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Institutional and Legal Affairs, International Relations, PUBLICATIONS, Structural and Cohesion Policies

Online disinformation and the EU’s response

Written by Naja Bentzen,

Fake news word tag cloud. 3D rendering, blue variant.

© ommbeu / Fotolia

The proliferation of disinformation – including false news posing as factual stories – became increasingly visible in the context of the crisis in Ukraine, gaining notoriety as a global challenge during the 2016 United States presidential election campaign. While the EU is stepping up its efforts to tackle online disinformation ahead of the European elections in 2019, the EU’s myth-busting team is facing criticism.

A global phenomenon with growing visibility

The phenomenon of false, misleading news stories is at least as old as the printing press. However, social media and their personalisation tools have accelerated the spread of rumours, hoaxes and conspiracy theories. The phenomenon gained global visibility during the 2016 US presidential election, when viral false news or ‘junk news‘ across the political spectrum received more engagement on Facebook than real news. According to the Collins Dictionary, which chose ‘fake news’ as its word of the year for 2017, the term saw an unprecedented increase in usage, of 365 % since 2016.

Online disinformation as an instrument of political influence

When designed to deceive users for political purposes, digital gossip falls under ‘disinformation‘ – the dissemination of deliberately false information which non-state and state actors can use to undermine adversaries. The Kremlin continues its disinformation campaigns in its ongoing hybrid war against Ukraine, and is applying them in its ‘holistic‘ information warfare against the West. Pro-Kremlin information campaigns boost Moscow’s narrative of a ‘morally decayed EU’ on the brink of collapse, and seek to exploit divisions in Western societies. In November 2017, British Prime Minister Theresa May accused Russia of ‘weaponising information’, and a February 2018 report by UK communications agency found Russian pro-Brexit social media interference worth up to €4.6 million during the campaign. In August 2017, the USA imposed fresh sanctions on Russia over its interference in the 2016 election. Following the nerve-gas attack on a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter on UK soil in March 2018, the US imposed new sanctions, including on 16 Russian entities and individuals linked to the Internet Research Agency (a Russian ‘troll factory’ spreading disruptive content via social media) indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in February for their role in operations to interfere with elections and political processes.

Online platforms and their role in spreading disinformation

Whereas US tech giants had previously played down the volume of content purchased by Russian actors during the 2016 US presidential election campaign, Facebook, Google and Twitter told US lawmakers in November 2017 that pro-Kremlin actors bought and published divisive ads aimed at influencing both liberals and conservatives. Facebook said Russia-backed posts reached up to 126 million Americans during and after the 2016 presidential election. The March 2018 disclosure that user data from 87 million Facebook users – including that of 2.7 million EU citizens – were improperly shared with the controversial political consultancy company Cambridge Analytica (which used the data to micro-target and mobilise voters in the United States and the United Kingdom) further increased the focus on the role of online platforms in spreading divisive content. In April 2018 hearings, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the US Congress that tens of thousands of fake accounts were deleted to prevent election interference in 2017. He explained that Russian accounts primarily used ads to influence views on issues rather than promoting specific candidates or political messaging.

The Kremlin denies interfering, but admits setting up information warfare force

So far, the Kremlin has dismissed allegations of interference in the US election campaign and in the UK referendum on EU membership. However, in February 2017 the Russian Defence Minister, Sergey Shoigu, acknowledged that a dedicated information warfare force had been established in 2013 within the Ministry of Defence. He added that Moscow’s ‘propaganda needs to be clever, smart and efficient’. Security analysts say that Shoigu’s announcement indicates that Moscow can no longer deny propaganda activities.

