The EU is scrambling to keep the 2019 European Parliament election from being hit by disinformation campaigns and dubious political advertising.
With only a year to go and a fragmented elections system run by member countries, not by the EU, fears are growing that the election will be affected by fake news.
“To fight effectively disinformation campaigns and propaganda, there needs to be strategic communication done by EU and national authorities,” said Dita Charanzová, a Czech Liberal MEP. “I dont think the election commissions are well equipped and prepared.”
To find out how preparations are going, a meeting of Europes electoral officials has been scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.
The meeting “will be a useful exercise because I think [member countries] need to hear some of the best practices, or cases where countries and [their] legislation are ready for such situations,” Justice and Consumers Commissioner Věra Jourová said.
The gathering will focus on a range of issues, from the participation of voters with disabilities to remote voting and supporting underrepresented groups, according to an agenda seen by POLITICO.
But emerging issues will also be brought sharply into focus, such as how to prevent fake news from swaying the election or voters data from being used to target them, likely couched in a broader discussion on social media interference.
However, theres only so much that Brussels can do.
Jourová acknowledged that, when it comes to electoral law, “the EU has very weak competence.”
Instead, the Commission will try to use political communication and awareness-raising to jostle national election officials into investing in the right measures to secure the European vote.
“This is a much more profound political question about the balance between Brussels and the member states,” said Rasmus Nielsen, director of research for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
What needs to happen
Following concerns about Cambridge Analytica using Facebook data in campaigns, Jourová emphasized that securing elections, along with data protection rules and consumer legislation, should be priorities to prevent such an event from happening again.
That means countries need to share best practices about how to deal with the manipulation of political advertising and need to find effective tools to fight possible fraud and illegal data gathering.
Others think there is a broader issue of education and critical thinking: Voters need to be equipped with the skills to detect manipulation in the online world, while the press, preferably public broadcasters, need to have the resources to continue churning out quality content.
“Journalism is weakened by many European leaders, as we saw in Eastern European countries,” said Christophe Deloire, the head of Reporters Without Borders. “We do call on the true democratic member states to mobilize and defend the role of journalism in our societies and to find ways — they can be legal, they can be financial — to support this function.”
Commission guidance on disinformation, and communication, is expected Thursday to address the issue. A code of practice for platforms would be put in place in time for the elections and would advise platforms to be more transparent about how they rank certain kinds of news sources.
But the text wont be binding and will likely amount to a number of voluntary measures. Concrete measures at the European level, especially in the form of legislation, are likely to befew and far between.
All the EU can do is hope election officials in Europe get the message and step up to the plate, while using limited resources to bolster some positive pro-European messages.