BRUSSELS — The
European Union on Thursday will unveil a strategy for fighting
fake news that could be a model for Western nations, but already
it has run into trouble defining the line between disinformation
new E.U. proposals will encourage voluntary pledges from Facebook
and others to highlight the sources of information they feature
and to promote content from credible media outlets. The E.U. also
wants to push news literacy education and to fund private
fact-checking organizations that subscribe to standards of
political independence and objectivity.
countries, including the United States, are also cooperating with
each other to combat fake news. France, Germany and Italy are
working on national plans.
a separate E.U. effort to combat foreign interference illustrates
what can go awry.
E.U.’s East Stratcom Task Force compiled a hall of shame of 3,800
news articles it says reflect Kremlin attempts to influence
political discussions in the West. Last month, however, the task
force made an embarrassing about-face after three Dutch news
outlets complained they were singled out because they quoted
people out of step with the European mainstream.
a reminder of how really difficult it is, and potentially
problematic, if public authorities take it upon themselves to
be arbiters of truth,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of
research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at
the University of Oxford, who advised the E.U. on its new
these points before sharing an article on Facebook. It could
task force cited each of the three Dutch outlets for promoting a
dark view, advanced by the Kremlin, of Ukrainian corruption and
article, published by the
Post Online, conveyed that “Ukraine is an oligarch state
with no independent media” and that “the resistance army, which
killed thousands of Polish Jews during the Second World War, is
still respected,” the task force wrote on its website, EUvsDisinfo.eu.
fact, the article was summarizing a lecture delivered by a
journalist who had spent time in Ukraine.
Post Online editor Bert Brussen said his publication was targeted
because Brussels dislikes critics of its pro-Ukrainian policies.
us, it was easy to show the world this is how it happens: You
write something negative about Ukraine, you do everything right,
they black-label it as fake news,” said Brussen,
whose website regularly skewers centrist Dutch politicians
and mainstream journalists who, he said, cover up problems with
Muslims and migration.
a second case, the task force appeared to take literally the views
expressed in a tongue-in-cheek piece — an apparent byproduct of an
article that was flagged by a non-Dutch speaker using Google
Translate to search for evidence of Kremlin bias.
task force has a staff of 14 with just three people working full
time on the database, and it relies on volunteers across Europe to
identify articles of concern. All three Dutch articles were sent
in by Ukrainian activists, none of whom speak Dutch.
news outlets — the Post Online, GeenStijl, a far-right news blog,
and De Gelderlander, a regional newspaper — complained they had no
notice before they were included in the database and had no clear
way to appeal.
they filed a lawsuit,
the E.U. backed down, removing the three articles from its
database and softening how it refers to outlets that publish what
it says is disinformation.
of the things did get lost in translation,” said Maja Kocijancic,
a spokeswoman for the European External Action Service, the
foreign-policy arm of the European Commission that oversees the
they do as a team is done in a very transparent way. This in no
way interferes with freedom of expression and freedom of speech,”
damage was already done. After the Dutch outlets filed their
complaint, sympathetic Dutch lawmakers forced a debate in their
national parliament. A motion to send their interior minister to
Brussels and push to strip the task force of its funding passed a
voice vote with wide support from political parties.
fake news is very important, but what is fake news?” asked Dilan
Yesilgoz-Zegerius, a lawmaker from the ruling center-right
People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy who co-sponsored the
bill. She said she thought it was appropriate for governments to
intervene when foreign actors try to undermine democracies.
when local newspapers report on meetings, she said, “then you are
getting involved in the content of media. And I think that is
concerns extend beyond the Netherlands.
lack of methodology has been opening the door to abuses of
expression,” said Alberto Alemanno, a law professor at HEC Paris,
a business school, who filed a separate complaint about the task
force’s work. “They are clashing with the right of the
self-determination of readers, of listeners.”
the criticism, the task force retains E.U. backing. It recently
won a $1.5 million budget increase, and at a meeting of the E.U.’s
28 foreign ministers this month, it was singled out for unanimous
support — including from the Dutch government.
of the task force are not allowed by their superiors to speak out
publicly, a restriction that hampers their ability to respond
quickly to charges. Spokeswoman Kocijancic said the rule ensures
their messages are part of the broader foreign policy strategy of
the European Union.
official familiar with the group’s plans said members want to use
some of the increased funds to pay for better and more
standardized vetting of the coverage they monitor. They may also
shift focus away from countries such as the Netherlands, where
sensitivities about government oversight of journalism is high,
toward more direct monitoring of the Russian-language media, said
the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to explain
internal thinking at the task force.
core of the issue is the resources,” said Jakub Janda, the
director of the Prague-based European Values think tank, which is
among the most active groups that flag possible disinformation for
inclusion in the E.U. database. He said that Russian efforts to
discredit the British government’s account of the nerve agent
attack against ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, last
month help highlight the need for a public project to fight
groups do similar work, but the E.U. task force sends an important
message, Janda said.
shows that this whole issue of Russian disinformation is a major
national security issue,” he said. “It’s an official database,
which is guaranteed by an E.U. institution.”
Ariès contributed to this report.