Interesting new developments in the discussion about ‘fake news’, as Dutch Parliament accepted a motion, calling on Minister of Interior Kajsa Ollongren to argue in Brussels to close down its anti-fake news bureau EUvsDesinformation. A court case against the agency is also pending. Lets step back and look at the context.

On 16 January we published an article on the EU’s task force committed to clamping down on fake news. Our main criticism was, that the EU could not even provide a working definition of ‘fake news’. It could do no more than claiming it was not “illegal content. The High-Level Expert Group (HLEG) will still have to report on its findings, scheduled to take place in April. During the launch of the public consultation process that led to the presentation of the HLEG which has no idea what it is researching, First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said:

The freedom to receive and impart information and the pluralism of the media are enshrined in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. We live in an era where the flow of information and misinformation has become almost overwhelming. That is why we need to give our citizens the tools to identify fake news, improve trust online, and manage the information they receive.

We have since seen how the EU chooses to interpret these words. When it comes to dealing with ‘illegal content’, the EU is willing to severely restrict those same Fundamental Rights by essentially calling for company executed censorship. In our article we showed the EU’s questionable logic:

Online trolls and haters cannot limit our rights to express ourselves because of violent illegal messages they target people with. We are working with platform providers and civil society to fight the online injustice. These are the values we cherish.

In the name of ‘online justice’, the EU will force companies to do its dirty work for them. If followed through by social media platforms, it will effectively silence everybody who is not in complete agreement with the gospel preached in Brussels. This much influence and power should not be placed in the hands of unelected, unsupervised, irresponsible and quite possibly incompetent EU bodies. Even if, for the sake of argument, we assume that they are politically completely independent and neutral. And to make this point clear, we shall examine a case study.

Enter EUvsDisinfo. We’ll start with the disclaimer it has put on its website:

The Disinformation Review focuses on key messages carried in the international information space, which have been identified as providing a partial, distorted or false view or interpretation and spreading key pro-Kremlin messaging. It does not necessarily imply, however, that the outlet concerned is linked to the Kremlin or pro-Kremlin, or that it has intentionally sought to disinform. The Review is a compilation of cases from the East Stratcom Task Force’s wide network of contributors and is therefore not considered an official EU position. Likewise, the news articles are based on the analysis of the East Stratcom Task Force, so information and opinions expressed are not considered an official EU position.

This seems like a reasonable position to take. It suggests that EUvsDisinfo concentrates on neutralising certain kinds of messages, aimed at broadcasting propaganda by employing falsehoods. But a complicating factor is, that this is not all that EUvsDisinfo does. While its presentation on Twitter is that of ‘mythbusters’, it is in fact part of the EU’s East StratCom Task Force. And as such, is part of a stated EU campaign:

The Action Plan on Strategic Communication, presented in June 2015, has three main objectives:

•Effective communication and promotion of EU policies towards the Eastern Neighbourhood

•Strengthening the overall media environment in the Eastern Neighbourhood and in EU Member States, including support for media freedom and strengthening independent media

•Improved EU capacity to forecast, address and respond to disinformation activities by external actors

This plan of action, which is ambitious, stands in stark contrast to the way the EU, by way of EUvsDisinfo, operates. Whereas fake news is continually presented as a huge, threatening problem, the ways the EU fights it are extremely amateurish and downright counter-productive. For example, when the EU suggests its own “propaganda channel” as a way of spotting ‘fake news’. Especially when it is then found out, that your budget is around €1 million, so you work with volunteers and the vast majority (2214 out of 3748, the total amount of ‘fake news’ discussed by EUvsDisinfo since September 2015 at the moment of writing) of news you discuss is in Russian.

Number of reports to EUvsDesinfo by language

And the majority of reports are by a handful of people, of which the most important one is an out-of-work former Russian journalist.

Three-quarters of all reports originate from ten volunteers

In a situation like this, you cannot afford to make mistakes. Or when you do make mistakes, they cannot be big mistakes, for which you try to cover by claiming a translation error. Yet, mistakes were made and as a result, three Dutch media outlets are now suing (PDF) the EU over its claim they are ‘fake news’ outlets.

We will discuss one of these cases in greater detail. As can be read in the writ of summons, EUvsdDesinfo designated an article on website GeenStijl as “disinformation” and the site itself, consequently, as a “disinformation outlet“. GeenStijl now claims that both the summary of the alleged disinformation, as well as the ‘disproof’ contain critical errors.

In the writ of summons, GeenStijl claims of the article:

Therefore the article on GeenStijl contains well-founded and serious criticism of the Ukraine. The statements are supported by the findings of renowned institutes and scientists. The assertion of the EU “No supporting facts given” in that light is somewhat peculiar. It is a legitimate, critical contribution to the public debate about Ukraine. And GeenStijl does not present the accusations as facts, but in the form of suggestions for questions that should be asked to Poroshenko (but which will not be asked, because there is no room for critical questions).

EUvsDisinfo doesn’t elaborate on the accusation, nor does it give any reasoning for its ‘disproof’. Saillant detail; the article was reported by an NGO called Promote Ukraine. Not, perhaps, the most immediately obvious objective observer. This all too trusting attitude is compounded by an apparent lack of in-house knowledge. When GeenStijl challenges EUvsDesinfo, it pulled the accusation from its website, while excusing its original publication on claiming a translation error:

With regard to the article in question, we accept that the original wording used on the (sic) website – ‘fascist political undercurrent’ – was incorrectly transcribed into the EUvsDisinfo database as ‘fascistic country’. For this reason, we can confirm that the item in question has been permanently removed from the EUvsDisinfo database.

GeenStijl argues that this is not a very convincing argument, as an EU spokesperson indicated before, that “the team can use the support of translation services of the European Union and Dutch colleagues in the EU institutions.” Furthermore, by concentrating on the mistranslation of “fascist undercurrents in politics“, EUvsDisinfo ignores the main points of criticism in the article. It is odd, to say the least, that one mistranslation in phrasing is enough to either render an article ‘fake news’ or not, regardless of the body of the text.

The case will be taken to an Amsterdam court next week. In the meantime, the response in Dutch parliament has been clear. In a motion, passed with 109 votes in favour, 41 against, Dutch Parliament has called on the Government to “argue for termination of EUvsDisinfo.” It has concluded

that EUvsDisinfo (…) interferes with the free press in the Netherlands and has wrongly accused three Dutch publications as fake news; whereas it is not for government institution, whether national, European of otherwise, to label press publications as fakenews.

This is a severe blow to the credibility of the EU. Although the Minister of the Interior, Kajsa Ollongren, seems highly unwilling to do what Parliament demands, she is supported by only two of four parties in government. More importantly, the case shows clearly, that the EU cannot be trusted with deciding what ‘fake news’ is. Once again, it displays that combination of high ambition in theory and amateurishness in execution that is more damaging to freedom of the press than sheer malevolence.