The last few years we have seen that there have been people (even one who became president of a huge State) and organisations who did everything to bring disturbance in news provision and information gathering.
The European Council first recognised the threat of online disinformation campaigns in 2015 when it asked the High Representative to address the disinformation campaigns by Russia.
The East Strategic Communication Task Force has been setup to address and raise awareness of this issue. In addition, the Joint Communication on Countering Hybrid Threats setup the Hybrid Fusion Cell within the European External Action Service to act as a single focus for the analysis of hybrid threats.
It also led to the setting up of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, which shares best practices and supports the activities of the Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in this field.
In 2018 the members of parliament of the European Union became very well aware of the increasing huge problem of growing disinformation and fake news. Therefore the European Commission and the High Representative were setting out concrete measures to tackle disinformation, including the creation of a Rapid Alert System and close monitoring of the implementation of the Code of Practice signed by the online platforms.
We must be fully aware that our open democratic societies depend on the ability of citizens to access a variety of verifiable information so that they can form a view on different political issues. In this way, citizens can participate in an informed way in public debates and express their will through free and fair political processes. These democratic processes are increasingly challenged by deliberate, large-scale, and systematic spreading of disinformation.
Disinformation is understood as verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and may cause public harm. Public harm includes threats to democratic processes as well as to public goods such as Union citizens’ health, environment or security.
Disinformation does not include inadvertent errors, satire and parody, or clearly identified partisan news and commentary. The actions contained in this Action Plan only target disinformation content that is legal under Union or national law. They are without prejudice to the laws of the Union or of any of the Member States that may be applicable, including rules on illegal content.
In view of the 2019 European Parliament elections and more than 50 presidential, national or local/regional elections being held in Member States by 2020, it was urgent to step up efforts to secure free and fair democratic processes.
Threats affecting democracy in any Member State can harm the Union as a whole. Moreover, disinformation often targets European institutions and their representatives and aims at undermining the European project itself in general. Therefore on 12 September 2018, the Commission adopted measures to secure free and fair European elections and recommended the use of sanctions where appropriate, including for the illegal use of personal data to influence the outcome of the elections.
In addition, it is urgent that Member States take the steps needed to preserve the integrity of their electoral systems and infrastructure and test them ahead of the European elections.
In December 2018, High Representative/Vice President Federica Mogherini said:
“Healthy democracy relies on open, free and fair public debate. It’s our duty to protect this space and not allow anybody to spread disinformation that fuels hatred, division, and mistrust in democracy. As the European Union, we’ve decided to act together and reinforce our response, to promote our principles, to support the resilience of our societies, within our borders and in the neighbourhood. It’s the European way to respond to one of the main challenges of our times.”
Andrus Ansip, Vice-President responsible for the Digital Single Market, said:
“We need to be united and join our forces to protect our democracies against disinformation. We have seen attempts to interfere in elections and referenda, with evidence pointing to Russia as a primary source of these campaigns. To address these threats, we propose to improve coordination with Member States through a Rapid Alert System, reinforce our teams exposing disinformation, increase support for media and researchers, and ask online platforms to deliver on their commitments. Fighting disinformation requires a collective effort.”
The Bulgarian politician and a member of the GERB party, European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel said at the 9th Annual European Data Protection and Privacy Conference
For the Digital Single Market to flourish, individuals must have trust in digital products and services in the first place. Several tools help us achieve this.
But it is by that digital world that lots of information can be gathered by people with less good intentions. For that reason the Commission has done some work to help prevent and tackle disinformation online because this challenge is closely linked to the use, and indeed misuse, of our personal data and our privacy online.
Mariya Gabriel said in her opening keynote
Our electronic communications are confidential. Nobody should be allowed to read our mail or listen to our telephone conversations. Of course this applies to our private communications, I think everybody naturally expects that. But the right to privacy also protects the professional communications of businesses, governments and other organisations. By the way, this includes the increasing amount of data that is generated and exchanged with and also between machines and software. For example, when you speak to your bank computer on the telephone. Or when a truck is “phoning home” to continuously update its company about the progress of its journey. Even companies who use artificial intelligence algorithms to tie their business together across the continent need to know that nobody has the right to just take their data.
Beyond ensuring the high level of protection for the confidentiality of communications, the two other main objectives of the proposal are to create a level playing field and to support innovation.
This is achieved, first, by ensuring that all functionally equivalent communications services are subject to the same rules, independently of the technology used to communicate. This means that our communications should be protected regardless of whether we use a landline or mobile phone, whether we send an SMS or an instant message and also when we use an online chat. It might be difficult to believe, but that is not the case today!
Second, the ePrivacy Regulation will create additional possibilities for operators to process electronic communications data compared to the current situation. Certain types of processing are just forbidden today. The new regulation would give providers the chance to earn the trust and the consent of their users for example for processing information about their location.
At a time when we have to talk about loss of data and other breaches of online trust seemingly every day, the need for this new instrument is clearer than ever.
There is no time to lose when it comes to the fundamental rights all of us depend on.
