Tackling disinformation requires wide cooperation ahead of next EU election
The war in Ukraine, COVID-19, and climate change were the main disinformation topics last year. The EU remains a target; countering disinformation around the next European elections will require a multi-stakeholder approach, write Lauri Tierala and Tomasso Canetta.
Disinformation is a counter-melody to societal discussion. Or, better, a counter-cacophony. Where information goes, disinformation follows, distorting, oversimplifying and outright lying. Disinformation discourse reflects the topical themes – it rarely has the strength to lead the way, to set the trend, to impose an agenda.
A “silver bullet” solution to tackling disinformation doesn’t exist. To effectively counter disinformation in open societies that value freedom of speech, a consistent effort and a holistic approach are necessary; a permanent cooperation among the different actors that fight disinformation.
A recent analysis of the past 18 months of disinformation detected by the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO) highlights three main themes.
The main disinformation topic in 2022 was the war in Ukraine. While we have also detected some disinformation narratives favouring Ukraine, the huge majority of detected disinformation is consistent with Russian propaganda.
The narratives endorse several main claims: that Russia’s full-scale invasion is justified, that massacres have been staged by Ukrainian forces or that the economic consequences of the war are devastating for the West and irrelevant for Russia.
The share of war-related material rose up to 60% of all detected disinformation in March 2022. Now, it has steadied at around 15%.
Two other major disinformation themes in 2022 were COVID-19 and climate change. Ahead of Russia’s invasion, the pandemic dominated, peaking at a 50% share. Climate change, however, has remained consistent as a topic.
European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO)
When society was talking about a pandemic, that created an emergency situation where drastic measures were necessary, disinformation channels would deny the existence or severity of the pandemic, disputing the factual base for contingency measures.
This was coupled with disinformation sources spreading false news about vaccines being dangerous or useless. A similar effect was on display regarding climate change: disinformation sources would deny the phenomenon, the role of human activity, the viability of alternatives to fossil fuels, and so on.
A disturbing trait of the disinformation phenomenon is the interconnection of the different communities: anti-vaxxers tend to be exposed to more pro-Russia disinformation through sharing similar channels, and there is considerable crossover between climate-change denialists and those sceptical of pandemic contingency measures.
One of the common themes for the communities most exposed to disinformation and the channels dedicated to spreading it is an emphasis and eagerness for conspiracy theories about the key pillars of European democratic societies, such as an independent media ecosystem, fair elections and supranational institutions.
The EU – described as a corrupt, bureaucratic institution with a secret despicable agenda, which allegedly wants to feed us insects, abolish Christmas, and destroy national identities (maybe substituting European populations with migrants) – is one of the main targets.
Brussels is starting to turn its eye towards the European elections, due in 2024.
An event that has often been characterised by a certain protest vote nature and relatively low turnout will this time most likely feature discussions about the green transition, energy prices, and the effects of the sanctions set on Russia.
Strengthening disinformation narratives to affect the election debate and possibly even the outcome may look lucrative to malicious actors.
When thinking of actors, we should not concentrate only on foreign information manipulation and interference. The answer to the question “who benefits from disinformation” is usually quite complex and multifaceted, and changes from topic to topic. Motivation can be financial as well as political.
So, how should the European Union prepare to protect the integrity of the election from disinformation campaigns?
Regulation-wise, the implementation of the Digital Services Act and the strengthened Code of Practice on Disinformation are the key elements. But disinformation cannot be regulated away in open societies.
Again, there is no silver bullet. Awareness, cooperation and preparedness are key. National authorities, European institutions, traditional media, digital media companies all need to work together with each other and with civil society: NGOs, academia, think tanks, fact-checkers, open-source investigators, etc.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of organisations fighting against disinformation in Europe. Having a similar situational awareness, detecting campaigns, sharing the findings and acting rapidly in a concerted way will go a long way.
Disinformation campaigns and narratives travel from one EU member state and one European language to another in a matter of hours, if not less. Individual, isolated efforts to tackle them will not have a major effect. Here again, our answer needs to be common.