On 15 January 2018, the High-Level Expert Group (HLEG) appointed by the European Commission to advise it on how to tackle the spread of fake news met for the first time. According to the EC’s press release, the HLEG will “contribute” to the development of an EU-level strategy, to be presented in spring 2018. The press release also stresses that:

The selection of members ensures a wide participation of expertise, a balanced geographical representation, gender balance, and a balanced view of both social media platforms and media organisations, civil society organisation and experts such as journalists and academia.

Mandated by EC President Juncker (unelected), Commissioner Mariya Gabriel launched the initiative to form the HLEG in November 2017, with a call for participants. It is combined with a public consultation, open until 23 February. The HLEG’s first meeting, chaired by Prof. Dr Madeleine de Cock Buning (who happens to be friends with the Dutch vice Prime Minister and Minister of Home Affairs, Karin Hildur Ollongren) was followed by a ‘press point’.

During this press release, both Gabriel and De Cock Buning made some rather worrying statements. Gabriel starts off by presenting the internet as posing “political, social, security challenges,” without explaining what she means by this. She does conclude the challenges need to be tackled, because:

they may not be illegal, they may not be new, but fake news is spreading at a worrying rate, it threatens the reputation of the media and the well-being of our meritocracies. And threatens to undermine our democratic values. That is why (…) we have to draw up approaches for controlling and limiting the circulation of fake news. We have to improve transparency, diversity and ensure the credibility of information sources (…).

With these few words, Gabriel paints a large, menacing threat to, basically, civilisation itself. So even though the challenges are suggested to have been present since time immemorial, at some point they have morphed into a threat “[undermining] our democratic values.” Presumably more so than continuing with the Lisbon Treaty after European citizens voted against the European Constitution. No example is given, nor is the need for ‘approaches’ to control fake news expounded. Nor indeed, what fake news actually is. But hold that in mind.

Meanwhile, Gabriel holds that the HLEG is the method to

discover the best ways to tackle the problem of fake news online and in other media, to ensure that we can better protect our citizens and our democratic values and all this in full respect of the key principles of the European Union.

This sentiment is shared by the HLEG’s chairman, De Cock Buning, who describes fake news as a “wicked problem“, which is to be solved by “listening to each other, to find solutions to this extremely important topic.

A topic where we need to balance: balance rights, balance the freedom of information on the one hand, but on the other hand the right to receive transparent fact-checked and pluralistic information. (…) We really need to be pro-active here and not wait until things really are going wrong. Thank you for all the trust you’ve put in us and we will really do our utmost to take it to some next steps.

Of course, no-one outside of Brussels has put any kind of trust in either De Cock Buning or the HLEG. That being said, there is something seriously wrong if something that is presented as an impending danger is confronted in the, quite frankly, amateurish way it is by Gabriel and De Cock Buning. “Not wait until things really are going wrong.” What things? How will they go wrong? What exactly is this threat of fake news?

Ah, there’s the rub! For when asked by a journalist after the presentation is done, what the HLEG’s working definition of ‘fake news’ is, Gabriel has to say that there is none. After telling the audience that it is a problem citizens and our democratic values have to be protected against, lest things really go wrong, it turns out that nobody can actually tell you what fake news is, other than… it’s not illegal.

Yes, [a working definition] is one of the issues the group will be working on, so a definition, a definition of fake news, we already touched on this this morning, during the first meeting, we have set ourselves the goal of looking at how to define ‘fake news’. We know that fake news has to be separated and distinguished from illegal content where there are clear rules in national and European law, but most fake news is not illegal. The group will specifically look into this very issue.

Today, De Cock Buning was interviewed by Dutch newspaper NRC, and was asked: “Where is this headed? An EU control stamp for real and fake news?” She answered:

“That would be an option. But we’re not striving for something like a ministry of Truth. That’s certainly not the right direction.”

This presentation is beyond worrying. The entire mechanism of the EU, its civil servants, its lawmakers and its so-called politicians will be mobilised to fight something – pro-actively no less – that is considered a great danger. But nobody knows what it is. They seem all too keen to chase a mirage.

The leaders of this witch hunt can’t even give a working definition, but they nevertheless know it is dangerous and needs to be fought. When people in power have so little idea of what they are doing, it can only lead to bad things.