Mariya Gabriel: There is serious fake news risk for the EP election

Citizens will be equipped with instruments enabling them to identify disinformation

Photo: Boyko Kichukov Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society

We must act with urgency and efficiency. This means enhanced coordination between Member States, clear fulfilment of commitments made in the Code of Practice against Disinformation signed by the online platforms, concrete initiatives for improving media literacy and stepping up efforts to create an independent network of fact-checkers, says Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society.

Ms Gabriel, you recently presented the European Commission's plan for combating disinformation. Are the proposed measures enough? How would you overcome the imbalance of earmarking about €5m for the purpose when Russia, which you describe as the primary source of disinformation campaigns, spends €1.1bn annually?

The Action Plan is the next step. In a little over a year, we have travelled quite a distance. The approach boils down to preserving fundamental values like freedom of speech and the right of access to information, while increasingly laying out concrete actions that everyone involved in the process should take so that we can have results. We must act with urgency and efficiency. This means enhanced coordination between Member States, clear fulfilment of commitments made in the Code of Practice against Disinformation signed by the online platforms, concrete initiatives for improving media literacy and stepping up efforts to create an independent network of fact-checkers. The abovementioned budget is obviously not enough, but it is not the only source of funding. Europe's strength goes beyond the financial resources it provides, too. We are talking about those €5m but we are forgetting about other lines. So far, we have invested €60m in projects that highlight good practices for countering online disinformation. In the new Creative Europe programme, we propose setting aside €61m to help address this problem further. In addition, we have projects aimed at promoting quality and investigative journalism and sharing of good practices. The true potential for impact, however, comes not from how much money you spend, but from what other resources you have - including human and institutional, as well as capacity for coordination. This is why we talk about improving expertise in institutions, in diplomatic services and in delegations in the EU. Member States have until March to designate national contact points so that the Rapid Alert System can work. This is why we are talking about an independent network of fact-checkers. These are experts that could, in a matter of minutes, tell if something is fake news and who is its originator.

You mention independent experts who will essentially be tasked with detecting fake news. How will they be selected?

The selection process will soon be defined. Fact-checkers means experts meeting a high set of standards like the ones observed by the international organisation based in the US. Europe lacks such an organisation. Only 11 countries have fact-checkers, which is why we started working with them back in September. No institution or government should have the mandate to define who those experts should be and how they should work. This is why I put the emphasis on an independent European network of fact-checkers. In the coming weeks we must focus on these things - formulating clear criteria for membership, and not making it a lifetime status but something that should be updated every year. In this way, there will be accountability and new experts will have a chance to join. Their work is very important. On the one hand, they help identify good practices very quickly, check the information in a timely fashion and ensure that we are better informed. One element in the Code of Practice went almost unnoticed. For the first time, online platforms made the commitment to provide data to fact-checkers and scientific researchers, which was unthinkable just a year ago. This is our goal in establishing the network and a strong online platform - for them to have access to this data so that they can quickly identify fake news. Disinformation and fake news evolve pretty rapidly, every single day. This is why we have to be consistent in our actions.

In other words, anyone can apply and the selection process will be based on certain criteria?

The applications will be evaluated on the basis of expertise.

One of the steps in the Action Plan envisions monthly monitoring. What will it entail exactly, and how will the effectiveness of the indicators be measured?

There are several indicators and I place emphasis on three of them. First and foremost, this is transparency of the political campaign and content. We need to know which party or candidate funds a certain type of content; what kind of data is used; and implement unambiguous efforts against fake accounts and clarity when it comes to detecting bots (automated accounts). The majority of people have no indication that they are interacting online with a bot, not a real person. This results in negative consequences. The latest example is the disinformation campaign on the copyrights directive during its voting in Strasbourg in July. Using the indicators, the monthly monitoring should show that there is willingness to combat this phenomenon. I reserve the right to wait and see the initial results. One of the things I will be looking for is the opportunity to equip citizens with instruments enabling them to identify disinformation.

How would you assess the fake news risk for the EP vote next year?