EU steps up anti-disinformation efforts to protect democracy

The Facebook data breach disclosure reignited the ongoing debate on the role of online platforms in the spread of conspiracy theories, disinformation and false news. In its June 2017 resolution on online platforms and the digital single market, the European Parliament called on the Commission to analyse the legal framework with regard to ‘fake news’, and to look into the possibility of legislative intervention to limit the dissemination of fake content. President Jean-Claude Juncker tasked Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society, to look into the democratic challenges that online platforms create as regards the spread of fake information, as well as to reflect on possible action at EU level. The Commission included the initiative against fake online information in its 2018 work programme. In October 2017, the Commission set up a high-level expert group (HLEG) representing academia, online platforms, news media and civil society organisations. It also launched a public consultation on ‘fake news and online disinformation’. According to the results of the public consultation, intentional disinformation aimed at influencing elections and migration policies were the top two categories where most respondents thought fake news was likely to cause harm to society. The recommendations of the HLEG, published in March 2018, included the introduction of a code of principles for online platforms and social networks, including ensuring transparency by explaining how algorithms select news, as well as improving the visibility of reliable, trustworthy news and facilitating users’ access to it. The Commission’s forthcoming communication on online disinformation, due to be published in April 2018, is expected to reflect the HLEG’s recommendations.

In a January 2018 debate on the influence of Russian propaganda on EU countries, Members of the European Parliament warned that the upcoming EU elections in May 2019 are likely to be the next big target for Russian disinformation. On the same occasion, Julian King, the Commissioner in charge of the Security Union characterised the on-going pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign as ‘an orchestrated strategy’.

EU ‘myth-busting’ team: pressure and praise

In 2015, the European Council asked EU High Representative/Vice-President, Federica Mogherini, to submit an action plan on strategic communication to address Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns. As a result, the East StratCom task force was set up in September 2015 under the European External Action Service. Since then, the (now 14-strong) team has been working without its own budget, drawing on the existing EU strategic communication budget and mostly seconded staff. It relies on volunteers to collect the disinformation stories (more than 3 800 examples in 18 languages so far), which it analyses, debunks and publishes in its weekly newsletter, the Disinformation Review. The team also explains and promotes EU policies in the Neighbourhood.
The European Parliament, in its 23 November 2016 resolution on EU strategic communication to counteract propaganda, called for the East StratCom task force to be reinforced, including through ‘proper staffing and adequate budgetary resources’. Since then, MEPs have repeatedly reiterated these calls. At a foreign ministers’ meeting on 13 November 2017, Mogherini called for additional resources for the StratCom team, not least to boost its capacities regarding the Western Balkans, which is being heavily targeted by Kremlin-backed influence campaigns. The 17 Member States that addressed the issue at the meeting ‘generally concurred that strategic communication is very important’ and ‘agreed on the need for more [human and financial] resources’.
In January 2018, the East StratCom Task Force received its first proper budget of €1.1 million, which was initiated by the European Parliament. The main aim with the budget, according to the team itself, is to professionalise the network in the field, make the data input more solid, more robust, more balanced and more professional.
In March 2018, the Dutch parliament called for the East StratCom Task Force’s website EUvsDisinfo to close down because it had wrongly listed articles published by Dutch media in its collection of cases conveying a ‘partial, distorted or false view or interpretation and/or spreading key pro-Kremlin messaging’. The task force has removed the articles, and the case has been withdrawn. Also in March, a complaint was filed with the EU Ombudsman, alleging that the Disinformation Review violates the freedom of expression.
However, there seems to be overwhelming support for the East StratCom Task Force from experts in the field. Keir Giles (Chatham House) has called East StratCom ‘critically important’ for responding to threats to democracy and our institutions, adding that the team is ‘scandalously under-resourced and under-empowered’. A March 2018 report published by the Atlantic Council recommended that the EU require all Member States to provide a seconded national expert to boost the East StratCom taskforce. The report also urged continued financial and political support for the task force, adding that it should have ‘autonomy to act within its charter’.

This is a further updated version of an ‘At a glance’ note published in November 2017: PE 608.805.

Read this At a glance on ‘Online disinformation and the EU’s response‘ on the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.


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