Fake news has taken hold in Europe: it’s time for the EU to act
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Fake news has taken hold in Europe: it’s time for the EU to act

Wednesday, 01 May 2019
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

It’s become a truism to accuse Russia for the spread of fake news around the world; the Kremlin has been accused of interfering in both the 2016 US Presidential election and the Brexit referendum, as well as countless other instances of propagandized meddling. But while Russia elevated the practice from obscurity and into the mainstream, countless other copycats and organizations have successfully deployed the same technique to their own ends. Now hardly a week passes by without new examples of fake news making headlines – and even Russia itself is struggling to grapple with the epidemic.

It’s no surprise that Russian lawmakers recently supported legislation which criminalizes the spread of fake news online. While this goal may be laudable, the legislation that has been proposed is problematic: its wording is remarkably vague, and the fact that the bill was accompanied by a law that criminalizes “disrespecting the state” has led to fears among critics that it could be used highly selectively to censor political opponents. Furthermore, the multi-million-ruble fines are unlikely to be used against perpetrators acting outside of the country’s borders, meaning the new laws are expected to do little to curb fake news abroad.

Of course, there have been cases where these efforts have been successful. In mid-March, former Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin and his son Andrey Yakuni won a lawsuit against influential paper Novaya Gazeta, after the paper alleged the two were involved in fraud, and suggested they played a part in death of a Russian Lieutenant Colonel. The claims were then repeated in the UK’s Daily Mail.  Both publications eventually carried retractions and apologies for publishing the claims.

The Yakunin case, along with other instances of fake news spreading inside Russia—a blogger has been accused of artificially augmenting the death toll from a tragic shopping mall fire in Siberia, for example, and popular Telegram channels are apparently being increasingly used to influence public opinion—shows how global disinformation has become.

Not just a Russian problem

While the Russian law has activists and free speech watchdogs worried, other countries haven’t fared much better in their legislative attempts to tackle the widespread problem. A recent proposed law promising to grant the Singaporean government sweeping powers to determine what is factual information has sparked concern that the statute could be used to infringe on civil liberties. Certain vague wording—particularly a phrase stipulating that no one may make statements which “diminish public confidence” in Singaporean state institutions—appears to give the wealthy city-state the ability to suppress the freedom of speech for political purposes.

France’s own anti-fake news law has also been the subject of debate. The law, among other things, allows the French national broadcasting agency to suspend foreign channels disseminating false information and requires news outlets to disclose how much they have been paid to promote information. It was the target of similar criticism to the law proposed in Singapore—though commentators admitted that the French law was more nuanced, in part because France handed the task of ordering the removal of fake news to judges, rather than to the central government. It was sensationally turned against its own defenders this spring, when Twitter blocked the French government’s attempt to promote information about voter registration.

The EU can still do more

Despite this unforeseen consequence of his law intended to fight fake news, French President Emmanuel Macron continues to lead the charge on the topic in the European Union. Macron’s particular vehemence is unsurprising, given that his own tenure has been rocked by the Yellow Vest protests that have been amplified by both foreign trolls and homegrown fake news. Macron’s proposal to set up a European Agency devoted to fighting the phenomenon makes sense on a number of levels; not only would it facilitate the sharing of intelligence and make things harder for online trolls, but it would also enjoy greater clout in forcing social media sites to clamp down on malicious users than individual states have had.

Previous EU efforts to crack down on disinformation have been hampered by the Union’s firm commitment to safeguarding the freedom of speech. The EU has made a number of attempts to tackle the problem through both coercion and education—including establishing the world’s only publicly accessible database of instances of disinformation. But amid rising concerns about the free flow of false information and how that may affect the upcoming European elections in May, the bloc is being called upon to take more decisive action.

A clever April Fools’ Day hoax pulled this month by the European Commission — the Commission’s Athens office purposely leaked a report that Greece was being fined by the European Union for instituting Daylight Savings Time — was intended to raise awareness about the prevalence and potential damage of fake news, but what the European bloc needs now are concrete counteractive measures.

Leading by example

If there’s one thing that this month’s raft of April Fools’ Day stories has shown, it’s that the pervasiveness and omnipresence of fake news is making it increasingly difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. That’s becoming equally true across the globe, whether one is in Siberia and  St Petersburg, or in Brussels and London.

With the European elections now looming on the horizon, it’s more important than ever that the EU implements the necessary steps to stamp out this damaging trend and safeguard the sanctity of the media, whether mainstream, social or otherwise. Only by taking initiative and proactively stemming the flow of misinformation can the EU expect to continue to be a bulwark for freedom, justice and truth. The integrity of our very democracies depends upon it.

By Igor Pliner