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Europe takes action against fake news: “they pose a threat to democracy.” Task force, prevention and training

In the coming days the EU Commission and the European Parliament will be launching a set of initiatives to counter the so-called “hoaxes”: fake, misleading information or news or intentionally fabricated to influence the political, social or economic realms. For the Council of Europe it is necessary to focus on “digital literacy”

Bruxelles, 15 gennaio: Madeleine de Cock Buning, a sinistra, e Mariya Gabriel (foto SIR/Commissione Ue)

It’s now open war in Europe, but far from being the umpteenth armed conflict, one of those that shed blood across the continent throughout history, it’s a “good battle” with a declared target: fake news. Signalling a breakthrough, both the EU Commission and the European Parliament in Strasbourg are simultaneously launching – today and tomorrow – a set of targeted initiatives to counter false news and half truths (or, more simply, inaccurate or misleading information) regarding the European integration process. Fake news disseminated in the political realm, “pose a threat to democracy”, said Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner responsible for Digital Economy and Society.

Launch of the Commission project. The EU Commission has put into action the project announced in November: the creation of a “High-Level Expert Group” tasked with analysing all aspects (information, culture, social, economic, penal) of fake news, along with a public online consultation (ongoing until February 23) and a Eurobarometer survey in March. Next Spring, probably in April, the Commission will release its own document that will take stock of all aspects related to the phenomenon of “hoaxes” with a view to proposing legislative measures or actions and programs to counter fake news – especially at cultural level and in the media. The group of thirty-nine members who started working yesterday, January 15, in Brussels, includes experts from world countries actively engaged in various sectors: academia, traditional news media, social networks, civil society organizations, economic domain. The group of experts is tasked with “defining what is” fake news in order to “identify and provide options” to counter its negative impact.

An upsetting rate. Bulgarian Commissioner Mariya Gabriel presented the initiative with Madeleine de Cock Buning, chairperson of the Group of Experts, professor at Utrecht University, specialised in intellectual property. “Fake news is spreading at a worrying rate. It threatens the reputation of the media and the well-being of our democracies”, the Commissioner said. No one is going to “force citizens to believe or not believe the news”, nor do we intend “to limit the rights of media and communication outlets” Commissioner Gabriel pointed out. It is a question of “advancing transparency, diversity and the credibility of information sources.” The group is tasked with developing “options for the Commission and items for reflection on all issues related to the dissemination of false information in traditional and social media and on how to address its political and social consequences.” The findings will be integrated with the Eurobarometer survey and with the outcomes of the public consultation (available in the many EU languages- see here)

Possible influence on elections. The scope of fake news has escalated over the past years alongside with the growth of social media. In fact, anybody can share their opinions or what they believe to be just and true online, or whichever piece of information that person intends to make public. However, intentions are not always for the good. In fact, the attention of political, national and European institutions grew stronger as a result of ISIS propaganda (radicalization, terrorism…), since the last US elections (Russia intervention in favour of Trump?) and other equally serious episodes or events. Further reflections are related to the fact that

fake news tend to modify behaviours also at local level

(the municipal or regional elections, for example), at economic or social level (the cases of racism and xenophobia). Fake news is thus deemed to have played a role in the Brexit, in the recent referendum in Catalonia, as well as in the next Italian elections of March 4. In the meantime Germany has adopted targeted legislation envisaging heavy fines, while French President Macron ordered a law to stop the spread of false information. Madeleine de Cock Buning  declared: “Our worries involve the subject in general, and the election campaigns in Europe will certainly be an aspect we will be dealing with”. However “we will not focus on a single aspect. We will try to address the phenomenon from a multi-dimensional angle, while pursuing concrete modes for action.”

A new unit at the European Parliament. Yesterday, January 15th, in the seat of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the director general of communication Jaume Duch announced the creation of a specific unit tasked with identifying, rebutting and countering fake news regarding the Assembly. The new office, called “Spokespersons and rebuttal unit”, will be presided by Marjory Van Den Broeke, with a long-standing experience in the media sector of the EU Parliament. The unit will be the most important tool “to respond to questions of the media that are indirectly linked to the legislative work of the European Parliament and to respond to false or misleading information on Parliament, from prevention to identification of reactions.”

CoE, “digital literacy.” On its part also the Council of Europe (another European institution with home office in Strasbourg, but is not related to the EU and it includes 47 States of the continent), is addressing the problem with the same concerns expressed in the EU seat. The CoE is compiling materials on the subject and has shared its contribution on the occasion of the Internet Governance Forum (Geneva December 17-21) promoted by the United Nations, focusing on the “effects of the digitalisation of information on politics, public confidence and democracy”, and underlining “the importance of digital literacy lasting over time to counteract its negative effects.”

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