she warned.

According to Mills Wade, one of the main challenges to the sector today is the disruption caused to media revenues by online platforms. She said this has led to a “massive challenge to news media in securing sustainable revenues to fund journalism and professional media content.”

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YouTube has a systemic ‘bias towards keeping content up,’ although the video-sharing platform recently removed more than one million channels for violation of its policies as part of the EU’s code of practice against disinformation, EURACTIV has learnt.

Party policy 

In terms of the likelihood of the next Commission putting forward proposals to preserve the integrity of the EU’s media, EURACTIV surveyed the major political parties running in the European election, as a means to gauge the appetite for future plans in the area.

The most impassioned response came from the Greens’ campaign team, who said that media policy should “absolutely” be a priority for the next Commission, adding that “it is an area in which EU action has been too limited so far.”

“Legislation to ensure the transparency of funding sources and of media ownership structures are also paramount,” the Greens campaign team said. “We also believe that cross-border collaboration between different media outlets is an extremely effective method to ensure sustainability…without press freedom there can be no real democracy.”

On the liberal side, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) told EURACTIV that “there is no one-size-fits-all policy” for Europe. What they would prefer to see is “national policy approaches that reflect the specificities of national media landscapes,” citing its Irish member party Fianna Fail’s recent proposal for a €30m fund for print journalism as well as the establishment of a minister for the media.

The party’s position is to ensure that that the EU bolsters “its support for media pluralism and ethical journalism while refraining from involvement in editorial decisions.”

EPP, meanwhile, told us that they are taking a slightly different stance in terms of media policy, focussing on education. “One aspect that will need more focus will be to invest in media literacy skills,” their campaign team told us. “In today’s internet age, we have access to all of humanity’s knowledge and information easier and faster than at any time in our history.”

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Speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Conservative and Reformists in Europe (ACRE), Jan Zahradil, the party’s lead candidate for the European elections, believes the EU needs to look at ownership thresholds in the media sector.

“It isn’t sustainable in a democracy if a majority of a country’s news or broadcasting outlets are owned by the same individual,” he told EURACTIV.

However, Zahradil added that it “probably wouldn’t be too healthy” for the Commission to take too much of an “active interest” in future media regulation. One area in which the executive could take future steps would be in competition policy, he pointed out.

The European Left, for their part, said “media policy is an important issue and should be also one part of the policy of the Commission.” According to the leftists, “it has become clear in recent years that freedom of the press has to be established and defended in Europe,” in the face of rising right-wing populism.

In addition, the party said they would seek to hold social media accountable when threats to the media sector are being conveyed on their platforms, adding that “European standards and values do not fit the philosophy of these digital companies.”

While the Party of European Socialists (PES) and the European People’s Party (EPP) decided not to respond to EURACTIV’s survey, the Socialists’ candidate for the Commission Presidency, Frans Timmermans, said in a recent debate in Maastricht that tech regulation was necessary in order to create a more level-playing field.

“These tech companies use the data you give them for free and they make billions in profits,” he said, suggesting that the EU’s digital tax plans could be back on the table as part of a Timmermans-led Commission.

On the subject of disinformation in the wider context of media sustainability, in general, the majority of respondents adopted a cautious stance to the possibility of future regulation in the media sector.

However, the EU’s code of practice continues to raise eyebrows, as disinformation scandals surface ahead of the EU elections. If the code doesn’t prove its worth, then future regulation will be unavoidable, Mills Wade told EURACTIV.

“If this voluntary approach fails to deliver, regulation is inevitable and rightly so,” she said. “When it comes to fact-checking in the media industry, every single professionally trained journalist is a living, working fact-checker.”

“Editors are responsible and held accountable for what they publish so I do not regard the media industry as the problem when it comes to disinformation. On the contrary, trusted news media sites are the antidote to disinformation on un-regulated platforms and social media,” she said.

Commission urges platforms to take action on fake accounts before EU elections

Online platforms need to step up their attempts to quell the spread of fake accounts but also provide greater independent access to their content for fact checkers, as part of their wider efforts in compliance with the code of practice against disinformation, the European Commission said on Wednesday (20 March).

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]


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