The corona virus pandemic throws a critical light on current EU efforts to tackle disinformation. The COVID-19 infodemic confirms that online disinformation impacts our real world: it has economic costs and can even be lethal. Clearly, current efforts to tackle this problem are not enough.
On Wednesday 10 June the EU Commission will publish a Communication on disinformation in the COVID-19 context, and by the end of the year it will come with the Digital Services Act and the European Democracy Action Plan to give some regulatory ideas on how to advance the debate about disinformation and online responsibility.
Anticipating Wednesday’s communication, a growing coalition of countries urges the EU to learn lessons from the COVID-19 infodemic: develop a future-oriented regulatory framework against disinformation, and expand EEAS‘ scope and resources beyond Russia to include China and other state actors.
Defend Democracy has obtained a position paper by Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia (version 6 June 2020). To help raise public awareness on the increasingly urgent and growing problem of disinformation, we publish the paper in full. Defend Democracy supports the coalition’s call for more decisive, regulatory EU action against disinformation, and we hope more EU Member States will sign on.
If there will be a next version of the coalition paper, Defend Democracy suggests to add a paragraph about imposing costs on foreign states conducting disinformation campaigns aimed at undermining the EU. In our view, and depending on the nature of the disinformation campaign, this may be done by using EU’s cyber diplomacy toolbox and / or the EU Magnitsky Act.
Addressing disinformation during and after the COVID-19 crisis
Position paper by Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia
The groundswell of disinformation prompted by the COVID-19 points to the need for more robust and better coordinated EU effort against disinformation in general. This position paper outlines some thoughts and suggests next steps to be considered by the European Commission and the European External Action Service in light of the forthcoming joint communication on tackling COVID-19 disinformation.
While addressing disinformation remains primarily a national competence, the EU has an important role to play. First, it is uniquely placed to coordinate and support the efforts of the Member States. Second, the EU should, within its competences, ensure a uniform regulatory environment to safeguard fundamental values, interests and integrity of the Union.
Ensuring effective crisis response to disinformation
The priority now is to ensure effective crisis response of the EU institutions to COVID-19 related disinformation, including support for the efforts of the Member States in this regard. Swift action is needed to enable a response to disinformation that is based on trust, transparency, fundamental rights and reliable information. It is important to empower independent expertise vis-a-vis disinformation on the internet, including online platforms.
For example, the EU could encourage the online platforms to open their COVID-19 policies for content moderation and take-down of inauthentic behaviour to scientific advice and public scrutiny by health, cognitive and human rights experts. This would help to ensure that efforts to counter disinformation do not infringe fundamental rights and freedoms. Also, it should urge the platforms to ensure that their rules, including their enforcement, are clear and transparent to users, especially in the context of COVID-19.
Taking necessary steps now in the context of COVID-19 will also lay the foundation for better EU preparedness to deal with disinformation in the future crises.
Addressing disinformation over the longer term
As the EU addresses the current crisis, it cannot afford to postpone steps needed to address disinformation over the longer term. The Action Plan against Disinformation from 2018 laid the groundwork for a solid EU approach; it is time to take it further while upholding the Plan’s scope and ambition.
Our evolved understanding of the challenge of disinformation calls for a set of well- considered and clear definitions and concepts as a basis for action. Distinctions should be drawn between the various types of challenges currently described as “disinformation”, “malinformation”, “misinformation”, “influence operations” etc. Definitional clarity should also facilitate a common understanding with the EU’s partners in the field.
There is also need to outline the competencies, modi operandi, gauge and prioritise resources necessary for the relevant EU institutions to address the issue. The multifaceted nature of the challenge does not preclude, but makes even more necessary better policy focus and coordination among the EU institutions.
Improving resilience of societies
A broad set of actions are needed to build the resilience of our societies to disinformation through support for independent media, media literacy, and civil society. Pluralistic, independent media and journalism are expensive; they are also a key partner in fighting disinformation. The EU should stand by the independent media in this time of crisis and develop support measures to ensure their survival. The EU should also support and cooperate with independent fact-checkers and civic initiatives aimed at strengthening media literacy and civic education.
Building societal resilience to disinformation should also feature more prominently on the EU’s agenda for its neighbourhood. Support for independent media, media literacy and civil society actors in these countries are now more necessary than ever.
Opposing hostile information manipulation by foreign actors
All disinformation phenomena, especially health-related misinformation during a pandemic, can present significant risks and needs an adequate policy response. However, hostile information manipulation activities by foreign state and non-state actors stand out as a salient and mounting challenge. They can target the safety and security of our citizens and have lasting implications for the integrity, stability and prosperity of the Union. They also negatively affect the security and stability of the EU’s neighbourhood and can undermine CSDP missions and operations in third countries. Countering this challenge in accordance with the Council Conclusions from 10 December 2019 should be tied into the broader context of the CFSP and integrated into the EU’s policies towards foreign actors concerned.
