Saturday

21st Apr 2018

Opinion

Why the EU must close EUvsDisinfo

  • EU "mythbusters" have 35,000 followers on Twitter (Photo: euvsdisinfo.eu)

On March 6, a large majority of the Dutch Parliament consisting of 10 out of 13 parties, ordered interior minister Kajsa Ollongren to convince her European colleagues to take down EUvsDisinfo.eu, the EU website dedicated to countering Russian disinformation.

Ollongren has made the fight against Russian fake news and disinformation a top priority, and previously stated that she wanted to provide extra means and funding for EUvsDisinfo.

  • The EUvsDisinfo website is run from EU forieign affairs chief Federica Mogherini's European External Action Service (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

That's why the parliamentarians added that if she would not make the Dutch case properly, they would send prime minister Mark Rutte to Brussels to do the job.

I think the Dutch parliamentarians are right and I will explain why.

The state should not interfere with the free media.

EUvsDisinfo.eu is a website that reports about disinformation fake news spread by Russian state or private actors.

It maintains an extensive and constantly-updated online database of currently 3,500 media reports that, according to EUvsDisinfo, constitute "disinformation".

The website is published by the East Stratcom Task Force, an official EU body that was set up in 2015 by the European heads of state.

In other words, EUvsDisinfo is a state publication that not only spreads its own news, but also passes judgements whether a publication in the free media contains the correct views or not.

If your publication ends up in its database, you're officially labeled by the EU as a publisher of disinformation and fake news.

That is a problem which should not be underestimated.

Since the birth of the Enlightenment, most of us have not only come to accept the principle of democracy as a form of government where citizens – who are principally seen as equals – have the final say in politics, but also the principle of freedom of speech, meaning the natural right of free individuals to freely spread information and absorb information by others without interference by the state.

Freedom of speech is closely associated with other classical citizen rights such as the right to run free media, to free assembly, free association, free education, and on.

The democratic state should not interfere in these areas because if it does, it makes it impossible for the truth to emerge in the public debate leading up to democratic votes. Also, by crippling the mentioned citizen rights the state would kill the source for its own regeneration.

A curtailing by the state of the mentioned individual rights does not become more legitimate when it is democratically decided – even by referendum - because even 99 percent of citizens do not have the natural right to prevent the other one percent from free speech, free association, free education, and so on.

How EUvsDisinfo operates

The above is not an abstract academic discussion. When state bodies interfere with the free media, things quickly go wrong as demonstrated below.

The Dutch parliamentary action against EUvsDisinfo results from the controversy that emerged after three Dutch media outlets – regional newspaper De Gelderlander and two Eurosceptic news websites GeenStijl.nl and TPO.nl with a large cult following - discovered in January that they had been accused of spreading disinformation and fake news by the EU body because of one article published by each of them.

Sadly, there is no space here to describe the cases in detail. But anyone who wants to know exactly how EUvsDisinfo distorted the Dutch media articles, falsely accused them of spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda, refused to fully rectify its obvious errors, and tried to get away with it by offering apparently false excuses, should read the English subpoena of the court case started by the Dutch media outlets against the European Union (as this is the official publisher of EUvsDisinfo).

Only after receiving the subpoena, EUvsDisinfo removed the three articles from their database, without a real rectification and without informing the three media outlets about it.

After their attorneys advised them that their chances in the court room had now severely reduced, the media outlets dropped the case and continued to defend themselves just by words.

Meanwhile, other Dutch media, puzzled by its bizarre accusations, contacted EUvsDisinfo and investigated into its operations. The EUvsDisinfo spokesperson told them they could not visit its headquarters nor were they allowed to speak to its team members.

EUvsDisinfo claims that it is informed by a volunteer network of more than 400 experts, journalists, government officials, NGOs and think tanks.

In reality, Dutch public broadcaster NOS discovered that of the claimed 400 volunteers, only 10 are really active.

Together they reported 75 percent of blacklisted articles, while one single jobless volunteer has been responsible for reporting no less than 25 percent of all 3,500 supposed cases of disinformation.

Even more worrisome is the fact that, long after EUvsDisinfo has removed the three Dutch media reports from its blacklist, EUobserver last week quoted anonymous EU officials involved who still maintain that the Dutch media reports were, in fact, disinformation.

This means EU officials have not changed their attitude at all and apparently plan to keep going on the old way.

How disinformation should be combatted

Of course, the free media should be watched critically just like any other societal institution.

This is the job, however, of other free media, experts, NGOs and non-state media watchdogs. The media should check on the state, not the other way around.

If the media publish libel or slander, then affected individuals or organizations can sue them under the libel and slander laws existing in virtually all European countries.

If state actors run disinformation campaigns meant to manipulate other countries, then governments have highly-sophisticated secret and intelligence services that can track down and counter such campaigns – if only by publishing about them.

There are many claims these days that Russian disinformation threatens our democracies.

In a January 2018 meeting in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the security commissioner of the European Commission, Julian King, told MEPs and the public that Russia has been "extremely successful" in spreading disinformation.

As evidence he quoted EUvsDisinfo's 3,500 cases. Danish MEP Jeppe Kofod stated: "Next year the citizens of Europe will elect a new European Parliament. This raises an uncomfortable question: how many seats will Russia get?"

I think we should keep our heads cool and look at the facts.

First, even if we assume that the quoted 3,500 cases (typically online articles of one webpage each) really are disinformation, then we should still remember that there are currently an estimated 130 trillion (130,000,000,000,000) single webpages, the bulk of which are from Europe and the USA.

So the percentage of (claimed) disinformation pages is near zero. Could they really have the extreme effects predicted by EU officials?

Second, Russian state attempts manipulate the democratic process of European countries have been in full swing since at least the 1917 Communist grab to power.

And each year, tens of thousands of elections and referendums are held in Europe on all levels of government – France alone has 35,000 municipalities.

Still, the first hard evidence that even a single political seat or a single referendum vote in Europe was won or lost because of hidden interference by any foreign actor, still has to be produced.

That also goes for the Brexit plebiscite.

Scaring the public with unproven stories that our European democracies are being derailed through hidden manipulation by agents of the enemy, comes uncomfortably close to promoting classical conspiracy theories.

History has shown the destruction caused by them and responsible officials and commentators should refrain from employing them.

In any case, we do not defend democracy, freedom and truth by taking over the methods of those who would like to destroy them.

Arjen Nijeboer is an independent Amsterdam-based journalist, author and activist. He is board member of Democracy International and staff member of Meer Democratie ("More Democracy" in the Netherlands). With Jos Verhulst, he is author of "Direct Democracy: Facts and Arguments about the Introduction of Initiative and Referendum" (Brussels 2007) which has appeared in 10 European languages.

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The EU's bid to fight 'fake news', the EUvsDisinfo website, is in its infancy and has made mistakes. But transparency and a willingness to put those errors right means it is doing vital work in the battle against Russian propaganda.

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