There is such a risk and it is quite serious. The reason is that these EU elections will be different because of the new technologies. Even if disinformation has been a fact from time immemorial, what's new about it is the speed at which it is spreading and the scale of its dissemination. There are numerous examples around us, and they pertain not only to politics but also to public health issues. Vaccines for children are a specific example. That is why we must be wide awake and talk about turning this mechanism into something more operational - until March, we must have national contact points in order to be able to exchange information. We must have a direct link between the national electoral commissions and the institutions responsible for the protection of personal data, along with those in the area of cybersecurity, that this information is identifiable as such, and gives indications that it is fake. For this reason we are talking of transparency of the political content. We should work in close cooperation with the advertisers, who have made a commitment under the code to curtail ads on websites that can be pinpointed as sites spewing fake news. We have to work towards making fake news less available and that people are aware at any moment what kind of information is being presented to them, and how their data could not be used to exert influence. Cambridge Analytica was just about that.

Was there any real evidence of interference in the previous EU elections?

We will keep on working. During the Brexit process, many of the things that we heard had their influence - starting with the sum that had to be reimbursed, to all kinds of other plans, different from the one that is being implemented now. Fake news may have very severe consequences.

One of the Commission's goals is to make the Union a digital leader. A series of measures in support of e-commerce are being introduced, but at the same time there are restrictions imposed by GDPR. How do these two things correlate, and how could we counter China's hegemony in this field?

The General Data Protection Regulation provided the highest standard in the world for protection of personal data. The EC had the courage to declare that, to us, personal data is not a commodity but a value that cannot be the subject of bargain. The power of the European approach to digitalisation lies in the fact that there are values, such as protection of personal data. We are following closely what is happening in the Member States. The countries had two years to apply the rules. In most of them the debates started only now. However, we have to bear in mind the difficulties which the small and medium-sized businesses face. The Member States have a chance to make their own exceptions. During the next year a conference will be held in Brussels where all these issues will be addressed so that everything will be adapted and flexible. But as a matter of standard, this will remain a value. Over 50% of the US companies say that their next priority is the protection of personal data and they promise to comply with this legislation. Only a month ago, the CEO of Apple sent a very powerful appeal to ensure personal data protection. Maybe we are living through a difficult period of adaptation. We are neither China, nor the US. We have our own strong points - incredibly talented researchers and well developed industrial sectors, e.g. the automobile industry. Now, the time has come for Europe not to be copying what others have done, but to concentrate and make investments into key industries. One concrete example is robotics. 25% of robots are manufactured in Europe. We are the world leader in micro- and nanoelectronics. It means that all countries should look in one direction and coordinate their actions. This also applies to artificial intelligence. We want to make strategic investments and for this reason we allot €1.5bn until 2020, with the aim to mobilise €20bn per year through public and private investments in the next seven years. Currently, the EU invests much less than China, but we have our strong points. We must not overlook the influence on the labour market and digital skills. That is why for a year and a half now, I have been insisting on boosting investment into digital skills. 44% of Europeans do not have such skills. I am referring to 169 million European citizens, while we are talking of quantum technologies, blockchain and artificial intelligence. On the other hand, there is a serious deficit of specialists, with the shortage already exceeding 350,000.

An alliance for artificial intelligence is to be created. How exactly could it help the work of the Commission?

It was created in June. It has 1,800 members, and it is open to everyone. I would like to see it as a place where everyone's expertise may be helpful and our legislative initiatives will not impede innovations. We have representatives of the banking sector, telecoms, citizens, start-ups. Within just several weeks, they will play an exceptionally important role. We have set up an expert group to deal with the major ethical issues. Before the end of December, they have to come out with the first version of recommendations. However, within the next three months, the alliance should have its say on which recommendations are adequate, and for what period of time.

Are there Bulgarian representatives in the alliance?

Yes, there are, but I would be happy to see more. It is important to have geographical balance in these alliances and to have more countries from Central and Eastern Europe. Because Bulgaria has immense potential as an innovation hub in Europe. Digitalisation is a great possibility, but it also hides risks of social exclusion and poverty, and of widening rifts between countries as well as regions.

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Mariya Gabriel was born on 20 May 1979. From 2005 to 2008 she was a research assistant at the Institute of Political Sciences, Bordeaux, France. She has taught classes on EU decision-making process, political sociology and international relations. On 19 January 2012, Gabriel was appointed as the EPP's coordinator in the European Parliament's Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality. She was chief observer of the EU election observation mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2011. Gabriel was a member of the European Parliament from 2009 until 2017 and on 14 September 2017 was sworn in as European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society.

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