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Step up fake news fight at election time: top EU official

Politicians use fake news to discredit their opponents, says EU Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel
AFP

Brussels (AFP) – The EU’s top official charged with fighting fake news says Europe needs to redouble its efforts to tackle the phenomenon in the run-up to elections, as fears grow about Russian meddling in votes across the continent.

Brussels is working on a Europe-wide plan to deal with fake news online, with an expert group to issue a report on Monday and first strategy outlines due to be unveiled next month.

Moscow has been accused of interfering in several recent European votes by using social media to spread bogus news stories and sow discord. In January, French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans for laws to stop such material spreading in the run-up to elections.

Mariya Gabriel, European commissioner for the digital single market and society, told AFP in an interview that the question of fake news during election campaigns was a key part of the expert group’s study.

“We must redouble efforts against fake news during election periods,” said Gabriel, who took over as commissioner when fellow Bulgarian Kristalina Georgieva was appointed to the World Bank last year.

“It is at election time when we really see how big an effect this phenomenon can have on voters.”

The expert group includes a representative from AFP, as well as other major media companies, campaign groups and web giants Google, Facebook and Twitter.

Part of the project is to define clearly what is meant by fake news and Gabriel said she would even prefer to drop the term in favour of “disinformation online”.

“Today we are seeing the perverse effects of the term ‘fake news’, which can be used by politicians to discredit their opponents and attack freedom of expression,” she said.

– Broad approach –

In January the EU accused Russia of pumping out thousands of pieces of disinformation in an “orchestrated strategy” aimed at destabilising the bloc in an unusually blunt assessment.

This was based on two years’ work by the EU’s Stratcom East taskforce, which runs a “myth-busters” website and social media feeds to debunk false news reports, most of them promoting Russian government agendas. 

But Gabriel said she wants the EU to develop a strategy that looks beyond individual countries to build resilience across Europe to fake news by educating citizens and encouraging web platforms to be open about the source of their content.

“We are aiming for a much larger scope — I don’t want to stop with one country or one aspect,” she said.

“That’s why I talk about a multi-stakeholder approach, a multi-dimensional solution — there is no miracle solution.”

Germany took the lead in trying to tackle fake news with legislation last year, threatening social networks with fines of up to 50 million euros ($60 million) if they do not remove bogus reports and hateful posts promptly.

The EU has so far taken a more collaborative approach with the big web players, encouraging self-regulation, and Gabriel said it was not planning to follow Germany and France down the road of trying to legislate against fake news.  

“I don’t start with the idea that an attack comes from this country or region, I start with the need for transparency to identify sources, where the information is coming from,” she said.

“For example during election time to have a clear indication of adverts paid for by political parties to show citizens clearly that something is part of a planned campaign.”

And Gabriel, 38, stressed the need to better equip young people — and their teachers —  to identify reliable information and spot bogus news.

“Today this has become urgent. The key word is education — media education must become part of courses at universities and schools,” she said. 

“For this we must pay attention to teachers — we don’t think of this often enough… but it is really teachers who need to master this technology to pass it on to their students.”

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