Brussels, 6 May 2021
I am very honoured that you invited me to this very important conference where everyone who works on countering disinformation and foreign interference should be.
I remember after learning that I will deal with countering disinformation one of my first thoughts were: “I have to go to Riga to see the ‘NATO people’ and the Latvian authorities; they know a thing or two about this issue.”
Clearly, the pandemic has affected my plans, but I believe soon the time will come I will be able to see many of you personally.
I want to talk to you today about challenges for democracy. Unfortunately, democracy today is facing many of them, such as the rise of far-right or far-left forces that preach authoritarian solutions, perils stemming from increasing digitalisation, the risks to rule of law or media freedom, to name just a few.
One common feature that connects many of those challenges is that they undermine trust.
In democracy we trust that authorities are there to serve the people, not to exploit them. We trust that the courts are independent from the politicians or big businesses and we trust that there are media that report facts, rather than fiction.
Trust is a bloodstream of modern democracy. Of course, the enemies of democracy know that, too, this is why their actions concentrate on destroying that trust. Václav Havel said: “The natural disadvantage of democracy is that it is extremely tiring to those who mean it honestly, while it allows almost everything to those who do not take it seriously.”
And I cannot help but think that increased digitalisation made the job of such adversaries a bit easier. Let me explain why I think so and what we can do about it.
Today, online media form the main source of information for more and more Europeans. This also has positive sides, as we have access to an ample range of opinion, freedom of expression can flourish. So participatory democracy should flourish as a result.
Yet, these technologies and platforms can offer tools to bad actors, who want to increase divisions or even influence elections. And notably through social media to disseminate disinformation on a scale and with speed and precision of targeting that is unprecedented.
Disinformation becomes a scourge of democracy. It erodes that trust in institutions, governments, and the media. It hampers our ability to take informed decisions based on reliable information.
The results of the democracy section in our latest Eurobarometer show that 51% of its respondents believe to have been exposed to disinformation.
In the context of the current pandemic, disinformation also have a detrimental impact on public health, undermining public confidence in the scientific community.
Disinformation is so dangerous because it uses our freedoms against us. It turns freedom of speech into a weapon, and if we want to preserve democracy, freedom of speech is sacrosanct.
We also must acknowledge that there are organised structures aimed at manipulating our information space. Also foreign actors.
The EU takes the threat posed by foreign information manipulation and interference very seriously. We have for many years increased our efforts to tackle this challenge. I am grateful that our cooperation with NATO is also intensifying and that more and more people and governments start to have a deeper understanding of these risks.
In 2015, the East StratCom Task Force took up its important work to tackle pro-Kremlin disinformation. In the past six years, we have seen the threat evolve and emerging actors have appeared on the stage.
But we clearly see we need to do more, all of us. It is still too cheap and too easy to sow disinformation.
The StratCom Center has published a report that highlighted how easy and cheap it is to purchase manipulative services. Additionally, persistent actors, like Russia, continue to engage in such activity, and not only on social platforms.
Let me give you a recent example. The pro-Kremlin media, led by the Russian officials, are spreading multiple contradictory disinformation narratives to obscure the facts about the explosion of ammunition depot in the Czech Republic.
The Czech government is accused of a smear campaign against Russia (including the Sputnik V vaccine and Rosatom), and of acting on orders of the US. The spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has claimed that the statement of Czech government was aimed at distracting attention from an alleged CIA coup in Belarus.
So you see, we need to do more.
I will start by stating that clearly tougher regulation of the online amplification channels is needed. We tried self-regulation and that served a purpose. But it is not enough. The tech sector cannot only self-police itself; no other sector does.
This is why we proposed more enforceable obligations, high standards of transparency and increased responsibility of digital players with the Digital Services Act. The Act will also clarify the rules for taking down illegal content, and at the same time offer protection for fundamental rights for users online.
Then, I proposed in December last year the European Democracy Action Plan, with a comprehensive policy on countering disinformation, which includes ambitious proposals on how we can strengthen our framework to tackle foreign information manipulation and interference. It highlights the urgency with which we – the EU and our partners – need to address these threats in a coherent and effective manner.
This includes a new Disinformation Pact that we are working on.
End of May the Commission will come forward with a comprehensive guidance that will outline how we see this Pact. Once the Digital Services Act is adopted, it will allow for creation of a co-regulatory scheme to ensure transparency, regulatory oversight and accountability of online platforms.
