EU panel warns of disinformation dangers to elections

European Union flags outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels. A report by the EU's executive arm is warning against simplistic solutions to the problems of disinformation.
European Union flags outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels. A report by the EU's executive arm is warning against simplistic solutions to the problems of disinformation.PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - While tackling the scourge of disinformation, governments and other parties should avoid interfering with the freedom of expression and media freedom, said a report published on Monday (March 12) by the European Union's executive arm.

The report called for online platforms to be more transparent and for media literacy to be promoted, while warning against any simplistic solutions to the problems of disinformation.

It also made a plea for more tools to empower users and journalists to tackle disinformation, and for the diversity and sustainability of news media to be safeguarded.

It found these measures to be particularly critical ahead of elections.

The report was written by a panel of 39 experts who were appointed by the European Commission. They came from civil society, social media platforms, journalism and academia.

The experts focused on disinformation rather than "fake news", a term they said is "used misleadingly by powerful actors to dismiss coverage that is simply found disagreeable".

Disinformation was defined as "all forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit".

Also published were the results of a Eurobarometer survey of 26,000 citizens, which found that people think that there is a lot of fake news across the EU.

Most respondents - 83 per cent - said the phenomenon represents a danger to democracy, while many also saw traditional media as the most trustworthy source of news.

Radio news sources got a "trust rate" of 73 per cent followed by television at 66 per cent and print at 63 per cent. Online sources got the lowest rating of 26 per cent.

"While not necessarily illegal, disinformation can nonetheless be harmful for citizens and society at large," the report said.

It said the dangers represented threats to democratic political processes, including the integrity of elections, and to democratic values that shape public policy across sectors as diverse as health, science and finance.

The report stressed that special attention should be paid to disinformation aimed at undermining the integrity of elections.

People require accurate information to vote, but elections are also vulnerable to digital disinformation campaigns, it said .

These can include rumours about rigging and hacking of voting machines, purchases and non-transparent dissemination of political ads which may influence voters and cast general suspicion over the democratic process.

Equally important is the threat of "more insidious and low-profile disinformation strategies not linked to any political event", said the report.

Such campaigns can distort citizens' perceptions of events and give rise to deep-seated misinformed beliefs, causing significant harm.

The panel called on online platforms to ensure transparency by explaining how algorithms select news that is put forward.

It also urged these platforms to make reliable, trustworthy news more visible, and to help users better access such news.