EU's fake news fight is flagging, budget watchdog says
The European Union has failed to update its game plan to tackle the spread of fake news since 2018 and the bloc's focus on Russia has left it unprepared to confront emerging threats elsewhere, auditors said on Thursday.
An action plan - set up three years ago to "address Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns" - has not been reviewed to include new threats from the likes of China, according to a report by the Luxembourg-based European Court of Auditors (ECA).
The bloc’s own flagship scheme, EUvsDisinfo, at one stage was itself censured by the Dutch parliament back in 2018 “for erroneously attributing Russian disinformation to a Dutch domestic publication”.
Despite the EU engaging with big tech companies on the issue, a code of practice for online providers is voluntary and lacks accountability, auditors observed.
The strategy is also hampered by the lack of a joined-up approach, the ECA said, with different EU departments responsible for each of the four pillars established under the action plan. A Commission plan for a central online hub outlining the EU's work in the area was due to be launched last year but “has been cancelled for unclear reasons”, the ECA said.
Auditors examined the 2018 action plan, and assessed 20 EU Commission projects “directly related to fighting disinformation through media literacy.” Around €50 million was spent on fighting fake news between 2015 and 2020, a “relatively low amount”, the ECA noted.
However, there is “no EU legal framework” governing disinformation apart from one article in the bloc’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, the ECA said, and a “series of policy initiatives”.
A “rapid alert system” linking EU institutions, countries and other international agencies was established by the 2018 action plan, but the ECA said that engagement in the system is driven by just one-third of EU countries.
“Some objectives in the plan have generic wording such as “step up” or “strengthen”, which do not lend themselves to measurement. There was no provision to evaluate the plan as a whole and there has been no overall evaluation to date,” the ECA report noted. “Furthermore, the EU action plan has not yet been updated since it was presented in 2018.”
In addition, the EU’s strategic communications task forces “are not adequately staffed or funded to deal with emerging threats” relating to fake news, the auditors warned.
The EUvsDisinfo project, which focuses on Russia and has an open-source database with more than 9,700 reported cases logged as of last October, also came in for criticism. The ECA said some of the examples it records “do not represent a threat to EU democracies”.
Voluntary code of practice
“Looking ahead, the future role and mission of EUvsDisinfo are unclear, beyond producing more examples of Russian disinformation – a threat that is now well established and acknowledged,” the auditors noted.
“Despite the EEAS’s claims that EUvsDisinfo is independent and does not represent the EU’s official position, its location within the European External Action Service (EEAS) makes this questionable,” the ECA added.
The auditors said despite Russia being the target of the initial EU schemes, EEAS analysis had shown that "other actors such as China have emerged to varying degrees as prominent disinformation threats".
The EU has created a code of practice for online platforms – signed in 2018 – but while this engaged big tech companies, it “stopped short of making them accountable”, the auditors said.