Our guidance will encourage current and future signatories of the Code to strengthen their commitments in order to mitigate the risks linked to the spread of disinformation and will define a robust monitoring system. The Code will also remain a living instrument, adjustable to technological, market and legislative developments.
But we cannot only rely on this work with social media platforms.
The Commission will also propose legislation on transparency of sponsored content in a political context (‘political advertising’, one of the key vectors for disinformation).
We are also aiming to strengthen media freedom and media pluralism. Independent media play an important role in the fight against disinformation and against the manipulation of the democratic debate by providing citizens with reliable information. This includes measures to improve the safety of journalists and to curb the abusive use of SLAPPs – lawsuits against public participation.
Another core element is to develop and strengthen our toolbox to be able to impose costs on the purveyors of disinformation. We are working on this together closely with HRVP Borrell.
And I must emphasise that the European Democracy Action Plan focuses on cooperation with partner countries and international organisations to build capacity and exchange best practices in countering electoral threats.
Since online interference in EU elections can be launched from anywhere, in particular from countries with weaker regulatory and monitoring capacities, it is in our strategic interest to support the efforts of our partners in building resilience to the online challenges, and exchange best practices on developing secure digital environment for elections.
As a concrete example, we extended the mandate of Election Observation Missions to the observation of online campaigns. These missions now make recommendations on the strengthening of regulatory capacity in this area to ensure that electoral rules are not violated online.
Let me assure you – we do not aim to, nor can we, do this in isolation. We believe that a whole-of-society approach is necessary if we want to have an effective framework in place. We are therefore committed to working with relevant stakeholders on these ideas, including from partner countries, civil society and private industry.
One of our key partners on the institutional level is NATO. Our cooperation has intensified significantly, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. I had a chance to meet NATO’s Secretary General Stoltenberg and deputy Geoană to discuss these issues.
We face many of the same challenges and have increased both political and day-to-day contacts to respond more effectively to ‘the infodemic’ and foreign information manipulation and interference. And we have even jointly commissioned a study on strengthening societal resilience against disinformation from the NATO StratCom Centre of Excellence.
With challenges to the information space being the same for both EU and NATO, and 21 countries being part of both blocks, I am sure that we will do more ‘together’ in the future.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Our times call for decisive actions to support democratic processes. They call for strong steps to restore people’s trust in democracy.
I am convinced that these actions will only be effective if we are united, have clear objectives and strong political will to raise public awareness.
To achieve this goal we must merry policy and communication to work together – both are an integral part of the necessary response.
The ‘infodemic’ is testing our approach. It has also been a learning experience and we will build on useful insights in the years to come as we implement the Democracy Action Plan.
I already talked about policy response, so let me conclude on the communication front and looking ahead in practical terms.
On the basis of this recent experience, I see three main avenues of work, for the now and for the future: (1) monitoring and detection; (2) analysis; 3) response.
First, continuous tracking and monitoring of social media and media discourse on issues relevant to democracy in the EU, in coordination with intelligence and cyber teams, to see how information spreads.
This is a fast-moving area. This is why we should make sure we are all on the same page when it comes to pooling our knowledge on the spread and evolution of disinformation.
Working together brings me to my second point on quick comprehensive analysis on what is ‘out there’ in the information space. As misleading information grows, we need to be selective in focusing only on potentially harmful narratives and to calibrate our responses. This will require a common language and approach.
Finally, with these foundations in place, we can get better at knowing when and how to fight back, which involves targeted proactive communication. We cannot abandon groups of people that have shown to be more susceptible to disinformation narratives. On the contrary, we have to engage with them to show that there are different stories out there.
As you see, the Action Plan has a holistic approach to the issue: from strengthening media freedom and pluralism to increasing transparency, improving the existing EU’s toolbox for countering foreign interference, overhauling the Code of Practice on Disinformation into a regulatory framework for online platform, to promoting media literacy in societies.
If the approach is comprehensive, the objective is precise: make our democracies in the EU more resilient and restore the trust.
We feel that this is an important part in safeguarding our democracies, our societies and everyone within the EU. And we remain committed to working with partners around the globe, who are grappling with the same challenge.
With every new case, with every report and exposed disinformation attempt, I think we are becoming more aware and as a result less naïve. This helps us to build political confidence needed to coin all the research, ideas and progress done by civil society and disinformation experts in different institutions.
I know there are many of you here and I just want to tell you ‘big thank you for your hard work’. This is not going to go unnoticed and I promise you that on political level you can count on me to build alliances and step up our response so it matches the significant level of threat.