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Channel 4 journalist Martin Williams on December 18 published a damning report on the way the EU aims to combat the phenomenon of ‘fake news’. A closer inspection of the highlighted documents shows the following.

The European Commission (the EU’s legislative branch), Google, Facebook, Twitter, Mozilla and “advertising industry” signed a so-called Code of Practice to “dilute the visibility” of websites the EU claims are hosting fake news and to “deprive them of advertising revenues“. It also states the need to “prioritise” websites the EU deems “authoritative” in “search, feeds, or other automatically ranked distribution channels“. The Code will come into force “ahead of the EU elections in May 2019.

The EU’s reluctant pretense of objectivity

When asked about his stance on fake news during the ‘fact-checking conference‘ on 27 and 28 September in Brussels, Vice-President of the European Parliament, the Spanish Ramón Luis Valcárcel Siso admitted that he “might be accused of trying to carry out some kind of institutional propaganda on behalf of the European Union.” In what is supposed to be a rebuttal, he goes on to state that when
“faced with division sowed by populists and nationalists, through a discourse of hatred, lies and half-truths and proven falsehoods the EU has the legitimate right to defend the unity of European citizens. (…) We are not trying to impose any political ideology through these institutions. What we are trying to do is safeguard a system which serves the interests of 500 million citizens.”

He’s basically saying that the end justifies the means, with the end being the quite frighting supposed “right to defend the unity of European citizens“.

Mr. Valcárcel Siso added that the purpose of the fact-checking conference was “to put an end to manipulation and falsehood to ensure that institutions are not undermined by those who want to destroy them”. Martin Williams subsequently inserts: “Note that he said “institutions”, rather than “democracy”.

A November 21 so-called ‘Opinion‘ document by the European Parliament’s ‘Committee on Petitions‘, comprised of 34 members of European Parliament, bluntly “urges” the Committee on Constitutional Affairs “to call on the Member States to actively uphold the best practices which help EU citizens to vote (…) including (…) the combating of fake news and any populist rhetoric“.

That’s right, any so-called populist rhetoric.

The ‘EU Code of Practice on Disinformation’ signed by Google, Facebook, Twitter, Mozilla and “advertiser industry”

But the EU doesn’t limit itself to rhetoric by prominent public officials. The entire infrastructure behind it, consisting of an insufferably complex web of committees, councils, steering groups and bodies of supposed experts, wants action. September 12’s document ‘Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, The Council, The European Economic and Social Committee and The Committee of the Regions’ called ‘Securing free and fair European elections’ calls for the prioritization in search and news feeds of news outlets the EU deems authoritative, and for the bankrupting and diluting the visibility of outlets hosting what the EU claims to be fake news:

Through this Communication the Commission seeks to promote a more transparent, trustworthy and accountable online environment (…). More specifically, signatories of the Code of Practice should agree to deprive “impostor” websites and websites hosting disinformation of advertising revenues. The signatories should also agree to (…) the development of indicators of trustworthiness of content sources, dilute the visibility of disinformation by improving the findability of trustworthy content and provide users information on prioritisation of content by algorithms.”

The referred Code of Practice is the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation, drafted by “Representatives of online platforms, leading social networks, advertisers and advertising industry” and was published on September 26. It is described as “the first time worldwide that industry agrees, on a voluntary basis, to self-regulatory standards to fight disinformation. The Code aims at achieving the objectives set out by the Commission’s Communication presented in April 2018 by setting a wide range of commitments, from transparency in political advertising to the closure of fake accounts and demonetization of purveyors of disinformation.

EU digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel announced on 16 October that Facebook, Google, Twitter and Mozilla signed the code. Most notably, the code reads that “In line with the Commission’s Communication, the Signatories of the Code of Practice recognise the importance of efforts to:

(ii) Improve the scrutiny of advertisement placements to reduce revenues of the purveyors of disinformation;

(vii) Consistently with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the principle of freedom of opinion, invest in technological means to prioritize relevant, authentic, and accurate and authoritative information where appropriate in search, feeds, or other automatically ranked distribution channels.

(ix) Dilute the visibility of disinformation by improving the findability of trustworthy content.

The tech giants formally presented Commissioner Mariya Gabriel with “concrete steps to implement” the code, also on October 16. In response, the press release states that “The Commission will support the implementation of these roadmaps ahead of the EU elections in May 2019.

A case study: how the EU decides what is fake news

In truly Orwellian fashion, Chapter Commitments II.A. of the Code reads that

“the new independent network of fact checkers facilitated by the European Commission upon its establishment can provide additional data points on purveyors of disinformation.”

How independent are fact checking networks facilitated by the European Commission, one asks? Well, enter the European External Action Service East Stratcom Task Force‘s fact-checking website EUvsDisinfo. In January 2018 it branded four Dutch publications, GeenStijl, NPO Radio1, De Gelderlander and The Post Online (TPO) as fake news. A claim so preposterous it led to a lawsuit by GeenStijl and a public national outcry in The Netherlands, with the majority of parliament supporting a motion to abolish EUvsDisinfo.

EUvsDisinfo eventually bulged and retracted their accusations, blaming translation errors.

But still, this leads to significant questions.

When the new EU Code of Practice on Disinformation comes into force, at what moment do tech-companies and advertisers start to enforce their anti-fake news measures? Will a website be deprived of its income and have its visibility diluted as soon as a deeply amateurish and biased but official EU-outfit like EUvsDisinfo brands an outlet as fake news? Will they await an outlet’s appeal?

How will this work? Livelihoods and the free internet are at stake here. So where are the damn national debates?

But, back to the fundamental question, what is fake news? Check out Eric Weinstein’s thoughts below.