Funny how fake news resemble viruses, these submicroscopic infectious agents that replicate only inside living cells. Similarities are even more striking when it comes to explaining the growth of a virus: when infected, a host cell is forced to rapidly produce thousands of identical copies of the original virus! Does this ring a bell, especially when considering online bots?
The replication cycle
In the last days, we have seen the European Union prepare a series of sanctions against a group of Russian hackers for their attack on the German Bundestag in 2015. Hackers and fake news held a central role in the Brexit vote and the 2016 U.S. elections, and they -unsuccessfully- tried to impact the French election of 2017. It is undeniable that trying to meddle in a democratic process undermines the very basis and legitimacy of our systems, and our governments must take action to protect us against them. However, disinformation and fake news take a different turn when what is at stake are the lives of our citizens. The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a phenomenon that the World Health Organisation has referred to as infodemic and that can be described as “an excessive amount of information about a problem, which makes it difficult to identify a solution”.
The start of the pandemic has seen a proliferation of news about COVID-19. The lack of knowledge about the virus has facilitated the spread of false and harmful content, which has led to cases of misinformation, disinformation and foreign attacks. While misinformation involves sharing unknowingly and without the intent of causing harm news that are not true, disinformation is about purposefully spreading false news to cause harm or benefit from such wrong information. Disinformation is illegal as per the Commission’s Code of Practice on disinformation published in 2018.
Nevertheless, we have seen how in the last few months, the EU has been targeted by several cases of disinformation and foreign attacks amongst which we can find: (i) the spread of hoaxes and misleading public healthcare information that could undermine the efforts to contain the virus (e.g. washing your hands is not useful, the virus only attacks the elderly, etc.), (ii) conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus (e.g. the virus having been created in laboratories or the implementation of 5G networks leading to a spread of the virus), (iii) consumer fraud through “miracle products” that would cure the virus, and (iv) Chinese and Russian meddling and the spread of attacks towards the EU. All different manifestations of disinformation have ultimately divided societies and, to a lesser or greater extent, undermined democracy.
Prevention and treatment at EU level
Viruses are difficult to eliminate. The most effective medical approaches to viral diseases are vaccinations to provide immunity to infection, and antiviral drugs that selectively interfere with viral replication.
In the same vein, the European Union has had to act in the face of intensified spreading of disinformation. In March 2020, the European Council published a communication in which Member States committed to fighting disinformation during the pandemic. That same month, the Commission launched a webpage to tackle fake news related to COVID-19.
On Wednesday 10 June, the European Commission adopted a strategy on disinformation, admitting that the “EU needs to further develop its actions to address the shortcomings revealed and better understand and anticipate upcoming challenges”. The communication includes a series of objectives and proposals to protect European citizens, such as: the creation of the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO) in Florence to support fact-checking; the cooperation with third-party states, cooperation with other institutions such as the WHO or NATO; an increase in transparency whereby online platforms should provide monthly reports on disinformation; ensuring that freedom of expression is respected and protecting independent media outlets; and raising awareness amongst citizens to promote media literacy.
In recent weeks we have seen how platforms such as Google, Facebook or Twitter started flagging content that contained false data and could lead to cases of both misinformation and disinformation. However, this has not been enough on their part. In a recent press release, the European Parliament’s S&D Group has called for social media platforms to play their part to the full in the fight against disinformation and foreign attacks on the EU’s values.
I welcome measures taken by platforms to fight harmful content in this crisis. I support the approach that preserves freedom of expression. But they need to step up their efforts. They should provide monthly reports with more granular information on #disinformation. #EUvsDisinfo pic.twitter.com/bFt2Poz8bk
— Věra Jourová (@VeraJourova) June 10, 2020
— S&D Group (@TheProgressives) June 10, 2020
An effective cure in sight?
Viruses are among the biggest threats to humanity and are tricky to cure because of their very resistant nature and their capacity to go through dormant phases, while staying well alive.
With this in mind, is the EU doing enough to cure fake news?
The European Commission needs to accompany the new communication and strategy to tackle disinformation and foreign attacks with mechanisms that will hold online platforms accountable if they do not address the harmful content. There need to be sufficient funds to tackle this phenomenon from within. It has become increasingly clear that there is a battle of narratives and that the European Union is not currently winning. The EU needs to find a strategy that will help it develop its own narrative instead of being in a position of a constant counter narrative against foreign actors.
Cities and regions have been at the forefront of this crisis, which also makes them a direct victim of the spread of disinformation. It is therefore at grassroots level too that this phenomenon must be tackled. While we seem to be taking steps in the right direction, there needs to be more concrete action and that action needs to feature cities and regions. The European Commission needs to include measures that will help local and regional governments combat the virus of fake news, and it needs to do it soon. There need to be mechanisms put in place in order to protect local and regional governments from disinformation and not just national governments. Subnational levels of government should be included in the strategies to combat the phenomenon of fake news and they should be given the resources to do so. What is more, any strategy that involves sharing information between Member States must also include platforms or tools to facilitate the sharing of information between cities and regions.
Local and regional governments are the ones closest to the citizens and the ones who can best promote the education and media literacy of their communities. Media literacy in particular is of paramount importance as it strengthens, inter alia, critical thinking. As such, it should be included in education curricula at all levels, from primary to tertiary.
In a nutshell, there are no real vaccines against fake news yet, but the best tried and tested antiviral drug to minimise their harmful impact is citizens’ empowerment through targeted education and a well-functioning local democracy, with local and regional politicians fully accessible and accountable.