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26th Apr 2019

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'Not Russia, but EU itself is producer of fake news'

  • The European Commission is 'influencing what news should be shown' on platforms such as Facebook and Google, says MEP Marcel de Graaff (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Union itself is "one of the biggest producers of fake news", according to Dutch anti-EU MEP Marcel de Graaff.

De Graaff, who is co-chair of the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group, told EUobserver on Wednesday (27 February) he is not in the least concerned about warnings about Russian attempts to influence EU elections this May.

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  • De Graaff's party, the Party for Freedom, organised a debate in The Hague titled 'Fake news and the EU' (Photo: Peter Teffer)

"No, absolutely not. Nonsense. It is the other way around: (...) the large sums of money are coming from the pro-EU elite," he said.

The European Commission said in a strategy paper on disinformation, published last December, that "the evidence is strong in the case of the Russian Federation".

"This is part of its [Russia's] military doctrine and its strategy to divide and weaken the west," said EU commission vice-president Andrus Ansip, when presenting the paper.

Russian internet activist and journalist Lyudmila Savchuk told EUobserver last year about her undercover period at a 'troll factory' in St Petersburg.

"There was an entire department that was developing memes, including memes targeting the European Union," she said.

But MEP De Graaff claimed the EU commission itself is one of the most active in the field of disinformation - while also mentioning the European Parliament itself, to which he belongs.

"The European parliament has reserved a very large budget for what I call 'EU marketing'," said De Graaff.

His group, the ENF, has previously expressed fears that in an attempt to tackle disinformation, the EU is in fact threatening media freedom.

De Graaff spoke to EUobserver in The Hague, the seat of the Dutch government, after a debate with journalists, organised by his party, on fake news.

There is no common definition for fake news or disinformation, but it often covers falsehoods spread with an intention to mislead.

Following allegations that disinformation may have influenced both the 2016 US election and the outcome of the Brexit vote, the European Commission has taken several measures.

EU vs Disinfo row

One of those initiatives, the 'EU vs Disinfo' website, has a particularly bad reputation in the Netherlands, because the volunteers running that website erroneously declared authentic Dutch news outlets to be spreading fake news.

A majority of Dutch MPs asked the Dutch government to push the commission to take the website offline, something which evidently has not yet been successful.

MEP De Graaff said that the EU should not get involved in judging whether news articles are truthful or not.

"We are in favour of sovereign states. Each country should decide for themselves how to deal with media freedom," he said.

The EU has not proposed any regulation on disinformation, but has so far stuck to 'soft power', by setting up codes of conduct with tech companies and an action plan against disinformation.

But such plans are having a real impact, said De Graaff.

"I think that you are heavily underestimating what is happening," he said.

By having meetings with companies like Google and Facebook, the commission "is influencing what news should be shown on those platforms", De Graaff said.

"Through back door meetings, they are trying to influence the outcome of the elections," he said of the commission.

Whether that is indeed the case is difficult to check.

However, De Graaff does raise an important question. Should and can EU institutions like the commission be fully neutral?

Parties like De Graaff's domestic Party for Freedom (PVV) have called for the abolition of the entire EU.

The EU as a governmental layer is called into question in ways that Europe's national governments rarely are - except by for example regional independence movements.

The EU is also not as well understood by many EU citizens. As a result, EU institutions sometimes overcompensate in their public communications efforts by emphasising how important they are.

For example, a paper published by the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis earlier this month said claims that the European Central Bank's bond-buying policy had a positive effect on the eurozone economy were "unwarranted".

De Graaff criticised that EU institutions were discrediting anti-EU or populist movements like his own.

"Populism is seen as the biggest threat to the EU," he said.

"I don't have any problem with a political party saying that about another political party," said De Graaff.

"[European People's Party leader] Manfred Weber is someone who very explicitly said this in the European Parliament: We [the populists] are the biggest threat," he noted.

"You know, that is the political arena. I do have a problem when it comes from an institution of civil servants," said De Graaff, referring to EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and his deputy, Dutchman Frans Timmermans.

Treaty breach?

Juncker announced from the start in 2014 that his commission was going to be a 'political commission', but to the Dutch MEP that is "scandalous".

"The [EU] treaty says that they are not. According to the treaty, they are simply implementers, they are just civil servants."

The ENF currently is the smallest of the eight political groups in the European Parliament, with 37 of 751 seats. Polls indicate it can be expected to grow significantly in the May elections.

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Russian activist warns on 'fake news' as EU backs action

In 2015, internet activist Lyudmila Savchuk went under cover to expose a troll factory in St Petersburg. As the EU summit endorses anti-disinformation action, she told EUobserver the Russian government is bankrolling many more.

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