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EU needs to fight disinformation at the local and regional level  

​​​Local and regional politicians voice frustration with social-media platforms and call for EU to help civil society and local government identify disinformation.

The European Union should "urgently" involve local and regional authorities in efforts counter disinformation, the European Committee of the Regions says in a report adopted on 5 December. The EU's assembly for local and regional politicians also urged the EU to exert greater pressure on social-media platforms to respond more quickly, effectively and appropriately to disinformation.

Local and regional leaders drew up the recommendations on the EU's Action Plan on disinformation at their own initiative and the proposals therefore do not form part of the EU's formal review process. However, their unilateral decision to send their input to the EU's decision-making institutions underscores the importance they ascribe to localising the battle against disinformation, exerting more pressure on the private sector, and investing more effort and resources to fact-checking and working with civil society.

The recommendations were drafted by Randel Länts (EE/PES), a councillor in the rural community of Viljandi in southern Estonia. He said: "The EU is currently working principally at the national level, but disinformation also needs to be fought at the local level. The Action Plan adopted in December 2018 takes insufficient account of the regional and local levels, although it is often there that the problems associated with this subject originate. Some of the solutions – such as educating, informing and activating citizens – also need to start in our regions and towns. But most local governments lack knowledge about how to counter disinformation, as well as money and skills. So this is an area where the EU can step in and say 'we have some money', and help efforts to build up counter-disinformation capacity, in part by developing networks of fact-checkers and compensating citizen fact-checkers who have demonstrated their accuracy."

He continued: "There is also a crying need for social-media companies to get more local in their work. Their staff typically neither understand the language, the political context nor the cultural context of the disinformation campaigns being operated in the EU's regions. And, as anyone who has tried to report disinformation or hate speech knows, social-media operators offer no swift and effective feedback procedure. If they do not improve their performance voluntarily, we need to force them, through regulation. What the CoR is proposing are measures that reflect the reality of disinformation: it comes from both external and internal sources, targets our local and national identities, and is often highly localised. We have to force the internet companies to grapple with this reality in a serious way – and we need to do the same, through cooperation between all levels of government, civil society, members of the public and social-media platforms."

Among recommendations related to social-media platforms, the CoR calls for the EU to oblige social-media platforms –through regulation or through self-management – to do far more outreach work to educate users on disinformation and the verification of sources, and to contextualise posts and warn users about sources of disinformation ahead of elections and during crises. Platforms would contribute to funding fact-checking networks and paying individual fact-checkers.

The recommendations include principles and ideas intended to protect personal liberties, to avoid over-reaction, and to build public support. The opinion warns that "without sufficient transparency, there is a great risk that measures to counter disinformation themselves fall victim to hostile information attacks" and therefore argues for "the public having access to comprehensive information and being kept abreast of, for instance, data protection, personal data processing and financing aspects". It says "the possible spread of disinformation must be systematically and continuously monitored" – "but not all the time", suggesting that such high-intensity monitoring should be restricted to the run-up to elections and times of crisis and abrupt social change.

The EU's work against disinformation has four pillars: improving detection of disinformation, coordinating responses, mobilising the private sector to take action, and raising public awareness.

EU-level action to curb disinformation began in 2015, with the creation of a task-force to improve the EU's capacity to forecast, address and respond to disinformation activities, to strengthen the media environment in the EU's member states and neighbourhood, and to communicate EU policies in its eastern neighbourhood. The scope of the EU's work has since expanded and deepened, both geographically and thematically. Input from a high-level expert group in 2017 and from a public consultation fed into the adoption, in April 2018, of an EU approach to tackling online disinformation . Since then, social-media platforms have agreed to a voluntary Code of Practice , with the EU warning that regulation could follow without adequate action. The European Commission's Action Plan against disinformation was adopted in December 2018, and in March 2019 the Commission created a Rapid Alert System ahead of the European elections held in May 2019.


Andrew Gardner

Tel. +32 473 843 981