Ahead of the European elections, the Union has to make sure nothing can happen like it happened at the presidential elections in the United States of America where people where lured into a lot of lies and disinformation, which is still going on, stimulated by the man in charge and his entourage. The last few years we also could see how social media was the ideal instrument for propaganda and disinformation.
In a democratic society it is very important to keep news and information free of falsity. We need to ensure that social media are not used to spread disinformation, that is, false information spread deliberately to deceive.
Elections must be free and fair, as pointed out by President Juncker in his State of the Union speech last September. We can not ignore the fact that in our digital world, the risk of interference and manipulation has never been so high. Therefore It is high time to put our electoral rules in line with the digital age.
The European Commission’s strategy to combat this threat was set out in the Communication of 26 April 2018 and reinforced by an Action Plan in December, which focused on four key areas and aimed to effectively strengthen the EU’s capacity and to step up the relevant cooperation between the Member States and the Union.
With this Code, industry engages in a wide range of actions from transparency in political advertising to the closure of fake accounts and demonetisation of providers of disinformation.
We can wonder if it is a good thing or not that specifically in view of the European Parliament elections, Google and Facebook are providing training to candidates, political parties and campaigners on how to manage their online presence and on how to protect their campaigns. Today those social media tools have become an essential gadget to reach the public.
Mrs Gabriel informs us that
These actions should contribute to a rapid and measurable reduction of online disinformation. To this end, the Commission is paying particular attention to their effective implementation. We are doing so through a monthly monitoring system since the end of last year.
Her view, and this was the essence of her message to them, is
that we are not yet there despite a lot of progress.
She agrees that
There’s no doubt that these platforms know what needs to be done. On the good end, for example, all have put in place a tool to monitor political ads, a tool particularly helpful for fact checkers and academics: who has advertised what, and targeting which population. This is a great achievement.
But she is also very well aware that other areas remain patchy and uneven in between platforms. she says
Take fake and malicious accounts: Youtube declares to have removed an impressive number of them in February, more than 600 000, but this is a worldwide figure and doesn’t differentiate between political disinformation and commercial scams. But at least, they seem to act.
Now, Facebook only reports on this issue on a quarterly basis, so we cannot judge how good the trend is, but they say they have shut down three networks in the UK, Romania and Moldova.
Twitter, on the other hand, did not report anything.
to protect the European citizen High Representative Mogherini manages the rapid alert system, whilst he may see the EU mobilising more resources by increasing their strategic communication budget for countering disinformation from 1.9 million in 2018 to 5 million euros in 2019.
There have to be concrete measures to address potential threats to elections and therefor election cooperation networks were set up in order to quickly detect potential threats, exchange information and ensure a swift and well-coordinated response. Furthermore, the Commission recommended greater transparency in online political advertisements and targeting of such ads, for instance by disclosing which party or political support group is behind individual political ads. The Commission is also supporting the setup of a network of independent fact-checkers and researchers to detect and expose disinformation campaigns across social networks.
The EU promises also to pay particular attention to digital education actions to strengthen the resilience of our societies by providing citizens with critical and digital skills to analyse media.
One cannot highlight enough the importance of privacy and data protection not just for creating trust in the digital single market, but also for creating and maintaining trust in our democratic processes.
Political and government organisations increasingly use personal data and sophisticated profiling techniques and big data analytics to monitor and target voters and opinion leaders on social media. They send highly personalised messages to groups of persons based on their particular interests, lifestyle, and values. Targeting is relying on the complex online advertisement ecosystem.
says Mariya Gabriel who ads
Indeed, the same processes used to sell us shoes and cars, are used to influence our political views. While some of these political uses appear legitimate, the processing of data for political purposes may also pose serious risks not only to our privacy but also to trust in the integrity of the democratic process.
Question is who is going to be in charge for controlling that the processing of personal data, given its impact on society as a whole,shall be safeguarded. that this processing of personal data should be transparent, fair and lawful has been agreed by most leaders of the European Union.
Individuals should understand why they are receiving targeted messages, and should also know who is attempting to influence them. They should also be able fully to exercise their rights when it comes to the data concerning them, including accessing the profile that an organisation has built about them.
warns Mrs Gabriel and gives as example the Cambridge Analytica scandal which has illustrated how the breach of the right to protection of personal data could affect other fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom to hold opinions, and the possibility to think freely without manipulation.
As citicens we may look forward to the work of the GDPR and the e-Privacy Regulation together who bring a set of rules that protects the privacy and individual autonomy of all Europeans from any form of disinformation, propaganda and unfair attempts of persuasion.
The protection applies irrespective of whether our data is processed by private or public entities, and of whether this is done for economic or political gain.
according to the European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society who also promises that
Data protection and privacy laws must allow businesses as well as political organisations opportunities to take advantage of new innovative ways of processing personal data. Businesses must be able to continue to innovate and offer new services to customers. Similarly, political and government organisations should be able to communicate and engage with citizens in new and innovative ways.
We can watch with suspicion how the EU will ensure that we receive safe and reliable information. Trust must be earned. It is essential that the EU shall provide citizens with transparency and control over the processing of their personal data when used to deliver a service.
Data protection and privacy laws, when properly implemented, play a key role in ensuring that cases where trust will be misused will be few and far between.