The lack of transparency in political advertising and the role such promotions play in creating online disinformation will be addressed in the planned European Democracy Action Plan, European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová said.
Increasing the cost of creating disinformation campaigns was one of the measures she listed to address the problem. “Today, it is simply too cheap. ‘Follow the money’ has always been a successful approach and I think we should do the same when we tackle organised and malicious manipulation.”
Addressing the ‘EU vs Disinfo’ conference last week, Jourová referred to actors who have “weaponised manipulation”.
“This is not even a wake-up call – this is a call to arms,” she said. “We will not be indifferent when others attack us with manipulation and disinformation.”
“We are increasingly concerned about disinformation by actors within Member States,” the Commission Vice President said. “Some campaigns are driven for profit, some others by ‘useful idiots’.”
Disinformation can limit democracy, human rights and the rule of law throughout the EU, according to a recent report by the European Parliament. Its use in undermining elections has been widely documented as concerns on its impact increase.
The report showed how propaganda and disinformation distort and dominate the public conversation, changing the process of democratic decision making. Once this process starts and gains traction, it is very difficult to stop, resulting in systemic failures in democratic and rule of law processes.
Jourová was tasked by the European Commission to design the European Democracy Action Plan as a response to threats to democracies, including disinformation and election interference.
My aim is also to increase the cost of malign #disinfo campaigns, also originating from within the EU. Today, it is simply too cheap. Follow-the-money has always been a successful approach and I think we should do the same when we tackle organised and malicious manipulation.
— Věra Jourová (@VeraJourova) January 30, 2020
“Not a week goes by without new evidence from the media or academia showing how serious threats to democracy disinformation and related forms of external interference pose,” she said.
Disinformation affects key issues debated in any society, including migration, health and climate change. It is complex and constantly evolving, with diverse tools and manipulation techniques. It has been shown to involve State actors motivated by different economic or political reasons.
She described disinformation and foreign interference as a “soft underbelly” of democracy because they attacked “one of our dearest values – freedom of speech and the right to information”.
Malta is no exception. Through Disinformation Watch, The Shift revealed key examples of content and strategies used by the government to manipulate public opinion in Malta. These issues include the country’s democracy scores, the damning report by the National Audit office on the Electrogas power deal and the dehumanisation of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Labour’s secret online groups.
In an impassioned speech, the vice president said this was not a fight Europe would take sitting down. “We will provide political leadership, more funding and creativity and take on these difficult issues”.
She referred to a recent visit at Auschwitz to mark the 70-year commemoration of the liberation of the German concentration camp where one of the survivors said the tragedy happened because it was a product of indifference that took place slowly, over time.
“Our democracy will be lost if we will be indifferent,” Jourová said.
The European Democracy Action Plan would go beyond fighting disinformation to strengthen the media sector, make platforms more accountable and protect the democratic process, the Commission Vice President added.
“I want our efforts against organised manipulation and disinformation to be more mature. We need to help create a digital ecosystem that will be able to defend and promote democracy.”
Jourová noted that for this to take place, there was the need for some “degree of regulation”, especially from the social media platforms. Facebook, in particular, was found to have had an increasingly powerful effect on democratic public discourse over the last 10 years.
She stressed that media literacy and awareness-raising on disinformation were key to addressing these challenges.