Between 23 and 26 May 2019, European citizens voted to elect their representatives to the European Parliament, shaping the political landscape and the appointment of the EU institutions’ leaders.
The Romanian Presidency of the EU Council has made a priority the need for streamlined and sustained action to protect free and democratic EU elections. Combating disinformation and increasing EU capacity to deter and respond to cyber-attacks are also regarded as key elements in securing the electoral process.
Mass disinformation campaigns and malicious cyber activities, including attacks on the electoral infrastructure, are increasingly aiming to discredit and undermine the electoral processes and our democracies, while polarizing societies.
The EU institutions and Member States have important, complementary roles to play, each in the remit of its competence, in protecting democratic processes. This requires concerted efforts by the EU and the Member States, with support from civil society, industry and online platforms. The response must be comprehensive, with a focus on both the internal and the external dimension of the addressed threats.
In February 2019, the Council and its Member States adopted conclusions on securing free and fair European elections. They welcomed the Commission proposal amending the Regulation on European political parties and foundations, adopted by co-legislators in the meantime. They also welcomed the Joint Action Plan against disinformation. The Council Conclusions also set out a comprehensive approach in order to protect the European elections from interference such as cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns from inside and outside the EU. A comprehensive approach eliminates loopholes, while all strands of action and all actors are closely connected. To achieve this objective, the Conclusions identified actions to be taken, and that have been implemented in the last few months:
- holding regular meetings of the European election cooperation network in which Member States share expertise and good practices while jointly identifying threats;
- setting up and launching the Rapid Alert System where national contact points in Member States share information rapidly on disinformation campaigns;
- enhancing strategic communication dedicated to European values and policies;
- strengthening the European media ecosystem, by facilitating networks of independent fact-checkers;
- promoting media and digital literacy, with awareness-raising activities to protect the integrity of the electoral process, in partnership with the private sector and civil society;
- assessing cyber threats in the electoral context and the measures to address them to preserve the integrity of the electoral system;
- calling on social media platforms to invest in resources for dealing in a responsible and accountable manner with election-related online activities; meanwhile, the European Council in March called for the full implementation of the Code of Practice;
- and finally, among this set of actions, cooperating with relevant international actors.
The Council and its Member States also called on online platforms and Member States to intensify their efforts in promoting transparency in election-related online activities. Online platforms have to invest the necessary resources to deal with election-related online activities in a responsible, accountable and consistent manner.
In order to contribute to the efforts of countering disinformation, the Romanian Presidency of the EU Council has completed a mapping exercise to identify the actions undertaken at the national level which demonstrated the significant efforts made by Member States to combat disinformation. Through the mapping exercise, the Presidency has gathered relevant information and identified some common trends, approaches and challenges, such as:
- The approach to tackle disinformation varies greatly across Member States.
- Ways of combating disinformation differ among Member States and depend on the human resources deployed and the technology used.
- Definitions of “disinformation” used at national level are, in general, kept broad. The main difficulty lies in the identification which information is false, and whether acting on it could be considered harmful to freedom of expression.
- On average, the perception of the threat level in the society is assessed as lying between medium to low.
- The main topics of disinformation campaigns concern the exploitation of ‘wedge issues’ such as migration, terrorism, the EU and the role of the Member States within the EU, the Euro-Atlantic architecture, climate change, religious and ethnic tensions, or health issues. Member States distinguish between different types of disinformation campaigns: those based on purely fabricated news and those based on half-truths, which are more difficult to refute.
- The most common challenges are: striking the right balance between freedom of speech and countering disinformation; the lack of coordination at national level, the low media literacy among the general public, a lack of understanding of the nature of the problem, the different exposure of certain vulnerable groups.
In order to raise awareness and to asses and give guidance on the actions and measures needed at EU level, the Romanian Presidency organized multiple discussion at the level of the ministers (in the format of the General Affairs, External Affairs and Education, Culture, Sports and Youths Councils), that provided a strong impetus for further work. In view of this, the subject was tackled at the level of specific working parties, where the implementation of the Action Plan against disinformation and of the Commission package on securing free and fair elections was discussed for ensuring coherence.
Also, multiple events were organized, both in Bucharest and Brussels, with the participation of representatives of governments, industry, civil society and online platforms, to raise awareness regarding the phenomenon of disinformation and to exchange ideas on how to better cooperate in tacking this challenge.
As called for in the European Council Conclusions from March 2019, the Romanian Presidency, in cooperation with the European Commission and the High Representative, prepared a report on countering disinformation and the lesson learnt from the European elections, in order to inform the leaders on the way forward in enhancing resilience and countering hybrid threats, including disinformation.