Baudilio Tomé Muguruza / Jun 2021
There is no doubt: in recent years, disinformation has become one of the greatest threats facing our democratic society. Disinformation, and external influences more generally, have always existed. But the rise of new technologies and social media networks has caused a worrying increase in the volume and speed at which false or misleading information can multiply.
Disinformation is a phenomenon which States constantly have to deal with. So do the European Union and its institutions. The legitimacy of our democratic system relies, among other things, on well-educated, well-informed citizens being able to express their opinions freely and publicly. Disinformation can jeopardise this.
The EU already began to act on its concerns about disinformation back in 2015, when it asked the then High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to work together with Member States and EU institutions to draw up an action plan for counteracting disinformation campaigns which had been identified. In 2015, the European External Action Service (EEAS) created the East StratCom Task force, and, at the end of 2018, the European Commission completed its work and published the EU action plan against Disinformation. Recently, the Commission has also published the European Democracy action plan, and presented a proposal for a Regulation on a Single Market for Digital Services.
The EU action plan is aimed at increasing the institutions’ capacity to detect, analyse and expose disinformation, to coordinate and strengthen joint responses, to involve Member States and the private sector in the fight, and, of course, to increase EU citizens’ sensitivity to misleading information, and improve their ability to protect themselves against it. The European Court of Auditors has been auditing the EU Action Plan against Disinformation for the past year. Our objective was to evaluate the Action Plan’s relevance, and to determine whether it was achieving the desired results. We have now just published the results of our work.
I believe that the actions taken by the EU to combat disinformation have contributed to significant advances being made in this fight, but many things still need to be done. As much as the EU action plan contains a number of useful measures, its provisions do not always ensure good cooperation in responding to disinformation. This hampers its effectiveness. For example, Member States and online platforms need to play a bigger role in the Rapid Alert System created by the EEAS and work better together.
To encourage the private sector to become more involved, the EU action plan put in place a Code of Practice for online platforms, leading social networks, advertisers and the advertising industry. These are pioneering self-regulatory standards, the first of their kind across the world, based on voluntary, good-faith participation by all involved. Our audit shows that the creation of the Code of Practice has been indeed positive, as it has engaged the most relevant online platforms in the fight against disinformation. However, I still believe that these platforms could be made more accountable and transparent when it comes to the actions they are taking to limit disinformation being propagated through the social networks and the communication and advertising possibilities that they offer.
We should be aware of the scale of the challenge faced by the EU in combating disinformation, but we must also not forget how important it is to safeguard the fundamental values of freedom of opinion and expression on which the EU was built upon. Disinformation needs to be tackled comprehensively. But for this to happen, effective coordination instruments need to be in place between all parties – at citizen, civil society, national and European level. Member States also need to participate actively. Exchanging good ideas, sharing information on potential threats and even coordinating common response and attribution is the way forward. Other essential elements in fighting disinformation are supporting independent journalism and fact-checking, while encouraging a media-literacy strategy to help Member States better educate citizens from a young age about the harm they might be exposed to – in my view, these are the tools which will help us to shield our information space and limit the harming effects of disinformation.