Illustration: schematically drawn people with social media characters in their heads.

A Table With Four Legs

In Europe everyone has the right to freedom of thought. Freedom to explore ideas is fundamental to a free society, and nowhere more so than in research and education. This freedom is under pressure around the world. How can Europe defend it?

The Scholars at Risk Network, a U.S.-based international network of academic institutions organized to defend the principles of academic freedom and human rights of scholars around the world, has documented hundreds of attacks on academic freedom. These include killings, violence and disappearances of scholars, staff and students; wrongful prosecution and imprisonment, loss of position and expulsion from study, travel restrictions, and university closures in 47 countries.

Anthropologist Homa Hoodfar was incarcerated for months in an Iranian prison cell. Undaunted, she still found a way to write. “As I had no pen and paper, I used the tail end of my toothbrush as a pen and the walls of my cell as a writing pad and desk.” The subject Hoodfar wrote about was academic freedom, which she describes as a table with four legs. The first one is the freedom to do research and to teach. The second leg is the freedom for students to do the same. The third one is the right to participate in the managing of academic institutions so that they are not swayed by commercial interests, and the fourth leg is the right of academics and members of learning institutions to act as public intellectuals.

Cornerstone of Liberal Democracy

Such freedom is a cornerstone of liberal democracy. Those who repress scholarly research, teaching and writing do so to prevent citizens from thinking freely, sharing ideas, and challenging the status quo. Academic freedom needs defending, but Europe has often been missing in action. Some European universities and academic publishers prefer to look away, rather than to endanger lucrative arrangements in countries such as China. Cambridge University Press publishes China Quarterly, an academic journal.

In 2017 it decided to take down over 300 articles from its Chinese website, at the request of its importer in China. It only agreed to reverse its decision after a storm of academic protest. The German publishing group Springer Nature agreed to remove more than 1,000 articles from the websites of the Journal of Chinese Political Science and International Politics, two Springer journals, on the Chinese market. The articles contained keywords deemed politically sensitive by the Chinese authorities, including “Taiwan”, “Tibet” and “Cultural Revolution”. Springer Nature did not reverse its decision.

Academic freedom needs defending, but Europe has often been missing in action. 

“Fake news” is one of the defining issues of our time. On the internet, sensationalist and misleading stories fuel conspiracy theories and mistrust as never before. Spreading fake news is one of the cyber-based techniques that states use to disrupt competitors and opponents, along with espionage, sabotage, and propaganda.

As a practice, information manipulation is nothing new. Politicians have long been known to use the truth selectively, and advertisers do this for a living. What is new, however, is the scale of today’s disinformation, the extent to which it is being used by governments and political leaders, and the corrosive effect this has on trust in democratic societies.

Digital Disorder

A glowing cell phone lies on a neon orange background.
More than a third of young people in the UK report that they find it difficult to tell the difference between truth and lies on social media, photo: Brian McGowan via unsplash

News used to travel at the speed of transmission by newspapers, radio, and television. Today, the internet and social media spread information instantly to millions across the globe; their scope and speed are unprecedented. Lies, unfortunately, travel fastest of all: six times faster than truth, according to research done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2018.

The electronic media have amplified the ability of governments to influence the thoughts and emotions of their target audiences at home and abroad. More and more governments use this capacity to manipulate and control. From China to Turkey, digital authoritarianism is on the rise. Governments censor electronic media or block them altogether to prevent their citizens from spreading or accessing criticism or ‘cultural pollution’ from abroad; systems of artificial intelligence and security cameras are used to control behaviour.

Russian trolls and bots spread disinformation far and wide. Disinformation makes it more difficult to distinguish truth from falsehoods. It reinforces distrust at a time when trust in most democratic countries is already at a low point. More Americans get their news from social media than from newspapers, but a majority find it difficult to distinguish between truth and online disinformation. More than a third of young people in the UK report that they find it difficult to tell the difference between truth and lies on social media; a similar proportion say that social media had made them feel more negatively about politics.

Informed political choice depends on reasoned debate. When facts become opinions, and opinions facts, democracy suffers. This is a particular problem on social media, where algorithms drive revenues by getting users to access material that bolsters their existing views and prejudices.

Lies travel fastest of all: six times faster than truth, according to research done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

That said, it is important to distinguish between the responsibility of governments and that of online communication platforms. Some governments intentionally spread disinformation; social media sometimes allow this to happen. The distinction tends to slip from sight when both phenomena are referred to as fake news. This is one reason why the term ‘fake news’ is best avoided. 

Since Donald Trump launched the term “fake news” to delegitimise journalists and media, the practice has been embraced enthusiastically by politicians around the world to silence critical voices. Research at Oxford University found that in 2017 the term was used by political leaders in Burma, Cambodia, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Somalia, Syria, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, the USA and Venezuela. In Tanzania, for example, several independent newspapers and radio stations were shut down or suspended because of what President Magufuli considered ‘inaccurate’ reporting. The old Nazi slur of “Lügenpresse” has found a world-wide following.