Closer cooperation with like-minded countries and international organisations is essential. The EU should explore ways to enhance cooperation and coordination with the relevant NATO divisions and research capabilities, as well as G7’s Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM). More active outreach and cooperation with other international organisations, such as UN (especially UNESCO), would strengthen the EU’s global efforts to address the challenge of disinformation.
The EEAS should continue to employ its capabilities to monitor, analyse and publicly call out disinformation actors, their methods and narratives based on solid evidence. The EU INTCEN / Hybrid Fusion Cell remains central for analysing the evolving nature of disinformation campaigns and providing intelligence-based strategic analysis.
Our citizens deserve and need a clear and honest message about the disinformation threats. Exposing disinformation campaigns by external actors is an important service provided by the EEAS to the European publics. The respective EEAS strategic communication division should continue providing this service using its open source analytical capabilities. The EEAS should ensure that the work of its respective experts remains based on facts and high academic standards, intellectually independent and unimpeded by political considerations. This is also critical for upholding public trust in the work of the EEAS.
The disinformation landscape is expanding, so should the Union’s resources focused on dealing with it. As the EU continues addressing the ongoing disinformation campaigns by Russia, which remain of foremost concern, it should also direct more resources and attention towards the ever more assertive propaganda and influencing activities by the government of China, as well as similar activities by other foreign actors. Such geographically broader approach could be reflected, inter alia, in the development of EEAS’s analytical capabilities and communication products dedicated to particular regions in their respective languages. Importantly, these steps should be taken in parallel with, and not at the expense of the already existing and successful lines of work, such as the three Stratcom task forces within the EEAS. These activities should be further developed and supported.
The Rapid Alert System should be further developed towards its full potential. RAS is particularly useful as a platform for sharing information and best practices, as a springboard for further EU-wide analysis, policy measures and strategic communication and as a bridge to external cooperation partners, in particular the RRM.
Learning the lessons from COVID-19
Now is the right time to begin identifying and learning the lessons on disinformation from the COVID-19 crisis. Some of these lessons will help improve the EU’s internal and external communications, including, in the nearest future, communication regarding development and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine. Another lesson is exemplified by the attacks on the telecommunication infrastructure spurred by COVID-19 disinformation: the real-world damage that contagious false narratives can inflict on our economies should be assessed and addressed earnestly.
Most important lessons, however, concern the online platforms’ performance on addressing disinformation during the crisis. Despite the serious efforts by the online platforms, they continue to host significant volumes of disinformation concerning COVID-19, their reaction time can be unsatisfactory, while independent researchers still lack access to relevant data necessary for public interest research. An independent evaluation should be considered in order to assess the platforms’ performance during the crisis, looking at practical level cooperation between the platforms and the public authorities as well as the sufficiency of the platforms’ systems and procedures for implementing their own commitments. An important criterion for the assessment should be the consistency of platforms’ actions with fundamental rights, i.e. prevention of unjustified and non-transparent content take-downs.
Establishing a regulatory environment against disinformation on online platforms
The COVID-19 crisis has thrown a critical light on the current regulatory environment on disinformation in the EU. The Code of Practice on Disinformation was a valuable and important first step towards a coherent EU-wide approach. The experiences of recent months, as well as the results of the recently published independent assessments of the Code (which find partial success, at best), make it obvious that it is insufficient and unsuitable to serve as the basis for sustainably addressing disinformation on social platforms.
It is urgent that the EU develop a future-oriented regulatory framework against disinformation on social platforms consistent with the European values. At its heart should be protection of the fundamental rights of the European citizens, including privacy, protection of private data and freedom of thought, expression and information. This framework should establish accountability and transparency requirements for technology companies and online platforms regarding disinformation, focusing on combating malicious online behaviour, and not regulating content.
The constructive way forward is already indicated in the Commission’s communication Shaping Europe’s digital future, which envisages the European Democracy Action Plan and Digital Services Act package. These forthcoming elements should serve as the foundation of a coherent, enforceable and adaptable regulatory framework on the EU level. This framework should also encompass definitions, assessment criteria and tools as well as enforcement mechanisms.
The European Commission should be encouraged to work closely with all relevant expert platforms and draw on their expertise and experience in addressing disinformation.
Note by Defend Democracy: the only change we made to the position paper is inserting the four footnotes as links.