Disinformation Threat in Europe

Main takeaways:  

  • The COVID pandemic has sparked an infodemic – a whirlwind of mis- and dis-information, spanning traditional media platforms, social media, and countries across the world.
  • A key component of the infodemic has been the mushrooming of conspiracy theories, which have aided extremist groups and foreign actors in their efforts to undermine democratic governments and their efforts to control the pandemic.
  • The EU is approaching the issue of disinformation in a myriad of ways through various legislative acts and projects. A key piece of legislation to watch: the Digital Services Act package

On 14 April 2021 YPFP Brussels, in cooperation with the EU DisinfoLab, hosted an event on the “Disinformation Threat in Europe”. The panel was moderated by YPFP Brussels Deputy Director of Security and Defence, Marija Sulce, with guests Mr. Roman Adamczyk, Policy Coordinator at EU DisinfoLab; and Ms. Claire Pershan, Research Coordinator at EU DisinfoLab. The event launched the Disinformation Series, which will explore disinformation from various angles during a series of events.

Mr. Adamczyk opened the discussion by talking about how the uncertainty produced by the pandemic has encouraged the spread of mis- and dis- information. There was also a lack of transparency from the governments at the beginning of the crisis as well as diverse opinions and conflicting facts coming from the scientific community. This has fuelled mistrust in the authorities. According to Mr. Adamczyk, the infodemic has had three phases over the past year:

  1. The initial information storm at the beginning of the pandemic.
  2. The emergence of conspiracy theories during the summer.
  3. COVID fatigue and vaccination disinformation – the current phase.

One of the main consequences of the pandemic has been the creation of conspiracy theories around the virus and the idea that the pandemic is being used by authorities to impose authoritarian measures and secret agendas on their populations. All this has combined to encourage extremist groups and foreign actors to use societal discontent to push their agendas and try to undermine local authorities. Russia and China have in particular been using disinformation extensively to increase their influence during the pandemic.

Ms. Pershan presented the ways that the EU has been trying to address disinformation. As disinformation is multifaceted, it is being approached in many different ways:

  • The Digital Services Act, part of the Digital Services Act package aims to introduce better regulation of online content, focusing on better control of illegal content, transparent advertising, and countering disinformation.
  • The European Democracy Action Plan focuses on free and fair elections, strengthening media freedom and countering disinformation.
  • The Code of Practice on Disinformation outlines self-regulatory standards on countering disinformation for online platforms, social networks, and advertisers.
  • The European External Action Service’s (EEAS) EU vs Disinfo website debunks false claims, focusing in particular on pro-Kremlin messages.
  • The European Parliament’s INGE Committee is working to assess the threat of foreign intervention in European democratic processes, including through disinformation.

The speakers’ presentations were followed by a Q&A session. The discussion focused on the difficulties of countering disinformation and building societal resilience by improving media literacy. The current efforts to better control the online space are very welcome, but the quick advance of technology means that lawmakers are fighting an uphill battle – the quality of disinformation is improving and the number of different social platforms will only increase in the future.

Written by Marija Sulce, Deputy Director Security and Defence Program, YPFP Brussels.