The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) throws its support behind the action plan presented by the Commission and the EU High Representative to counter disinformation and points out that a coordinated response, with an active role played by civil society, is essential.

The Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy have put forward a proposal for an action plan aimed at protecting the EU’s democratic systems and combating disinformation. The paper adopts a coordinated approach to disinformation based on four pillars:

Improving the capabilities of the EU institutions to detect, analyse and expose disinformation, by strengthening the strategic communication task forces and EU delegations through additional staff and new tools.

Strengthening coordinated and joint responses to disinformation, by establishing, by March 2019, a rapid alert system that is able to address disinformation campaigns, working closely with existing networks, the European Parliament, NATO and the G7’s rapid response mechanism.

Mobilising the private sector to tackle disinformation, by closely and continuously monitoring the implementation of the Code of Practice on Disinformation, published on 26 September 2018, for online platforms, advertisers and the advertising industry.

Raising awareness of disinformation and improving societal resilience, by organising targeted campaigns for the public and training events for media and public opinion shapers in the EU and its neighbours to show the negative effects.

The EESC supports the action plan on disinformation and, in the opinion drawn up by Ulrich Samm and Giulia Barbucci and adopted at the March plenary session, highlights the fact that disinformation can be defined as verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, causing public harm and threatening democracy.

“Spreading disinformation has become a part of a hybrid war with a clear political aim,” said Mr Samm. “In addition to false information, there are other threats to people’s freedoms, fundamental rights and minority rights including, among others, highly selective information, defamation, scare‑mongering and inciting hatred.”

The most effective disinformation always contains a grain of truth and for this reason it is very difficult to fight it appropriately. “We need multiple actions from all stakeholders to provide quality information and raise awareness. This is why we support the initiative for coordinated action to protect the EU, its institutions and its citizens against disinformation,” emphasised Ms Barbucci. “We need urgent measures since the European elections of May 2019 are not far off.”

Active participation by civil society organisations is key to offering a comprehensive response to disinformation. The EESC is proactively engaged in supporting joint efforts to tackle disinformation and takes action on a regular basis through its opinions and by organising hearings, Going Local events and a number of press activities designed and carried out by its professional Communication Group.

Joint efforts have to be supported by as many actors as possible both at EU level and in the Member States, including public and private organisations.

It is important to build resilience, not only by involving all sectors of society but also by improving people’s media literacy. Awareness-raising and critical thinking start at school but also require a continuous, lifelong refresher course.

Independent fact-checkers and quality journalism also play a vital role and need resources to be able to operate in almost real time.

Specific funding has been allocated under Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe to research and achieve a better understanding of the sources of disinformation and to explore the intentions, tools and objectives behind disinformation. This includes, for example, the question of how and why individuals, and sometimes entire communities, are drawn to disinformation narratives and become part of the mechanisms disseminating fake news.