Parliament's new report: Europe's biggest response to disinformation?
We have built up defences against conventional threats, it would be a fatal mistake to fall asleep to hybrid ones. The new report of the Special Committee for foreign interference shows that the European Parliament is fully aware of this - perhaps also due to the situation in Ukraine. Will there be breakthrough legislation on the horizon?
It has been a year and a half since Parliament decided that a few selected topics deserved more attention. These included disinformation, and so a Special Committee for foreign interference, including disinformation, was set up. 'Special' because it had one main task: to write a comprehensive recommendation report to the Commission and the Council.
Parliament does not have the power to propose legislation, but it can suggest to the Commission what it should deal with and how it should deal with it, and by its reports it also indicates what will and will not 'pass' through it. This report of more than 60 pages passed through Parliament today, making it the most comprehensive document ever published by an EU institution on the subject of foreign interference and disinformation.
The European Parliament has long considered disinformation to be a threat, but it cannot be ignored that our report comes at a time when we are facing an unprecedented volume of Russian propaganda, troll attacks and hybrid threats, in an attempt to justify the instigation of war in Ukraine and to cover up real progress and war crimes.
Not only I, but also many other politicians and experts who follow the activities of authoritarian countries towards European democracies, have repeatedly warned since 2014 and the invasion of Crimea that Russia is fighting a hybrid war with the European Union. The aim of this war is to undermine social cohesion in the countries of the 27, thus weakening the European Union's capacity to act. Either by directly funding anti-European political entities or far-right anti-system groups, or through targeted disinformation, the operation of conspiratorial pro-Russian websites and troll farms or chain emails.
So how should Europe respond to the threats coming not only from the Kremlin (but from the Kremlin in particular), according to this report?
I have been saying this for a long time and I will keep saying it until it actually happens: No legislation in the world will solve the problem of disinformation if it focuses only on leading citizens and Internet users by the hand. As long as information flows to the people, disinformation will flow to the people - and withholding information belongs to dictatorships, not democracies. That is why we need to systematically raise awareness of foreign interference at all levels, so that our societies are more 'resilient' and able to recognise the influence and counter it appropriately.
I am pleased that this emphasis on civil society, the development of critical thinking and media literacy has found a prominent place in the current report. Foreign interference does not only concern elections or social networking platforms, but also critical infrastructure, the financing of political activities, or even public institutions such as universities. This therefore entails supporting independent, transparent organisations that help educate society and strengthen its resilience to misinformation.
The end of voluntarism
In the report, we propose several concrete measures that will make the European Union stronger in the fight against disinformation. For example, we call for greater independence for the European External Action Service's StratCom, or the creation of a new European Commission working group to identify gaps in existing legislation and make proposals to overcome them. An independent European Centre for External Threats and Information Integrity should also be established. We must learn to defend ourselves institutionally, that is our greatest strength, and we are demonstrating this in all areas - only foreign interference and disinformation seem to be one step ahead and we are just constantly wiping up spilt milk.
So far, Europe has defended itself through voluntary codes of practice and other unenforceable documents. It is not appropriate to criticise them - they had their reasons and their time. However, we are already at a time when we need a legal framework for sanctions, so that it is clear that when someone negatively affects our democracies, they will suffer the consequences. For this, we need, among other things, definitions, for example, of what disinformation is and who is a disinformer. I consider this part to be a breakthrough: once there are clear penalties for foreign interference in our democratic processes, we can finally talk about real deterrence of the players.
We have built up defences against conventional threats; it would be a fatal mistake to fall asleep to hybrid ones.
Topic of the day: social networks
Our report also pulls the big digital platforms more into the process. They are primarily a space for the spreading of disinformation, yet they operate in a completely non-transparent mode. Whether it is the algorithms by which you see posts or the actual payers of political advertising. Everything that the platforms have promised so far in this regard is just for good measure. And that's the way it looks in practice. There is no better proof of the impotence of such agreements than the fact that the Chinese ByteDance, the operator of the TikTok network, has joined the code of voluntary information sharing with the Commission. And they certainly have very specific views on transparency. Such a situation is not sustainable in the long term. The report therefore focuses primarily on transparency measures, which is supported by the Digital Services Act passed this year. Transparency includes plurality, independence, control and accountability. As the power of the giant platforms grows, so does their monopoly and the opportunities to avoid regulation. The places where the struggle for the character of European democracies is being fought today are themselves completely escaping our notion of social responsibility.
How healthy is trust
The report also includes a number of recommendations and suggestions on cyber security, the protection of critical infrastructure (i.e. our energy networks, schools, even hospitals) and looks at a number of countries by name - from those that we know are systematically interfering with us, such as China or Russia, to those with whom we can share our know-how and support, such as Ukraine, to those that are our inspiration, such as Taiwan.
We were able to observe Taiwan's infrastructure for combating Chinese interference and disinformation up close on the first ever European Parliament mission I initiated last year. Taiwan's approach is based on cooperation between all parts of the government, independent NGOs specialised in fact-checking, as well as promoting media literacy for all generations, debunking disinformation and restricting the spread of manipulative news. And above all: trusting citizens in their political and democratic institutions.
Politicians are not to be trusted, politicians are to be checked, people say. I agree. But after visiting Taiwan, I am also convinced that if politicians do not take chaotic and random actions (e.g. during a pandemic), communicate directly and frequently with citizens, explain and operate in a healthy media environment that does not seek only sensationalism, then they can build some trust.
And with such trust in politics comes trust in democracy as such. And also with disinformation and foreign interference, there is no more resilient society than one that trusts its democracy.