Europe want to crack down on fake news. But one person’s fake news is another’s democratic dissent.

Europe want to crack down on fake news. But one person’s fake news is another’s democratic dissent.

By Michael Birnbaum April 25 at 5:12 PM

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 and dissent.

The 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.

Other countries, including the United States, are also cooperating with each other to combat fake news. France, Germany and Italy are working on national plans.

But a separate E.U. effort to combat foreign interference illustrates what can go awry.

The 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.

“It’s 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 proposals.

The task force cited each of the three Dutch outlets for promoting a dark view, advanced by the Kremlin, of Ukrainian corruption and alleged fascism.

One 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,

In fact, the article was summarizing a lecture delivered by a journalist who had spent time in Ukraine.

The Post Online editor Bert Brussen said his publication was targeted because Brussels dislikes critics of its pro-Ukrainian policies.

“For 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.

In 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.

The 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.

The 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.

After 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.

“Some 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 task force.

“What 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,” she said.

But 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.

“Addressing 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.

But when local newspapers report on meetings, she said, “then you are getting involved in the content of media. And I think that is super dangerous.”

The concerns extend beyond the Netherlands.

“The 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.”

Despite 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.

Members 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.

An 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.

“The 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 Kremlin narratives.

Private groups do similar work, but the E.U. task force sends an important message, Janda said.

“It 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.”

Quentin Ariès contributed to this report.


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