#DFRLabCoffeeBreak with Věra Jourová

European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová spoke to the DFRLab about COVID-19 disinfo

(Source: DFRLab)

In the latest installment of #DFRLabCoffeeBreak, the DFRLab welcomed Věra Jourová, European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency. She spoke with DFRLab Senior Fellow Jakub Kalenský about the Commission’s latest Joint Communication to protect European Union citizens from COVID-19 disinformation and how this new initiative fits within the Commission’s long-term digital regulatory plan. Below is a transcript of the conversation.

Jakub Kalenský: Hello, my name is Jakub Kalenský, and I work in the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab where we identify, explain, and expose disinformation. And to explain disinformation, we have a brilliant guest because I have the privilege to be joined today by the Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, previously the EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, one of the Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of year 2019. And [she is] also one of the politicians who gets targeted the most by Czech disinformation outlets. Dear Vice President, welcome.

Věra Jourová: Hello. Thank you very much for inviting me. I’m happy to be here with you.

Jakub Kalenský: Delighted to have you with us. You discussed COVID-related disinformation with us in the Atlantic Council just a few weeks ago. But as I remember from Brussels, you have been interested in disinformation and propaganda even before it became such a popular topic, already, at the beginning of the previous Commission back in 2014. What attracted you to this topic? Why do you why do you think it’s so urgent?

Věra Jourová: Well, it is urgent, because we see today the power of information and the power of disinformation. And in the previous mandate, I was dealing with the illegal content online, which was hate speech and terrorism and extremism, and it was a kind of easier topic, because I had a mantra “what is illegal offline has to be also illegal online.” We should not make any difference.

And for disinformation it’s more difficult to design the plan on how to tackle the problem, and how to fight it as disinformation, because we have to face the fact that this information may be immoral, but it’s not illegal. You know, I lived in a Communist Regime, and so this is a very big lesson not to create something like that. So, for me, the freedom of speech is absolute priority. But at the same time, I see that we must not be passive, and we must not just leave it like it is now, that the disinformation can influence the way the people live, the way people vote. That’s why we are going to focus on the protection of the elections.

And I said something about the power of information. Well for me, this is the power which makes the people, the informed people, more able to manage their own lives and to live in freedom and to be able of critical thinking. That’s the power of information based on facts. I would even say that is the power of the truth. But the power of disinformation is that it is forming or creating easy-to-manipulate crowds, because disinformation is working with the knowledge of the fears and anxiety of the people, and it is fueling these bad feelings.

Jakub Kalenský: So if I try to sum it up for you, it is about protecting the Freedom of Speech but also about protecting the Freedom of Information by keeping citizens safe from false information. It actually reminds me of a quote by our favorite infamous Czech author, Karel Čapek, who said that, “while violence deprives people of freewill, propaganda deprives them of free judgment.”

Let’s move to the most recent document that the EU produced that deals with disinformation: The Communication on Tackling COVID-related Disinformation. What do you consider to be the biggest achievement of this communication? What is the most promising part of it in your opinion? What could make the biggest difference? But also what do you think is lacking? Is there anything that could be added to this document?

Věra Jourová: I think the most promising is the title of it, because it is that getting the facts right, and I think that it is quite a core parameter of the document that we are more focusing on, rather bringing facts, arguments, and the experts’ information, and somehow minimizing and demoting the fake news and disinformation. It is more about the facts and there are several new things.

First of all, we openly named the main producers of disinformation that targeted against the EU from abroad. So we mentioned Russia and China based on very rich evidence, which our external action service has.

Second thing, we made a very concrete to-do list for the platforms. So, what we wanted from them was very — I would say — a simple thing to give the priority space for the trustworthy reliable information from the Ministries of Health and WHO [World Health Organization] and minimizing the impact of disinformation. And it was relatively easy to find such a mechanism because, for the COVID crisis, we can speak about some authorities, the bodies which are authorized to provide the people with the trustworthy information because this is a health-related issue. So that’s why we wanted this mechanism to work and we realized that the threat to health is too serious to just leave the disinformation to influence the people’s behavior. So, we wanted to be active and bring the reliable information to the people.

And the third thing: we want the platforms to monthly inform the public about the disinformation campaigns, which does not mean in the sense of informing the public about every little rumor or some — I don’t know — phantasmagoric ideas which are spread online. It has always been here, and we are not fighting against this kind of fake news. But we are fighting against the well-designed, intentionally designed, disinformation, which has the purpose to distract the society and to fuel the anxiety and fear in the society. And this is what we want the platforms to inform the public about — about who? What is the network? Who is the producer? What is the network which is used to spread such disinformation? What is the manipulative technique used and who are the target?

And we want the platforms to publish these reports in every language. In all the EU member states languages because we want all the people who understand what they see when they open Facebook or Google or other systems that there might be appearance of disinformation which has been identified as intentionally produced.

