“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” This is probably the most famous refutal of fake news. The oft-quoted phrase belongs to Mark Twain, who sent it to an American newspaper that had reported that he had died. The European Union celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome in the end of March. Thus, it is now almost as old as Twain was when he sent his memorable rebuttal. Like Twain, the EU has to deal with evil-minded manufacturers of fake news.
Fighting disinformation is about saving the EU
More and more people realize that what is at stake is the very survival of united Europe. If they lose trust in one another, the European peoples will find it hard to continue to live together. We have all heard Joseph Goebbels’ quote that a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth. The problem today is that social media provide the conditions in which content that has nothing to do with the truth can instantaneously reach hundreds, thousands, and even millions of people.
In contrast to the propaganda in the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, the present-day information war does not aim to build a positive image of its source. Instead, it aims to destroy the image of its opponent and convince the audience that it will never know the truth.
The downing of the Malaysian Airlines MH17 on the territory of Ukraine is a case in point. The Russian authorities and the media traditionally close to the Kremlin, as well as anonymous Internet users from the so-called “troll factory”, rushed to disseminate dozens of interpretations of the incident. The result: when the Dutch investigators finally announced their findings, the audience treated them as just one hypothesis competing with many others, which had been disseminated more quickly and, in most cases, in a more understandable language. According to a Foreign Policy article by Ben Nimmo, the downing of MH17 “marked a Rubicon moment for the Russian disinformation machine”. Still worse, the techniques used to attack the MH17 investigation have since been employed for the same purposes in other cases.
While post-truth is a global phenomenon today, the EU seems particularly vulnerable due to its complex structure and the fragile balance between community and national interests. Those who stand to lose from a strong Europe know this very well. The question, then, is whether the EU, like Mark Twain, can respond to disinformation effectively or whether it will allow to be killed by a curved cucumber, to use one of the most popular EU-related pieces of fake news.
The Association of European Journalists (AEJ) and the European Parliament recently organized a seminar in Brussels, during which journalists from different countries and Members of the European Parliament discussed fake news, the EU’s future, and Brexit, which is happening right now. The three topics are both extremely relevant and related because fake news contributed to the Brexit drama long before the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump coined the phrase “alternative facts” and long before we started hearing about Russia’s hybrid war.
Everything started in the early 1990s. At the time, the Daily Telegraph had a talented correspondent in Brussels. The son of a high-ranking EU bureaucrat, he had studied in the Belgian capital and spoke several languages fluently which enabled him to send powerful pieces that showed the EU, its institutions, and their employees in a predominantly negative light.
His reports were impressive. The only problem is that their content had very little to do with reality. The rumor goes that in response to the criticisms coming from other correspondents in Brussels that his reports were significantly embellished, the Daily Telegraph correspondent liked to say, “Never let the facts prevent you from creating a really good story.”
The European Union introduces a standard for condoms and from now on they will be one size only.
The European Commission’s building to be blown up. It is said to contain asbestos.
The EU bans Britons’ favorite cocktail with shrimps.
Written by the journalist mentioned above, each of these pieces of fake news generated a lot of buzz in the UK, forcing the European institutions into an explanatory regime. The European Commission’s representation in London created a section on its website aimed at refuting EU-related myths. Its record was mixed. It turned out that British citizens wanted to read interesting stories about incompetent Eurocrats who spend their time introducing all kinds of ridiculous standards. Soon, the editors of the other media started demanding that their correspondents in Brussels write in the same style. This is how an entire team of producers of EU-related myths came into being.
On 29 March this year, when she officially launched the procedure for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, Prime Minister Theresa May organized a dinner with the now retired journalist who laid the foundations of this phenomenon. His name is Boris Johnson, the current UK’s foreign minister and the former leader of the Brexit campaign.
Boris Johnson’s career and Brexit illustrate how entire political projects can develop based on fake news. They also show how the lack of an adequate response can seriously damage both the EU and individual Member States.
How fake news creates divisions and intolerance in Bulgaria
If fake news was part of the propaganda during the recent presidential election campaign in France, and if it is part of the propaganda in relation to the September parliamentary elections in Germany, what can we say about the countries in the EU’s periphery where it is easier to activate anti-EU attitudes?
One of these countries is Bulgaria. Not long ago, Irina Nedeva, chairwoman of AEJ-Bulgaria, presented a report on fake news in Bulgaria at the European Parliament. Along with the usual stories about absurd and excessive regulations – for example, The EU bans snowmen. They are said to be racism. – Bulgarians came across an interesting plot about the replacement of the local population with foreign citizens. Indicative of the popularity of this false information is the very real life that the humorous and fake report, allegedly prepared by European Commissioner Johannes Hahn, took on its own. The European Commission found itself pressed to explain that Commissioner Hahn had never said that Bulgarians would disappear and that their land would be settled by foreigners, Nedeva said.
Two months ago, we in Bulgaria saw how a piece of fake news can come true. In the beginning of March, a website reported that Emil Jasim, a teacher who had long been the target of a smearing campaign online, had been beaten up and even that he died of the wounds. Two weeks later, Jasim was indeed attacked and beaten up in Sofia but, luckily, did not suffer serious injuries. This case casts a chill over all of us because it illustrates how words have the power to shape the reality. This is yet another example of the small step one needs to take to move from hate speech to violence resulting from intolerance.
