This week in FakEU news: advances and pushback

FakEU is a fortnightly roundup of press coverage on misinformation from or about the EU.

The politics of fake news

In France, Emmanuel Macron’s proposed initiatives against fake news continue to make headlines. Last week, Le Monde got hold of the draft bill that aims to hinder the online diffusion of false information during campaigns. The document was forwarded by the Elysée to the deputies of the president’s party and outlines the guidelines of the future law. An extensive review of the document was published later by Next Inpact, and  a commentary can be found on HuffPost. The draft bill will need to be examined by the French Constitutional Council before entering the phase of Parliamentary debates at the end of April.

Meanwhile, the French Minister of Culture, Francoise Nyssen, spoke to Le Figaro about the legislative process kicked off by the government. Nyssen said that the law is necessary to safeguard the democratic system from abuse. Nevertheless, some analysts contend that the bill might emperil freedom of the press.

In Spain, Parliament’s National Security Committee called for the government to take action against fake news. Through a non-binding recommendation, the committee asked the government to actively participate at the EU level in the development of strategies against the threat. The left-wing coalition Unidos Podemos voted against the motion.

In Germany, political parties are exchanging views on the opportunity to modify the so-called NetzDG (short for Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz), a law that was passed by the national Parliament in 2017 and targets illegal content, such as hate speech, on social media platforms. NetzDG requires that platforms erase “sanctionable content” within a time span that can range from one day to a week if they want to escape a fine of up to 50 million euro. As a consequence, tech companies set in place precautionary measures that might limit the freedom of users, Handelsblatt reported. In other news, the radical and xenophobic right-wing party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), tried to establish contacts with Steve Bannon, former chief strategist of Donald Trump. According to The Times, Bannon is expected to help the AFD set up a newsroom to fight fake news targeting the party.

At the end of February, the EU vs Disinfo service of the European External Action Service targeted three Dutch websites (De Persgroep, GeenStijl and The Post Online) by inserting them into a “fake news spreaders” list. The outlets reacted harshly and brought the European Commission to court over its judgment. As a result, the service removed the stories from its list. Last week a majority of deputies serving in the Dutch Parliament asked the Minister of Home Affairs, Kasja Ollongren, to sway the EEAS to disband EU vs Disinfo.

Nevertheless, and more broadly, the Commission continues to provide momentum to the discussions on fake news. In January, European institutions established a High-level Expert Group (Alexios Mantzarlis, director of Poynter’s IFCN, took part in these discussions) to spur the development of a common action-strategy against the digital threat. As part of this ongoing process, on Monday, the Chair of the Expert Group, Madeleine de Cock Buning, presented the results of discussions so far (here is a commentary published on Le Monde; here is the full report). The EC is expected to present a communication at the end of April. Meanwhile, the German Association of Private Broadcasters and Telemedia (VPRT) praised the discussion but underscored the prominence of self-regulation within the German media sector.

In other news, a new study by the German conservative foundation, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, called for the EU to support fact-checking and media-literacy initiatives in the Western Balkans to tackle Russian propaganda.

In Switzerland, citizens were called to the ballot box to decide whether they would like to end the mandatory tax underpinning the financial viability of the public broadcaster, SRG. A vast majority of citizens rejected the proposition. In the run-up to the vote, some analysts called public financing an “investment against fake news.” During a public debate organized at the University of Geneva, Alain Berset, president of the Federal Confederation, said that the “Swiss model of direct democracy is the best tool against fake news.”

More generally, over the past two weeks, a plethora of Italian and international media outlets dealt with the alleged role of fake news in the Italian vote (Il Mattino, The Conversation, Linkiesta, BBC, NYT, Huffington Post, RTBF, Euractiv).

Producing and tackling fake news

Audrey Herblin-Stoop, director of public affairs at Twitter France, blasted the Elysée after the general elements of the future anti-fake news law were published by the French media (see above). “As a business, we are not going to take up the role of truthmakers,” she wrote in a public response published on Next Inpact. “The interactive nature of Twitter is the best antidote to fake news,” she added. From one platform to another: Benjamin Sonntag, co-founder of the nonprofit digital rights group La Quadrature du Net, told Le Figaro that social media platforms simply “do not have an interest in halting the diffusion of false information.”

Meanwhile, Precept launched uCheck, a participatory fact-checking platform. Currently available in its Beta version, uCheck allows citizens to draw directly upon journalistic experience to combat suspect statements and news found on the web.

Debating fake news: op-eds, commentaries and academic debates

On The Conversation, Hervé Laroche (ESCP Europe) discusses whether art can be considered a vehicle for fake news, whereas, on Die Zeit, Martin Spiewak argues that it is essential to bring back the notion of skepticism in education in order to teach how to counter digital threats.

In other commentaries, critical approaches emerge and frame the public debate on fake news. Many experts underscore the relationship between the “fake news rhetoric” and the interests of established political leaders. This is the case in Turkey, says Courtney C. Radsch on Project Syndicate. More generally, David Miller argues that the term “fake news” is a powerful rhetorical tool applied by elites in an attempt to favor specific “geopolitical interests.” In this sense, the debate on fake news spurs “Russophobia,” he argues. On Le Monde, Romain Badouard writes  that fake news reveals a general mistrust of the elites. In this sense, fake news is nothing but the latest symptom of a loss of confidence in the West’s democratic institutions.

According to a study conducted by Elizabeth Dubois of the University of Ottawa and Grant Blank of the University of Oxford, the threat of social media echo-chambers has been blown out of proportion. A summary of their results appeared on The Conversation.

Fact checks from around Europe

In Germany, Correctiv stepped into the heated immigration debate to disprove media reports alleging that refugees sent 4 billion euros of German taxpayer money back to their home countries.

In Spain, El Objetivo verified social media claims by the ruling Partido Popular related to the ongoing national discussion on pension policies. The PP was found “guilty” of spreading inaccurate information about  pensioners’ purchasing power.

In Sweden, Jack Werner, co-founder of Viralgranskaren, discussed the importance of online source verification on the occasion of the Day of Critical Thinking.  

In the UK, Full Fact checked the truthfulness of claims by the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, on Britain’s housing situation.

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