A special committee of the European Parliament is set to detect and combat foreign cyberattacks. The EU has confirmed that targeted disinformation campaigns are on the rise — partly relating to the coronavirus pandemic.
Brussels first sounded the alarm about coronavirus pandemic-related misinformation and disinformation in early summer. "The COVID-19 pandemic has been accompanied by an unprecedented 'infodemic,'" said European Commission Vice-President Vera Jourava. The disinformation campaigns were not only dangerous for public health; they were also designed to undermine trust in governments and the media.
The commissioner referred to the sharp increase in the number of opponents of vaccination, known as "anti-vaxxers" — in Germany. According to one study, the number of those prepared to be vaccinated decreased by 20% in two months. The commission also saw the false claim that drinking bleach can help against the virus, which is widespread on social media, as a further attempt at deliberate deception. "Disinformation during the coronavirus pandemic can kill," said EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Josep Borrell.
Unsubstantiated conspiracy theories have also become widespread since the pandemic began. A common theory falsely claims that the virus was spread as a pretext for forced mass vaccination; another one alleges that the pandemic is a way for Microsoft founder Bill Gates, working together with the EU, to monitor people.
Propaganda and cyberattacks
To counter these campaigns, the European Parliament has set up a special committee that has now set to work. Their remit goes far beyond disinformation about the virus itself. The EU has observed not just public health disinformation, but attempts by foreign powers including Russia and China to undermine democracy in the EU and weaken the global role of the bloc.
The committee intends to begin by finding out what issues are targeted in the spread of disinformation. One of the main issues remains attempts to influence elections. Shortly before the most recent European elections, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) reported massive Russia propaganda campaigns, which went further than disinformation spread via social media.
The MEPs revealed cyberattacks on electoral infrastructure, and that political bodies in their own countries were directly or indirectly financially supported by foreign powers. For example, the party of French right-wing populist former MEP Marine Le Pen was suspected of receiving money from the Kremlin. Le Pen has repeatedly criticized sanctions put on Russia by western countries after the annexation of Ukraine.
The EU's main partners in the fight are big online firms like Facebook, Twitter and Google. Brussels wants them to take stronger action against disinformation, and also to allow researchers access to their data.
"There is no structural cooperation between these platforms and the research community," the commission announced two weeks ago. "Platforms must become more responsible, more accountable and more transparent," Commission Vice-President Jourova said. There are voluntary measures — but they do not go far enough for the commission, which intends to make further proposals in the near future.
Back in June, when the special committee was set up, the commission asked online platforms to work closely with independent fact-checkers and provide monthly reports on their efforts to combat fake news. According to the authority, positive results have already been seen.
Reliable sources are often highlighted while false and misleading content is downgraded or removed. For example, Facebook and Instagram draw attention to content from health authorities like the World Health Organization. Advertising of overpriced or counterfeit medical products is deleted.
Tightrope of censorship vs. free speech
The European Federation of Journalists, the European Publishers' Council and the Association of Private Television Stations in Europe all consider the voluntary measures of online platforms inadequate. In a joint statement from June, the organizations wrote that Europe relies too much on the good will of online actors. They called for "effective" sanctions if companies did not adhere to the voluntary code of conduct.
But there is a further difficulty. The fact-checkers are in many ways performing a tightrope walk. It is often not easy to define fake news and to separate it from extreme expressions of opinion. Critics fear that freedom of speech could be affected.
The parliament's special commission is likely to face this problem repeatedly in its fight against fake news.