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EU case spotlights how to tackle fake news while protecting freedom of the press

The website EUvsDisinfo, designed to counter Russian information warfare, checks news stories and determines if they are fake or not. (Mainichi)

AMSTERDAM -- Determining what is fake news is no easy task, if a recent case in the European Union is any indication.

    An EU-run website designed to do just that made a wrongful determination that some Dutch media reports are fake. The decision drew a firestorm of criticism accusing the site operator of infringing upon freedom of the press, but the EU still maintains the site. The case raises an important question: How can authorities tackle fake news, which is feared to have the potential to affect national politics or international relations, while protecting basic freedoms?

    The controversy involves the "EUvsDisinfo" website, run by the European External Action Service East Stratcom task force, and Chris Aalberts, 40, a Dutch freelance journalist who also teaches at a university. The task force, which is under the European equivalent of Japan's Foreign Ministry, is countering Russian disinformation operations.

    In January of this year, Aalberts was surprised to find out that his article posted to TPO.nl, a eurosceptic web media, was labeled as fake news in the EUvsDisinfo database.

    "Two years had already passed since (the article was posted). We actually don't know how long it has been listed (in the database). We were just surprised," Aalberts told the Mainichi Shimbun.

    The story in question appeared on TPO.nl in November 2015. Back then in the Netherlands, a national referendum on the association agreement between the EU and Ukraine that was designed to strengthen political and economic relationships was being prepared. Aalberts wrote the article based on remarks of a Ukraine-based journalist who attended a rally organized by a Dutch think tank critical of the agreement, and reported the journalist's statement such as that "Impartial media do not exist in this country (Ukraine)."

    The EUvsDisinfo's verdict: "This article seemed to be only aimed at worsening the image of Ukraine before the Dutch referendum on the Association Agreement."

    According to the website, the task force running the website was set up after the EU heads of state and government stressed in March 2015 that it is necessary to challenge Russia's ongoing disinformation campaigns. The site examines reports to determine if they are true or fake, and once it determines that an article is false, it tweets on it and places the article in its database. The website says that it has confirmed more than 3,900 cases in 18 languages of "pro-Kremlin" fake news items.

    Aalberts filed a lawsuit against the EU in February of 2018 seeking the removal of his article from the database, saying that it was wrongfully determined as fake information. Two other plaintiffs joined the suit, including De Gelderlander, a Dutch newspaper in publication for 170 years whose article was also determined as fake. "Why should the media not be allowed to report on these opinions unfavorable to EU?" the plaintiffs argued.

    As soon as the suit was filed, the EU fully acknowledged that it made a mistake and announced it would have the articles deleted from the EUvsDisinfo database. Dutch media reported that one of the reasons for the misjudgment was "an error in translation." A spokesperson for the European External Action Service, to which the site's operator belongs, told the Mainichi Shimbun that the site did not have a Dutch language specialist when those articles in question were published from 2015 to 2016.

    Aalberts withdrew his suit following the EU reaction, but he nevertheless thinks that the site should be shuttered. "I would say that there were some translation errors, but I would also say that no research was done. They just thought that 'Oh, we got the message that some people thought this was fake, so let's assume it is fake," Aalberts said.

    Peter Jansen, editor in chief of De Gelderlander, responded to an email inquiry from the Mainichi, saying, "Fake news has been around all the time. I think it is important to inform the public of the role and the mission of the traditional media."

    These developments prompted the lower house of the Dutch parliament to pass a motion demanding the government urge the EU to close down EUvsDisnfo, arguing that the website intervenes in the freedom of the press and that it is not ideal for the EU or governmental organizations to make decisions on fake news.

    The Dutch government's reaction, however, is slow, and no similar moves in other EU countries are visible, as the EU sees the spread of fake news as "one of the largest threats," as European Council President Donald Tusk of Poland puts it. The European Eternal Action Service made it clear to continue the operation of EUvsDisinfo website.

    So why is the EU so sensitive about fake news? The answer is Russia. A turning point came in 2014 when Russia started actively intervening in Ukraine. Western media reported that Moscow dispatched people connected to the Kremlin to Ukraine to instigate the Ukraine public, while Russian outlets countered the coverage by introducing views of people close to their government.

    Russia is suspected of intervening in elections and encouraging the division of opinion in European countries and the United States by using online fake news. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) asserted that Russia tried to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections through cyberattacks with the intent on bringing victory to republican candidate Donald Trump. The U.S. Department of Justice indicted 13 individuals and three organizations from Russia in February 2018 on charges of illegally influencing U.S. presidential elections by spreading fake news or running advertisements designed to deepen political divisions in the U.S. In Europe, Russia allegedly intervened in the British referendum of June 2016 that decided Britain's departure from the EU.

    Facing the Russian threats, the EU had no choice but to adjust its security policy. Now the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the EU attach greater importance to countering so-called "hybrid warfare" where the manipulation of public opinion and intervention in elections are coupled with traditional military actions such as ground invasions.

    One perceived example of hybrid warfare is the attack on a former Russian intelligence officer in Britain using a deadly nerve agent. The British government determined that the nerve agent was Novichok developed by the former Soviet Union, and that the Russian government was involved in the attack. London shared with allies intelligence information used to make that judgment and successfully garnered international support for its position, triggering an unprecedented level of mass expulsion of Russian diplomats.

    A group of 17 Russia watchers belonging to European research institutes and think tanks criticized the Dutch parliament's move against EUvsDisinfo in their joint contribution to the online newspaper 'euobserver', arguing that "the site must be strengthened, not abolished." The website determined that some Russian media reports on the U.K. nerve agent attack were fake, and experts see it as useful to counter the Russian disinformation campaign.

    The EU intends to strengthen its efforts to counter fake news online. The European Commission instructed major information technology companies running social media services such as Twitter to put together a joint code of conduct regarding fake news and make efforts to identify and close accounts designed to disseminate fake news. The commission suggested the possibility of introducing legal restrictions if it determined that corporate efforts are not sufficient following a review to be conducted sometime in 2018.

    (Japanese original by Kosuke Hatta, Brussels Bureau)

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