Fancy Bear, a Russian cyber group, hacked the servers of the Democratic Party in the USA and released emails to WikiLeaks to damage Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Now that the term ‘fake news’ has become an instrument of censorship it is best to avoid the concept. The European Union uses the term ‘disinformation’ instead. Disinformation is understood as verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and may cause public harm. Public harm includes threats to democratic processes as well as to public goods such as health, environment or security. Disinformation does not include inadvertent errors, satire and parody, or clearly identified partisan news and commentary.

Systematic Use of Disinformation

Disinformation is practiced systematically by Russia, which uses it to disrupt liberal democracies. Russian military doctrine explicitly endorses information warfare as a military tactic. Russian nationalists regret the loss of territory and status following the demise of the Soviet Union, which they attribute to hostile Western intentions. They see Russia as under permanent attack from Western ideology and information operations. In defence, Russia must deploy its own information tactics, including ‘dezinformatsiya’, against the USA and Europe. Russia uses traditional instruments such as the state-owned satellite TV channel RT and the news agency Sputnik, but also cyber-operations. Fancy Bear, a Russian cybergroup, hacked the servers of the Democratic Party in the USA and released emails to WikiLeaks to damage Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Analysis commissioned by the US Senate shows that Russia used accounts under fake names on every major social media platform to influence the 2016 US Presidential election (Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Pay-Pal, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, Vine, YouTube). Conservative voters were targeted with posts on immigration, gun rights, and race. The most prolific efforts targeted African Americans to suppress votes for Hillary Clinton. The researchers found that the messaging sought to benefit the Republican Party and specifically Donald Trump.

It is Europe, however, that bears the brunt of Russian information operations. Russian social media sowed confusion about the role of Russian forces in seizing Crimea and ran a campaign to blame the Ukrainian government for the destruction of Malaysia Airline Flight 17. Russian state television promoted a story according to which a 13-year-old Russian- German girl had been raped by migrants. After German police found the story to be untrue Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov used it to criticise Germany. The Lisa case fuelled the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany. On 22 March 2016, the day terrorists killed 32 people in Brussels, Russian-linked Twitter accounts spread hashtags as #islamistheproblem, #Islamkills, and #StopIslam, which became one of the top five trending topics in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Communication is Culture

In France, Russian hackers released gigabytes of data – including forged emails – to harm Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 election campaign. In Sweden researchers identified dozens of forgeries and fake articles, including a forged letter allegedly written by the Minister of Defence announcing the sale of sophisticated weapons to Ukraine.

In Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine, Russia uses social media to drive wedges between ethnic Russian or Russian-speaking populations and their host governments, NATO, and the European Union.

Russian bots and trolls consistently strive to delegitimise the European Union, which is depicted as corrupt, decadent, duplicitous, impotent, and overrun by Muslims. In the UK, Russian media actively supported Brexit. Pro-Russian local media in the EU and the Balkans echo the anti-EU narratives.

[Translate to english:] Vogelperspektive: Alles in Schwarz, zwei Hände tippen auf einer Tastatur.
Russland praktiziert systematisch Desinformation, um liberalen Demokratien zu schaden, Foto: Tim Goode via picture alliance

It is impossible to say with certainty how effective these disinformation campaigns are. Some are ham-fisted, such as the efforts to disrupt Macron’s election campaign, but on the whole they are well-organised and systematic. Between 2015 and 2017, for example, information spread by Russian Twitter trolls was cited at least 30 times by leading news and opinion sites in the Netherlands. The EU has identified 3,500 examples of pro-Kremlin disinformation contradicting publicly available facts repeated in many languages on many occasions. It concludes that ‘Russian disinformation can be extremely successful.’

Russia’s efforts to wield soft power have been much less successful. Russia’s international image is largely negative. A recent poll by the PEW Research Institute showed that it is viewed more unfavourably than favourably in 16 of the 25 countries surveyed, including most of Europe. In only four countries do at least half of respondents express a positive view of Russia: the Philippines, Tunisia, South Korea, and Greece. At the same time, however, many say that Russia’s international stature is growing: four in ten respondents believe Russia is playing a more important role in the world today compared with ten years ago. 

One reason why Russian disinformation campaigns must be taken seriously is that they tap into – and amplify – the growing lack of trust in liberal democracies. This distrust has many causes; some are political, others economic and social. One of the main causes is the role played by social media. While Russia spreads distrust intentionally, social media do so unintentionally.

Russian bots and trolls consistently strive to delegitimise the European Union, which is depicted as corrupt, decadent, duplicitous, impotent, and overrun by Muslims.

On social media people pay with personal information for entertainment and news that they think is free. The resulting loss of privacy is a driver of distrust; doubt about the reliability of information on social media is another. Communication, as American communication theorist, media critic, and journalism instructor James Carey wrote, is culture. Today’s leading digital communication companies exercise extraordinary cultural power. Amazon has a 70 percent share of the ebook market. Google has an 88 percent market share in search advertising. Facebook (including Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp) controls more than 70 percent of social media on mobile devices. Google dominates more than 90 percent of the world market for search engines. Facebook has more users than China has people.

