Member states differ in combating disinformation, EU report says

[EPA-EFE/HARISH TYAGI]

The approach to tackling disinformation across the EU “varies greatly across member states,” says a report produced by the outgoing Romanian Presidency. The document was distributed to national delegations ahead of the European Council summit, which concluded that “sustained efforts” were required in the fight against fake news.

Moreover, the report comes days after a Commission review brought the attention to “sustained disinformation activity by Russian sources aiming to suppress turnout and influence voter preferences,” ahead of the EU elections.

The Romanian Presidency’s findings highlight the shortfalls in the EU’s strategy against disinformation.

It notes that the responsibilities for tackling disinformation, at a national level, are “shared across a large number of ministries” and that the methods by which fake news is fought, “differ among member states and depend on the human resources deployed and the technology used.”

Such disinformation campaigns “aim to undermine trust in democracy and in the EU, its policies and core values,” the report states, adding further that the objectives are to “exploit divisive public debates and create a climate of mistrust.”

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Romania’s ambassador to the EU, Luminita Odobescu, shed some light on the findings of the report.

“The approach that each member state takes depends on several factors, such as administrative organisation, resources or historical background,” she told EURACTIV.

“In this context, we have seen that there are some differences in the emphasis member states put on different actions and measures, stemming especially from the fact that not all of them were affected by disinformation campaigns in the same way during the last period.”

Odobescu gestured towards Thursday’s Council conclusions as evidence that there is recognition at the highest levels of government of the need to strengthen the EU’s resilience against the threat of disinformation.

However, the Council’s statement is lacking on the specifics for how member states could pool their resources in order to carry out a more unified approach in the fight against fake news. It says merely that the EU recognises the need to “increase preparedness and strengthen the resilience of our democracies to disinformation.”

The Council’s statement comes in the context of some harsh words from the European Commission against the Russian state on the subject of disinformation, after a review of the Commission’s mechanism for quelling the spread of fake news online – the code of practice against disinformation – was released last week.

“Ahead of the elections, we saw evidence of coordinated inauthentic behaviour aimed at spreading divisive material on online platforms, including through the use of bots and fake accounts,” a statement from the Commission read, attributing the majority of the targeted fake news campaigns to the Russian state.

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The code, launched in 2018, is a voluntary framework that aims to stamp out the spread of fake news online. Signatories include Facebook, Google and Twitter.

The first issues of the compliance reports, published earlier in the year, heavily criticised the lack of effort made by the platforms, which Security Commissioner King described in January as “patchy, opaque and self-selecting.”

The code is part of the action plan against disinformation and encourages major platforms to carry out certain measures such as disrupting advertising revenues from companies that spread disinformation, making political advertising more transparent, and tackling fake accounts and online bots.

In addition, the EU’s rapid alert system, set up in March, allows member states to alert one another on disinformation threats in real time. A senior EU official told EURACTIV recently that the system comprises a closed network that member states can use to submit reports of disinformation with EU nations in a swift and efficient manner.

While the value of the rapid alert system is well regarded in the context of the EU elections however, the Romanian Presidency of the Council observes that “it is important to realise that, while elections may recede into the background in the short term, the basic structures must be prepared and strengthened.”

It remains unclear as to whether the EU will seek to make the move from introducing a self-regulatory framework in the context of the code of practice, to imposing a regulatory regime in the moderation of disinformation online.

While the Council’s conclusions lack substance in this field, Odobescu notes that both the incoming Finnish Presidency of the Council (Jul-Dec 2019) as well as the Croatians (Jan-Jun 2020), have adopted a more definitive stance in proposing “a more structured approached at the level of the Council” for countering disinformation across the EU.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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