EU efforts to tackle fake news have been branded “incomplete” and “outpaced by emerging threats”.
This is one of the conclusions of a major probe into disinformation by the European Court of Auditors (ECA).
The report, published on Thursday (03 June), says that the EU and Member States “need to step up their involvement” in combating the problem.
There is, says the Court, a need to improve the monitoring and accountability of online platforms and to include disinformation in a “coherent EU media-literacy strategy, a strategy which is currently lacking.”
Speaking at an online briefing Baudilio Tome Muguruza, the ECA member responsible for the report, said, “The EU’s action plan against disinformation was relevant when it was drawn up [in 2018] but it remains incomplete. We recommend that the EU’s response to disinformation should be stepped up, and that its coordination be improved.”
He added, “Any attempt to maliciously and intentionally undermine or manipulate public opinion represents a grave threat to the EU itself. At the same time, fighting disinformation represents a major challenge: the EU needs to avoid infringing upon its fundamental values, such as the freedom of opinion and expression, when it is doing so.”
“The EU’s action plan against disinformation was relevant when it was drawn up [in 2018] but it remains incomplete. We recommend that the EU’s response to disinformation should be stepped up, and that its coordination be improved” Baudilio Tome Muguruza
The auditors said that disinformation is a “serious and increasing” problem across the EU and EU spending on tackling disinformation has been “relatively low to date”, totalling €50m between 2015 and 2020.
The report comes after the European Commission, on 26 May, published new guidance on how its code of practice on disinformation - the first of its kind worldwide - should be strengthened “to become a more effective tool for countering disinformation.”
It called for “stronger commitments” by the signatories to the code.
At the time, Vera Jourova, European Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency, admitted, “Threats posed by disinformation online are fast evolving and we need to step up our collective action to empower citizens and protect the democratic information space. A new stronger code is necessary.”
Her comments were echoed by Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Market, who said: “We need to rein in the infodemic and the diffusion of false information putting people's life in danger.”
In their report, the auditors found that more coordination is needed at EU level and the action plan “has not lived up to all of its promises.”
The plan contained relevant measures – for example, debunking and reducing the visibility of misleading content – but it has not been updated or reviewed since 2018, says the report.
“Any attempt to maliciously and intentionally undermine or manipulate public opinion represents a grave threat to the EU itself. At the same time, fighting disinformation represents a major challenge: the EU needs to avoid infringing upon its fundamental values, such as the freedom of opinion and expression, when it is doing so” Baudilio Tome Muguruza
In December 2020, the Commission published the European Democracy Action Plan, which includes anti-disinformation measures, but failed to clarify how it relates to the 2018 action plan, say the auditors.
“The EU’s action plan against disinformation also did not include comprehensive arrangements to ensure that the EU’s response to disinformation was well coordinated, effective and proportionate to the type and scale of the threat,” said the Court.
The auditors also looked at the European External Action Service’s three task forces – StratCom East, Western Balkans and South – concluding that all three should be reviewed “in the light of new emerging threats.”
The EU action plan has also targeted the private sector and civil society in the joint fight against disinformation. But, while the ECA accepts that responsibility for combating disinformation lies primarily with member states, it found that the commission had been unsuccessful in holding online platforms accountable for their actions and “in inducing them to play a greater role in actively tackling disinformation.”
The goal of raising awareness and improving social resilience was also not achieved, the auditors say. They highlight the absence of a media-literacy strategy that includes tackling disinformation, and the “fragmentation of policy and actions.”
A commission source said, “The EU approach to countering disinformation is deeply rooted in the protection of freedom of expression and safeguarding an open democratic debate. It aims to create more transparency and accountability in the online environment and empower citizens mand goes hand in hand with the other aims of the European Democracy Action Plan, namely promoting free and fair elections and protecting media freedom and pluralism.
“The EU has mobilised industry, media, academia, public authorities and civil society and encourages a broader participation in the code of practice.”