EP urges action against fake news and foreign electoral interference

The Commission announced a call for tenders to create a digital platform to help fight disinformation

Foreign electoral interference seriously threatens European democratic societies to the benefit of anti-EU, right-wing extremist and populist forces, MEPs warned last Thursday. Attempts to influence decision-making in the EU put at risk democracy as whole, they pointed out in a resolution adopted with 469 votes for, 143 against and 47 abstentions.

Parliament insisted that foreign interference has a systematic pattern, be it through campaigns on social media, cyber-attacks on infrastructure related to elections or financial support to political parties in the run-up to all major national and European elections. Much of this interference benefits anti-EU, extremist and populist candidates.

Despite Member States fully or partially banning foreign donations to political parties or candidates, foreign actors find ways to circumvent those rules, MEPs said, singling out cases of the Front National in France, and allegations reported by media on the Freedom Party in Austria, Lega in Italy and Leave.eu in the UK.

Furthermore, MEPs expressed deep concern about the “highly dangerous nature of Russian propaganda”, which is the main source of disinformation in Europe and which has doubled since January 2019 (998 cases) as compared to 2018 (434 cases). Lawmakers also strongly condemn “aggressive actions” from non-European countries seeking to undermine the sovereignty of EU accession countries in the Western Balkans and Eastern partnership countries.

In order to tackle the problem, MEPs called for an upgrade of the EU East StratCom Task Force to a permanent structure with significantly higher financing. They also urged internet and social media companies to cooperate in countering disinformation, without undermining freedom of speech and on the EU to create a legal framework to counter hybrid threats.

Meanwhile, the European Commission published a call for tenders to create the first core service of a digital platform to help fight disinformation, or fake news, in Europe. The European Digital Media Observatory is to serve as a hub for fact-checkers, academics and researchers where they can collaborate with each other and actively link with media organisations in order to provide support to policy-makers.

The first call, worth €2.5m, is seen as a first real step towards building a true European hub to fight disinformation online. The Commission says the platform will provide media practitioners, teachers and citizens with information and material “aimed at increasing awareness, building resilience to online disinformation and supporting media literacy campaigns.” It hopes it will help put build a framework to ensure secure access to platforms' data for academic researchers working to better understand disinformation.

The Observatory is one element in a Commission action plan on fighting disinformation, published almost a year ago. It aims to reinforce capabilities and strengthen cooperation between Member States and the EU in four key areas: improve detection, coordinate responses, work with online platforms and industry, raise awareness and empower citizens to respond to disinformation online. In the area of awareness and citizens' empowerment, the plan foresees concrete actions to help fact checkers and researchers in their fight understanding and discovering the sources of disinformation.

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