In January 2018, Bulgaria is due to take over the Presidency of the Council of the EU. In this critical moment, the EU is going to be led by its poorer and reportedly most corrupt member. What makes this ordeal still more challenging is the fact that a country in the EU’s immediate neighborhood, perhaps not without a reason, is used to treating Bulgaria as its “Trojan horse in a good sense”. Among the instruments for influencing “the Trojan horses” is fake news, which the Russian rulers have transformed into a weapon for geopolitical influence.
Another ЕU neighbor, which is accumulating considerable power, will certainly try to exert similar influence through Bulgaria as well. Following the successful referendum in April, it is highly unlikely that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will suspend his attempts to influence the political processes in Bulgaria and simultaneously blackmail the EU by taking advantage of its fears of a possible refugee influx. Here, information is again a key weapon. The EU needs to counteract a leader who has shut down most critical media and filled the prisons with journalists and political opponents. It is clear that Bulgaria won’t be able to fend off Turkish influences on its own and it is thus among the countries most interested in a strong European response.
The EU should protect itself in an increasingly hostile environment
It is, no doubt, also a question of security. The EU can no longer rely on protection from the other side of the Atlantic, as it has done for the past 70 years. According to the leaders and representatives of the major political groups in the European Parliament, the time we could rely on the USA to protect us are gone. During the joint seminar with AEJ, the MEPs stressed that Europe needs to have the capacity to provide for its own security. This self-reliance also applies to security in the context of the ongoing information war, especially when the USA has a president like Donald Trump.
Is the EU ready, if necessary, to open a second front, this time against disinformation coming from Donald Trump’s USA? This question was raised by a representative of AEJ-Italy during a discussion with Jacub Kalenski, deputy chair of the East StratCom Task Force, which is responsible for fighting anti-Kremlin propaganda. Created as part of the European External Action Service (EAAS) in the fall of 2015, the task force currently has eleven employees whose collective task is to debunk fake news through the website euvsdesinfo.eu (EU vs Disinformation). These eleven people have to track information from multiple sources, verify the facts, and refute misleading or false content generated by thousands of people. It is worth reminding ourselves that Russian President Vladimir Putin alone has awarded state orders to 300 journalists for “correct” coverage of the occupation of Crimea.
Even though it is a must, fact-checking poses two major challenges: it requires a lot of resources and it usually reaches a particular audience of critically thinking people. In contrast, fake news is produced relatively quickly and targets different groups. If one fake news story fails, the next one will succeed. With disinformation, it is quantity that matters. Fake news is aimed at our fears and emotions and our natural desire to see the world based on our own attitudes toward it.
This strategy seems to work pretty well. According to a recent study, most people share a piece of news on social media even before they have read it. Statistics show that 59% of the links shared on the platforms have never been opened. Why, then, should we expect that somebody who only reads the titles of the stories (s)he shares online will have the patience and the intellectual capacity to think about fact-checking results? If this is the only tool for counteracting fake news, it is doomed to fail due to its elitism.
The EU needs more effective and creative communication strategies
Overcoming the EU institutions’ communication problem is one possible solution. The EU invests substantial amounts of money in popularizing its activities but it does so quite ineffectively. Sometimes there are even absurdities like these in Bulgaria where funds earmarked for information activities related to the Presidency of the Council of the EU go to media with highly questionable reputations, whose language can even be described as anti-European. Not long ago, on the initiative of AEJ-Bulgaria, a group of journalists and media experts had a meeting with caretaker Deputy Prime Minister Denitsa Zlateva. They demanded full transparency and accountability regarding the allocation of these funds, fair criteria for the selection of subcontractors, and monitoring and assessment of the effectiveness of the communication measures adopted in relation to the upcoming Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU.
Effectiveness is a key element in this case. The EU spends considerable sums on communication, yet the requirements for the subcontractors tend to be too formal and do not produce the desired outcome. For example, the small label “This project is co-funded by the European Union”, which appears on anything on which EU money has been spent, hardly helps the citizens feel that they belong to a club that makes their lives better.
Far more powerful is the youth initiative Why Europe. It popularizes the EU through funny posts on social media, such as this photo of a couple, accompanied by the caption “Europe because we all have better things to do than waiting at borders.” Or this photo with the caption “Europe Because you don’t need a visa for your next holiday in Bulgaria.” This project grew out of the imagination of thirteen students from five countries who, in response to accusations made by Marin Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right Front National, say that they do not receive any EU funding. They describe their approach as “positive populism”. This positive populism, they say, is aimed not at people or policies but at populism.
Time alone will show whether positive populism has the potential to fight traditional populism in a creative way – as Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote was meant to do in relation to the highly popular chivalric romance back in the 17th century. It is nevertheless obvious that a new movement is emerging in Europe. Young people, who until recently passively watched the attacks against the EU and even viewed them as a form of legitimate protest against the system, now realize that the EU’s peace and values should not be taken for granted but constantly defended. In Germany, but also in other Western European countries, the Pulse of Europe movement, which holds pro-European demonstrations every weekend, is gaining momentum.
One thing is certain: as long as Europe has this pulse, the rumors about its death will be greatly exaggerated.
Author: Ivan Rаdev, AEJ-Bulgaria
*This text is created within the project of the Association of European journalists-Bulgaria called “Mediator 2: A bridge between journalism and society”, funded by foundation “America for Bulgaria”.
Picture: Theophilos Papadopoulos