One year ahead of the next European elections, local and regional representatives have stressed the risk posed by disinformation to our democratic societies. As the level of government closest to citizens, regional and local authorities have a crucial role to play in the European Union's efforts to defend democracy, Committee of the Regions President Vasco Alves Cordeiro (PT/PES) stressed during a debate with European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourova and with Raphaël Glucksmann, Chair of the European Parliament's Special Committee on foreign interference in democratic processes. Immediately after the debate, the assembly of local elected politicians adopted the opinion on the role of local and regional authorities in combating disinformation and foreign information, manipulation and interference by Gustaw Marek Brzezin (PL/EPP), President of Warmińsko-Mazurskie Region.
The debate was held during the CoR plenary session, on 5 July, and was an opportunity to recall that, in the current context, attacks on the virtual and real lives of mayors and other local and regional representatives in Europe have also become more frequent or more intense. The COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian war against Ukraine, the welcoming of refugees or even the consequences of climate changes are some of the dominant political issues that have recently served as surrogate topics for efforts to gain influence by manipulating the European information space. Participants in the debate noted that foreign interference, disinformation and attacks on democracy are likely to become more frequent and sophisticated in the run-up to the European Parliament elections in June 2024. Establishing channels of cooperation, investing into media literacy education and ensuring media freedom were stressed as key foundations for a healthier democratic space.
In the context of the debate, Vasco Alves Cordeiro, President of the European Committee of the Regions, said: "Defending democracy requires continuous commitment from us all. The European elections 2024 need to be protected against foreign interference. Institutions, political parties, local and regional authorities and citizens will need to be vigilant against the threat of disinformation. Each and every one of us will play our part to promote democratic principles. Members of the Committee of the Regions will be the bridge-builders between the European and the local level during the pre-election period, when voters are making their choice and getting informed. We will explain, listen and support a democratic and fair environment for the elections to take place in our territories."
Věra Jourová, Vice-President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, stressed: "Disinformation and foreign interference are a serious threat to our democracy that requires action. The anti-disinformation Code and the Digital Services Act are a cornerstone of our efforts at the European level. Our approach recognises that an effective response requires the engagement of all stakeholders – industry, civil society, researchers and national as well as regional and local authorities. In this strategy, the actions at the regional and local level play a very important role, in particular for the media literacy and public awareness-raising as key tools to counter and limit the impact of disinformation."
Raphaël Glucksmann (FR/S&D), Member of the European Parliament and Chair of the Special Committee on foreign interference in all democratic processes in the European Union, including disinformation, and the strengthening of integrity, transparency and accountability in the European Parliament, said: "For more than a decade, our democracies have been the target of numerous external attacks by foreign state or para-state actors, mainly from Russia and China. The aim of such interference is to exploit the vulnerabilities of our societies, to undermine confidence in our institutions and public discourse, and to destabilise our democracies. Our rights, our security and our sovereignty are at stake. We simply don't have the right to be naïve anymore! It is imperative that awareness of this threat be raised at all levels and that the response be European, national, regional and local. Local and regional political representatives must be involved in the strategies and implementation of measures to combat foreign interference and disinformation. In the fields of cyber security, infrastructure, education, and others, they have an immense role to play. Together, each in our own area of responsibility, let's mobilise to defend our most precious common asset, democracy."
Gustaw Marek Brzezin (PL/EPP), rapporteur-general and President of Warmińsko-Mazurskie Region said: "The phenomenon of disinformation and the need to fight all kinds of manipulations are extremely important issues in our societies. The pandemic and the war have exacerbated these problems – there are hybrid threats against which we must defend ourselves. Falsified information and the current development of technology pose threats to the very essence of democracy and seriously disturb democratic electoral processes. That is why we must educate citizens at all levels. We should use abilities of local governments, activate local media, but also provide financial resources from within the European funds."
In their debate, members of the CoR also discussed the tools available to local and regional authorities in their fight against disinformation including those presented in the CoR's study on a handbook of good practices to counter disinformation and the conclusions of the seminar held in Elblag in May 2023 on the invitation of the rapporteur-general Brzezin.
The opinion suggests possible initiatives at local and regional level to counter disinformation, calling for an increase in funding available across Europe, complemented by enhanced cooperation with civil society organisations, local media, research centres, individual journalists and information verifiers.
A strategy to build public resilience to disinformation should be implemented equally in both urban and rural areas, including, on the one hand, integrating media education into school curricula and, on the other, providing support for trustworthy and pluralistic local and regional media.
The opinion furthermore calls for creating a pilot model for a systemic response to disinformation campaigns and incidents in regions, districts and municipalities, especially those most vulnerable to disinformation.
Other relevant initiatives that could be considered, at EU level, included the translation of available national and international manuals and guidelines on combating disinformation into all official EU languages, or establishing at national level a focal point to regularly provide local and regional authorities with information on the latest disinformation trends and narratives.
Democracy and the future of the EU is one of the three priorities that the CoR has set itself for the 2020-2025 term of office, and combating disinformation is an important part of delivering on this priority and implementing the recommendations of the Conference on the Future of Europe. The opinion drafted by Mr Brzezin is a response to an request submitted in February 2023 by the Swedish Presidency of the Council of the European Union for the CoR's view on the role of local and regional authorities in combating disinformation and foreign information, manipulation and interference. The option also ties in with the CoR's recent and ongoing work on the resilience of democracy, including its opinion on strengthening democracy and the fairness of elections, and its opinion on a European law on media freedom.
· “Developing a handbook on good practice in countering disinformation at local and regional level”, European Committee of the Regions.
· Factsheet : Action Plan against Disinformation.
· European Democracy Action Plan, Code of Practice against Disinformation, Defence of Democracy package.
· Teaching Media Literacy and fighting Disinformation with eTwinning, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/b851cd16-3d1c-11ec-89db-01aa75ed71a1, “Digital citizenship education handbook”, Council of Europe, https://rm.coe.int/16809382f9.
Previous Committee opinions:
- Extending the list of EU crimes to hate speech and hate crimes, rapporteur: Aleksandra Dulkiewicz (PL/EPP), 30 June 2021
- Reinforcing democracy and integrity of elections, rapporteur: Vincenzo Bianco (IT/PES), 27 April 2022
- European democracy action plan, rapporteur: Aleksandra Dulkiewicz (PL/EPP), 30 June 2021
- Europe's Media in the Digital Decade: An Action Plan, rapporteur: Jan Trei (EE/EPP), 7 May 2021
- Action Plan against Disinformation, rapporteur: Randel Länts (EE/PES), 5 December 2019
Background material: The plenary agenda and opinions and amendments.
Webstreaming: On the website of the CoR.
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