Fixing the Internet

With so much power concentrated in so few hands, how can these digital giants be held to account? Some believe that technology can help to redress the balance between citizens and corporations. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world-wideweb, has launched a project to fix the internet. Dismayed by the abuse of privacy on the web, Berners-Lee wants to replace the current model where users have to hand over personal data to digital giants in exchange for perceived value. His initiative, called Solid (Social Linked Data) allows users to discover and share information without sacrificing privacy.

Others think that public authorities must intervene. This has been the dominant approach in Europe. The EU has agreed strict rules (General Data Protection Regulation) to make companies protect the personal information of their clients. The European Commission has also fined Google a record-breaking 4.3 billion EUR for using Android to cement its market dominance. More could be done to tame the power of the oligopolies. The EU could, for example, require companies with more than a 10 percent share of any data-driven market to share anonymised slices of the data with other companies.

With so much power concentrated in so few hands, how can these digital giants be held to account?

The EU has so far not adopted legislation to force digital traders to counter online disinformation. Its preferred approach for the time being has been through self-regulation. The Commission has issued an EU Code of Practice to mobilise the private sector against disinformation. This approach may have its benefits. As an unintended side-effect it might even induce platforms such as Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter to take steps to respect and promote human rights.

The global standard for companies who take rights seriously is set by the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These Principles, which have been endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council, invite companies to prevent and address human rights abuses linked to their business activity. Companies should, inter alia, conduct human rights due diligence and provide remediation, including through accessible, operational grievance mechanisms.

Not Without Risks

But the EU’s approach is not without risks. By obliging social media companies to act as gatekeepers who must filter out undesirable content, governments are delegating regulatory functions to private companies. This way of privatising public responsibilities raises two problems. Companies may be tempted to filter out lawful content in order to avoid liability. This is already happening. Facebook bans advertisements with sexually oriented content, including artistic or educational nudes.

This led it to remove ads from the Flemish Tourist Board which contained “nude” material – a painting by Peter Paul Rubens of Jesus taken down from the cross, wearing a loincloth. In a playful response, the Flemish Tourist Board released a video in which the “nude police” chase away visitors at the Rubens House in Antwerp. But it also expressed regret that it could not show its unique cultural heritage on the world’s most popular social network. The wider risks to freedom of expression of delegating gatekeeping to social media are clear. It would be a sad irony if Europe, trying to defend its citizens against disinformation, would end up indirectly limiting their freedom of speech.

It would be a sad irony if Europe, trying to defend its citizens against disinformation, would end up indirectly limiting their freedom of speech.

The second problem of delegating public responsibility to private companies is that of accountability. Governments are democratically accountable to citizens; companies are at best accountable to their shareholders. The secrecy with which Facebook and other social media surround their data makes external scrutiny extremely difficult.

An official investigation in the UK concluded that Facebook had not been sufficiently transparent to enable users to understand how and why they might be targeted by a political party or campaign. The European Commission agrees that social media have failed to act proportionally to the challenge posed by disinformation and the manipulative use of their platforms.

In any case, self-regulation and voluntary instruments will probably not bring the digital traders to change their business model, which depends on selling the data that users voluntarily or unwittingly provide. Genuine transparency and accountability, including accessible means of redress, are still being resisted and will probably require government regulation. Some governments, including Germany, have already started down this path. The British parliament wants audits carried out on the non-financial aspects of technology companies, including their security mechanisms and algorithms, to make sure that they are operating responsibly. At some point European legislation may be needed to provide a level playing field. 

Media Literacy is Critical

Each of these approaches – technology, regulation, and self-regulation – may help to combat disinformation. But ultimately things are down to individual users: citizens must feel empowered to detect and prevent disinformation. People need to understand the risks and feel confident to avoid them. Media training can help build cognitive resilience, the necessary skills and attitudes to resist manipulation in social or traditional media. Media literacy can play a critical role in young people’s civic engagement.

Schools and universities should take the lead, but many are cash-strapped and few will have budgeted for this. The EU has proposed a Digital Competence Framework for Citizens. It also launched a small pilot project, Media Literacy for All, but any substantial financial support will have to come from national institutions.

EU flag and globe in front of data on a screen.
Media training can help build the necessary skills and attitudes to resist manipulation in social or traditional media, photo: Klaus Ohlenschlaeger via picture alliance

Cultural organisations and NGOs, which have mostly remained on the sidelines of this debate, could do much to raise awareness. Citizens also need access to easily accessible, trustworthy sources of information, both online and off-line. Independent, non-partisan journalism is a public good. Democracy cannot function without it, as autocrats know only too well. Such journalism is expensive, particularly if it serves mass markets. Crowdfunding can sometimes be successful, as The Guardian shows, but this works best in large and liquid language markets such as English. Citizens need information in their mother tongue, and this puts people in minority languages at a disadvantage.

Quality journalism needs public support, including in Europe. The EU’s Creative Europe programme can support media diversity, but it is small and underfunded. EU governments will have to step in and contribute.

About the Author
Gijs de Vries

Gijs de Vries is a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He is a former member of the Dutch government and of the European Parliament. He has served as a board member of the European Cultural Foundation and was a founding member of the European Council on Foreign Relations as well as the Transatlantic Policy Network.