EU elections in the era of fake news

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Monique Goyens
Monique Goyens

Director General of BEUC - The European Consumer Organisation

Monique Goyens is Director General of BEUC – The European Consumer Organisation

‘Fake news’: it has existed for centuries but is exacerbated by 21st Century technologies.

A buzz concept, it is the phenomenon that hit unprecedented heights impacting the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign and the 2016 US presidential elections. ‘Fake news’ has also played an influential role in a number of national elections across the European Union, exploiting citizens’ emotional fears of terrorism and migration.

There are now worries that the spread of ‘fake news’ will affect the upcoming European Parliamentary elections, to be held in May 2019. There have been real concerns that the spread of fake news has fuelled Eurosceptic campaigns during the Brexit referendum and in recent elections in Central and Eastern European countries. Mainstream EU parties have also been known to adopt anti-EU rhetoric designed to influence certain voters: for example, some senior members of the European People’s Party (EPP) claimed that the EU Commission wanted to ban kebabs and that the party’s opposition was crucial in saving this culinary symbol. Yet in reality, the Commission had only proposed to ban phosphates to protect consumer safety. In the light of the upcoming elections, the next major concern is that the incoming European Parliament will be composed by a majority of Eurosceptic MEPs – potentially leading to the EU’s implosion.

There are now worries that the spread of ‘fake news’ will affect the upcoming European Parliamentary elections

Fake news is indeed nothing new – it is as old as humanity. However, social media and the echo-chambers it creates are escalating the harm it can do. While fake news cannot be eradicated, it can be discouraged and its impact reduced. But the responses will not happen overnight and need a collective reaction and effort from all bodies who wish to see its influence compressed. With the European elections only months away, it is crucial that the necessary actions are taken at EU level to thwart the dissemination of fake news.

So far, the EU’s response to tackling the dissemination of false information has been inadequate. There are three major flaws in their approach.

First are unrealistic deadlines: albeit vocal in their mission to tackle fake news, the European Commission only just turned words to action through a flurry of activities at the beginning of 2018, hoping to be prepared for the 2019 European elections. An expert group report, a strategy document, a stakeholder forum and the preparation of a ‘code of conduct’ were ordered, and the first results are expected in October this year.

This is a tight time-frame to provide concrete results – an indicator of fragile discussions and a demonstration in lack-of-seriousness to protect EU electoral processes against fake news of all kinds. Sensitive discussions that need to balance freedom of speech with that of protection against disinformation call for moderated discussions. There should have also been a respect shown for the different interests that are at stake, with sound impact assessments that incorporate different options for all necessary bodies to choose from.

Second, there is too much focus on finding a cure, rather than establishing preventative measures. The Commission proposes to enhance media literacy and provide fact checkers with access to platform data. These are without a doubt welcomed initiatives that will hopefully contextualise the dissemination of fake news and soften the impact it can have on citizens. However, it is probable that those who are most exposed to fake news will not benefit from media literacy initiatives. Conceptually, media literacy shifts the burden of managing the impact of fake news from those who benefit to the recipient, be it the end-reader or the fact-checker.

Instead, any meaningful policy initiative must address incentives to disseminate fake news. One priority should be scrutinising the business models of online platforms which make their revenue from the advertising that is associated with sensationalist news – both fake and real. The right tool for that would be a sector inquiry of the Commission’s competition body to investigate the online advertising market. The Commission decided against such an approach, which could have had a more efficient and timely effect than the measures that are currently taking place.

The Commission has adopted the wrong policy methods in fighting the spreading of false information

Lastly, in their attempts to battle fake news, the Commission unfortunately opted for a soft approach. It favours ‘self-regulation’ over ‘regulatory tools’. Furthermore, it entrusts the co-drafting of preventative measures to those that are at the centre of the dissemination of fake news – the social media platforms. This weakens any ambition in tackling the system which has delivered – and still is delivering – the most aggressive forms of online disinformation.

The Commission has adopted the wrong policy methods in fighting the spreading of false information. By not acting quickly enough and thus delaying the kick-off of a more effective approach, it may already be too late for the European elections.

If the EU is serious about protecting its democratic processes, it must urgently develop the courage to use its regulatory prerogatives. It must not give in to the vague promises made by some companies that do not have the track-record of living up to their obligations, whether legal or ethical.

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