In an effort to combat disinformation online, the European Union has created a task force to "debunk" fake news online. The quality of this service is doubtful in itself, but, far worse than that, it is directly political.
Free press and government press
There are a number of reasons to trust or distrust a news source. One is related to the origins of its funding: if Coca-Cola started a newspaper writing about Coca-Cola, you'd have reason to doubt the authenticity of the reporting involved. This is the reason why the relationship between media houses and the advertisers they engage with is constantly complicated. For state media in Western Europe, this means that there's a need for a Chinese Wall between editorial decisions and the influence of the government. The British BBC, the German ARD and ZDF, and the French "France Télévisions" network are all public broadcasters, known for scrutinising the government and fact-checking in a way that established their credibility. While I would not describe myself as a fan of these networks, they are not state propaganda channels with an editorial line that follows the intentions of the government.
However, the proximity of these media houses to the government is too direct and will never be neutralised unless they are put in private hands. But far worse than creating a government-owned news agency is to have a government-run news agency.
After the invasion of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine by the Russian Federation in 2015, the European Union identified the threat of misinformation from Moscow. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine about Eastern Ukrainian separatist and pro-Russian regions, which followed the annexation of Crimea, inspired Brussels to fact-check news online in order to avoid pro-Russian sentiments. As a result, the European External Action Service (EEAS) East Stratcom Task Force created EUvsDisinfo.eu. The website is designed to unmask fake news stories coming out of Russia.
Essentially, this means that EU bureaucrats are in charge of running a fact-checking agency, with all the partiality conflicts this brings.
The UK's Channel 4 News investigated the motivations of EUvsDisinfo, and found some interesting declarations coming from Brussels.
"In September, journalists from across Europe gathered in Brussels to discuss fact-checking. Many EU officials used the opportunity to give their own views on fake news.
Some of them clearly believed that the battle against misinformation was actually a battle against Eurosceptics. They saw their mission in this fight as defending the EU and its institutions."
For EU officials, the goal is to avoid the "destruction of the European Union", and stretches far beyond the fight against fake news as such. Channel 4 also continued to report that:
"The vice president admitted that he “might be accused of trying to carry out some kind of institutional propaganda on behalf of the European Union”. But he claimed that, faced with “division sowed by populists and nationalists, through a discourse of hatred, lies and half-truths and proven falsehoods,” the EU has “the legitimate right to defend the unity of European citizens”."
The European Parliament's Committee on Petitions opinion calls for "the combating of fake news and any populist rhetoric, and the promotion of education and media pluralism; believes that the public and private media should air MEPs’ views in a way that ensures objectivity and pluralism;".
The fake news produced by Russian state media is doubtlessly troubling. The question is whether it is the role of the government to battle it, particularly since EUvsDisinfo is itself not without fault.
Fake fake news
In January, two Dutch websites discovered that they had been labelled as fake news by EUvsDisinfo. The Eurosceptic websites had criticised Ukrainian politics and were subsequently labelled as fake news by the EEAS task force, which did not want to retract the article. As a result, EUvsDisinfo was handed a subpoena. To be clear: a fake-news fact-checking website under the purview of the EU was unwilling to clear up fake news it had produced itself.
The case was particularly relevant since websites branded as fake news will be entered into a database and generally marked as origins of disinformation.
In November, EUvsDisinfo "debunked" a Russian news article claiming that French president Emmanuel Macron urged EU member states to give up their sovereignty. EUvsDisinfo writes that in fact, the French president did not urge the EU countries to abandon their sovereignty. However, Macron also said this in the same speech:
“We [EU members] will have to share, pool together our decision-making, our policies on foreign affairs, migration and development, an increasing part of our budgets and even fiscal resources, build a common defence strategy.”
Fake news? The statement is open to interpretation, but certainly not fake news. If the EU begins to label a different political narrative as fake news, then we're in serious trouble.
Back in March, EUObserver wrote:
"EUvsDisinfo claims that it is informed by a volunteer network of more than 400 experts, journalists, government officials, NGOs and think tanks.
In reality, Dutch public broadcaster NOS discovered that of the claimed 400 volunteers, only 10 are really active.
Together they reported 75 percent of blacklisted articles, while one single jobless volunteer has been responsible for reporting no less than 25 percent of all 3,500 supposed cases of disinformation."
The bottom line is this: Russian propaganda is no laughing matter. Just like in the era of the Soviet Union, it needs to be fought through information. But also as during the Cold War, we need to watch out that our own "fact-checking services" don't become paranoid and unjustly sanction citizens and news agencies. It's independent news agencies that are in the best position to do the work of setting the record straight.
EUvsDisinfo needs to go.
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