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15th Feb 2019

EU Commission to target fake news

The European Commission plans on tackling fake news as part of a broader effort to protect democracy.

"Fake news is a direct threat to the very foundations of our democratic society," EU commissioner for digital economy, Mariya Gabriel said on Monday (13 November).

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Speaking at a conference on fake news in Brussels, Gabriel announced plans to set up an expert panel that will feed into possible legislation later on.

"European citizens need to have the skills and tools at their disposal to manage the ocean of information available online, that is our challenge," she said.

The commissioner is asking people from the world of academia and civil society to take part.

The idea is to have the panel, or so-called expert group, up and running at the start of next year ahead of an upcoming European Commission communication on fake news.

A separate European Commission public consultation was also launched on how to deal with fake news.

Her comments follow a growing debate on fake news in Europe, and comes amid a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday on expanding a counter-propaganda cell within the EU's foreign affairs branch, the European External Action Service (EEAS).

Most internet traffic is spread through Google, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. Fake news is easily disseminated with little effort via these US-based platforms.

Gabriel said people can purchase 20,000 comments for €5,000 and another €2,600 will buy up to 300,000 social media followers.

"This type of manipulation is possible because there is an offer to provide these services," she said.

But regulators are facing a tricky debate on balancing fake news, which may not be illegal, and fundamental rights like the freedom of expression.

The issue has created its own industry.

Over 100 pro-Donald Trump websites are registered in a small town in Macedonia where young adults, some only teenagers, are earning huge sums of money to spread false news. Pro-Russian websites have also made wide inroads into the Czech Republic.

Earlier last month, Twitter slapped an ad ban on Russian pro-government media outlets like Russia Today and Sputnik. According to US intelligence, both had attempted to interfere with the US presidential elections.

The same two media outlets are also behind a series of Spanish language articles, some of which were designed to inflame tensions in the lead up to Catalan independence referendum on 20 October. There are similar allegations of interference in the UK's 2016 Brexit referendum.

Hackers had also dumped a huge cache of campaign emails, two days before the French presidential election, in an bid to scare voters away from Emmanuel Macron.

The email dump stoked further fears of Russian meddling, given that the far-right Marine Le Pen presidential contender, was favoured by Moscow.

Lisa-Maria Neudert, an Oxford University researcher, says that for every piece of professional content, one piece of fake news junk content was being shared in the United States.

"Information to misinformation had a ratio of one to one, which I think was a dramatic finding," she said.

Her findings were part of a study that looked at 28 million feeds shared in political debates and elections in the US, UK, France, and Germany.

"In France we have had a ratio of seven-to-one and in the UK and also in Germany we had a ratio of four-to-one, so roughly 20 percent of fake news content that was being shared," she said.

Macron vows law against fake news

French president Emmanuel Macron has promised legislation to block the spread of fake news, as part of a broader effort to protect liberal democracies from Russian propaganda.

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