Everyone is talking about disinformation. There is talk of bots and trolls in newspapers, online and on the news. However, this problem is much further-reaching – disinformation is being used to aggravate tensions in our societies and to bolster the influence of those spreading disinformation, all at the expense of our citizens. We can only tackle this challenge if we work together. The European External Action Service (EEAS) and the European Commission in cooperation with the member states have drawn up an Action Plan against Disinformation, which is now being presented. In it, measures by the EU and the member states to step up their efforts against disinformation are described. The European Council adopted this Action Plan on 13 December 2018.
Just what is disinformation?
Have you ever looked beyond your own echo chamber? Have you noticed the many Twitter users whose handle consists of a random series of letters and figures? Do you know how to use the reverse image search tool in the Internet browser? If you can answer these questions with “yes”, then you have already – either consciously or unconsciously – dealt with aspects of disinformation.
There is currently an in depth discussion on disinformation in many countries. Whether it is about the use of bot networks, troll factories or deep fakes (which use machine learning and artificial intelligence to falsify images and videos) – governments have to deal with these and other phenomena. Such technology is used for disinformation in order to intensify tensions in society, thus increasing the influence of those spreading the disinformation. Especially in the run up to elections, disinformation can result in citizens being unable to make any more informed decisions. Instead, they are steered in a certain direction by targeted false information.
That is why it is not only the Federal Foreign Office and other German Government agencies that are addressing this issue. There is a lively discussion within the European Union on how this phenomenon can be countered. Back in May, the European Commission laid down the cornerstone for the EU’s reaction in a Communication entitled “Tackling online disinformation: a European approach” and is now presenting an Action Plan against Disinformation.
Action Plan against Disinformation
It is first of all made clear in the Action Plan that inadvertent errors in reports, satire or parody or clearly identified partisan news or commentary are not disinformation. It is also stated that disinformation will not be tackled at the expense of freedom of expression or countered using the same means. Rather, the efforts of the EU and member states should be stepped up in the following core areas: better recognition of disinformation, coordinated response, cooperation with online platforms and industry as well as greater public awareness and societal resilience.
Silvio Gonzato, the EEAS Director for Strategic Communication, has described what the Action Plan means to the European Union:
Freedom of opinion and our ability to make free and informed decisions are at risk. We as public institutions have to deal with disinformation campaigns emanating from third states whose only goal is to stir up social conflicts, manipulate elections and destroy confidence in democracy.
Among other things, therefore, the goal of the Action Plan is to better communicate the EU itself and its commitment. To this end, the EU’s own active strategic communication is to be expanded.
With the aim of supporting the EU, the Federal Foreign Office is working on expanding and further professionalising its communication, both online and offline. The Federal Foreign Office does not focus on debunking individual false rumours. Rather, it wants to communicate foreign policy in a way which is more accessible, more geared to target groups and more effective. Members of the public must be informed of how the EU functions and what it does for each individual in order to have a realistic impression and to subsequently form their own opinions. As in other areas of policy, action by one individual country on its own is not enough. The EU must take up this challenge together in order to scotch disinformation, counter division in our societies, thus strengthening our democracy. This principle was already put into practice while the Action Plan was being devised.
Silvio Gonzato, the EEAS Director for Strategic Communication:
The many discussions with all member states, as well as with all the experts from academia and civil society, helped us to enhance a common European understanding of this problem and to formulate a European response.