The European Commission published a communication on April 26 to the European Council and Parliament outlining the “European Approach” to combatting disinformation. The Commission’s report was the result of a several month process including consultations with citizens, stakeholders, and experts. The document focuses on four key principles: improving transparency in the way information is produced or sponsored, promoting diversity of information, fostering credible information, and fashioning inclusive solutions to disinformation. The Commission specifically calls for a broad, unified effort involving “cooperation of public authorities, online platforms, advertisers, trusted flaggers, journalists, and media groups.” The communication also explicitly identifies Russian disinformation campaigns as a driver behind the EU’s developing policy response.
The report provides an important opportunity for reflection across the transatlantic space, as the United States seeks to inoculate its democracy from ongoing hostile foreign interference activities. Takeaways from the “European Approach” to fighting disinformation can help U.S. policymakers develop more targeted policy measures, and identify potential shortcomings in the U.S. response.
Several aspects of the European Commission’s report provide valuable examples for the United States to pursue, develop, and expand upon. First, the European Commission appropriately identifies the need for a unified, multi-stakeholder response to disinformation, including participation from governments, civil society, and the private sector. Recognizing the need for cooperation and buy-in from these sectors is essential, as each has a unique role to play in ensuring accountability, high journalistic standards, and responsible media consumption in the contemporary information space.
Second, the “European Approach” embraces long-term, forward-looking measures to protect democracies against foreign interference. Ideas like embracing developing technology (such as blockchain and AI) to help verify information and developing media literacy and digital competency education programs, present innovative and sustainable methods to build long-term societal resilience to disinformation.
Third, the European Commission’s report offers prescient insight into the underlying issues driving the rise of disinformation, namely instability as a result of rapid societal change. The combination of an increasingly decentralized, profit-driven media environment, along with a growing anxiety over “economic insecurity, rising extremism, and cultural shifts,” have led to the formation of exploitable fissures within Western societies. Defending against the potential exploitation of these divisions will require Western citizens to embrace the preservation of democratic norms and values in spite of deep partisan divides.
The “European Approach” also provides U.S. policymakers with insight into potential weaknesses in the response to disinformation. The Commission’s “EU-level” approach highlights the dependency of counter-disinformation efforts on achieving buy-in from political parties and leaders. While the Commission can threaten the private sector into compliance through regulation, it is limited to providing encouragement and recommendations to member states to implement the changes necessary to protect against disinformation. For parties and leaders who benefit from the proliferation of false narratives and the degradation of credible media institutions, such as Czech President Milos Zeman and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, there is little incentive to invest in higher journalistic standards or fact-checking. Further, disinformation narratives are often targeted to co-opt the support of specific political and social groups, who then facilitate the dissemination and amplification of false narratives within a country. This manipulation of domestic actors significantly complicates attempts to combat hostile foreign interference. As long as those who benefit from disinformation continue to value their own personal profit over the sanctity of their country’s democratic institutions, disinformation will continue to plague public discussion.
Although the European Commission’s report offers a valuable analysis of disinformation, it is important to contextualize this threat within the wider scope of asymmetric, illiberal challenges to democracy. Disinformation is just one piece of the foreign interference toolkit employed by state actors to undermine democratic societies. States like China and Russia continue to make use of a diverse set of tactics in projecting asymmetric foreign interference, including disinformation, but also cyber capabilities, malign financial influence, corruption, the weaponization of energy, and support for extremist political and social groups. Successfully protecting democratic institutions from this malign foreign interference will require that U.S. policymakers understand and address this toolkit as a whole.
The Commission’s report is the most recent step in the EU’s escalating fight against disinformation. In September 2015, in response to “Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns,” the EU launched the East Stratcom Task Force to help combat disinformation, strengthen media institutions, and better communicate the EU’s policies across the Eastern Partnership countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine). In June 2017, the European Parliament called on the European Commission to analyze the potential for “legislative intervention” to combat the dissemination of disinformation, while simultaneously pressuring online platforms to “provide users with tools to denounce fake news.” In November 2017, the Commission announced that it would establish a High-Level Expert Group, and seek public consultations to help develop its “EU-level strategy” for combatting fake news. The High-Level Expert Group published their final report in March 2018.
Overall, the European Commission’s approach to tackling disinformation presents an important and valuable contribution toward generating a unified response to hostile foreign interference. U.S. policymakers would do well to learn from the Commission’s report, both in its successes and in its limitations.