“If people are no longer capable to distinguish between slander and truth, then democracy and the moral life of individuals are in danger”: it’s the underlying principle of the office of Marjory Van Den Broeke, (The Netherlands) who as of January 15 2018 serves as the chair of a dedicated taskforce of the European Parliament, named “rebuttal unit”, tasked with identifying, combating and debunking fake, distorted or misleading news on the Parliamentary Assembly. It’s a challenging task of crucial importance in view of the European elections of next May, part of an effort to combat misinformation launched by the EU at various levels in 2015. The purpose is to ensure the freedom and transparency of democratic processes, notably of elections. It’s the thin line separating freedom of expression, a fundamental value of the EU, from the manipulation of public opinion in writing or tweets, posted with the intention to deceive or seek personal gain. SIR asked Marjory Van Den Broeke to share an overview of the situation so far.
What are the risks that news media are exposed to in this election campaign?
Since the US elections of 2016 everyone has become aware of the risks and of “strange“ things happening, but we have no certainties. At IT level we are working to ensure Parliament’s IT security and protection, with a special focus on the upcoming election night, May 26. In order to strengthen IT security at national level, a network was set up between the competent authorities and the European Commission. With regard to disinformation, however, it’s a very delicate issue:
we are witnessing attempts to put a negative slant on a given issue (immigration is a fitting example) to the extent of manipulating it as fake news. Past December EU governments have adopted an action plan against media distortion whereby EU institutions and Member States are called to cooperate at various levels. As Parliament we are currently working with the Commission and the External Action Service to join forces, share experiences and identify the main critical aspects. With respect to Parliament we ascertained that rather than fake news what we are facing is widespread negative news on the E.U.
What is the dividing line separating fake news and misleading information or poor information?
In fact it’s not very clear. I see fake information and fake news linked to negative aspects. If I read fake news on positive issues I tend not to worry, but it never happens. Scientific classification attempts distinguish between bad information (misinformation) that contains errors; false information (disinformation) consisting in veritable propaganda that makes an instrumental use of something wrong to discredit a person or institution; or even sick information, created by those who reveal information to cause harm to someone. In my view
it’s important to focus on what is true and distinguish it from what is not and from harmful information.
Hanna Arendt said: if people are no longer capable to distinguish between lies and the truth, then democracy and the moral life of people are in great danger. For the upcoming elections it’s important for people to be able to make this distinction and understand what Europe is all about.
Which areas or issues risk being treated deceptively during the election campaign?
Any issue can be manipulated, but at a closer glance there are always three underlying themes involving the EU: “there is a huge amount of bureaucracy”, “they do everything they please”, and “it costs us too much.” In reality, the number of officers in Brussels is equal to – if not lower than – those employed in the ministry of any given Member Country. Or as regards the money given to the EU: the entire EU budget is less than 1% of Europe’s GDP, so it’s actually a very small amount. Or, with regard to regulations, we could take as a example the case of Penka the cow in Bulgaria which shows that the ways in which the rules are implemented does not correspond to the ways in which they are described, while the reasons underlying the creation of these regulation are often overlooked.
How do you carry out concrete action?
In different ways. In case of blatantly inaccurate news items we contact the interested journalist and we try to explain; we are always sincere, because if you lie you lose credibility; we try to rectify the news, sometimes with a tweet; we also try to show in an engaging manner, with a project we’re working on, that EU regulations are neither stupid nor useless, that the EU is not expensive and so on. We attempt to follow these roads to counter the negative image that has been created, often – it should be said – by national politicians. We also try to give people the tools to understand through so-called “media literacy”: we explain that if they read something on Facebook they need to analyze that information carefully before circulating it and making a case out of it. Look for the author: is there a name? Who are the people mentioned? Does the news appear in major news outlets or is it a website with a strange name? There are a set of practical actions that can be taken to check if what we are reading is true or fabricated news.
But this effort is largely directed to people who use social media and surf the web…
Not only. Also traditional media are extremely important. In fact a large amount of news circulated on social networks has a source. But probably a lot more circulates on line compared to printed news:
some websites, that we know of, were deliberately created to publish hoaxes.
Others, as shown in a survey conducted in my Country by a Dutch weekly magazine, are financed by Russian outlets. Sometimes printed media need “stories” to be sensational and sell more: it’s the so-called “clickbait”, content created to entice users to follow that link. This happens also on mainstream media that depend on certain business models. And more often than not social media further disseminate distorted and fake news.