So I think this is a big step forward. I want some more transparency and this communication on COVID disinformation is just an intermediary step between today and the end of the year, when we will come with the European Democracy Action Plan.

Jakub Kalenský: If it were only up to you, is there anything that you would like to add do you consider something might be missing?

Věra Jourová: I am quite satisfied. I wanted this to be understandable. I wanted to have such a communication to explain that we care about the truth and truth matters. As always, these communications — because they do not involve or include the hard legislation and the sanctions — maybe they do not attract so much attention. But I think it was maximum we could have achieved, and we — as I said — this is just one step before other steps to be taken by the end of this year.

Jakub Kalenský: I will ask you one more measure. You know, President Von der Leyen said that those who spread disinformation harm the EU citizens. She said, “disinformation can cost lives.” What precisely is the EU doing against those actors that use disinformation for their political or economic gain?

Věra Jourová: Well, we had a very long debate with the platforms and with many experts on how to remove the financial incentives for those who want to benefit from disinformation, because one of the best features of this information is that it sells better than the facts and truth it is this. We have a lot of evidence showing that. Also, it’s flies much quicker than the “boring truth.”

But coming back to the financial incentives. We have to work further on the algorithms, or against the algorithms, which are used in the platform’s space to sell the products to consumers. Fair enough, that’s the business model which works. The micro-targeting, if it respects the GDPR, it’s quite acceptable for selling the products to consumers. But when it comes to selling the politicians to citizens in elections or pre-election campaigns, I think it’s a totally different story, and here the micro-targeting puts pressure on the people that are together in the bubbles. It’s something which is really detrimental for democracy and for the public debate.

I sometimes speak about the privatization of the public debate, which is a wrong thing before the elections, especially when the people should have access to different kind of opinions and different kinds of information from different parties and which compete for the votes of the voters. So we will work further on the model of the algorithms used in pre-election time.

We will look into the possibility of minimizing the impact of the of the bubbles, and I think that it is right time to do that because we had the lessons from the past. We already had the previous presidential campaign in 2016 and the Brexit referendum when the Cambridge Analytica methodology was used. And really, it’s a nightmare when you realize that the political marketeers have access to your private data and they can tailor the messaging on your likes and dislikes, fears and preferences. They have you fully, and it’s not the right thing to continue, or the right way to continue.

I think that we should work towards the digital tax for the EU, because we see a lot of negative things which are now influencing the life of the society in the EU, and we need to do some repairs. We need to invest in critical thinking and that in education, and in media literacy. We need to invest in, maybe also in the future, in fact checking. But the digital tax would help us to increase the budget for education, also maybe for culture too, to make the people more resilient and more informed — more able to sort out the information and many other things.

Jakub Kalenský: Right now, the European Commission has set a higher threshold for the social media platforms, but it seems that it’s limited just to the COVID-19 related disinformation. So will that threshold continue to apply on COVID-19 topics and content after this pandemic?

Věra Jourová: This communication is the first building block of this new Commission in the response to disinformation. But we didn’t start from the scratch. We had already mentioned by you the Code of Practice against disinformation. We had the Action Plan where we already started quite intensive cooperation with the platforms and especially the fact checking was already present and in the previous plans. So now we… After COVID, when the situation is relatively easier — I said it before that — in this kind of crisis, you have the authorities which have the information for the people, and you can refer to these authorities, and they should be able to defend their truth.

I have always said that to fight against disinformation, it’s not about censorship. It’s about more attention paid to the truth, to the facts, and to the arguments. And each sector which might be affected or attacked by disinformation should be able to proactively deliver the reliable information to the public. Now it is health.

The health sector still has a hell of a lot of work ahead, because the vaccination is now at the center of this information attacks. In Germany, we saw a decrease by 20 percent of the people who are willing to take the vaccination. In the last two months. So the sector of health has a plenty of work to defend their trustworthy reliable facts and information for the people. But we have other sectors. We will have the climate change policies. There will be a lot of disinformation also related to the prices of food or the prices of cars. You can imagine how easy it will be to fuel the uncertainty among the people in relation to the green policies. In the past and in the future, I am afraid we had, and we will have, a lot of disinformation against the migration policy and against migrants. We have a lot of it against minorities, and that should be every time somebody who will proactively work to deliver the facts and trustworthy information to the people. We have been very lazy. We are not defending the truth enough.

Jakub Kalenský: I couldn’t agree more with you.

Věra Jourová: So this is one feature which will appear, I am sure, in our plan to encourage the sectors to pay attention to this. But, at the same time, in the European Democracy Action Plan, we will not have such luxury of having one authority who will tell the people the facts because [during] the elections and pre-election campaign. It is always the competition more of opinions than the facts.

So we will have to be will be extremely careful not to come with any rules which will somehow affect the political campaign, the competition of visions and ideas, and we will be extremely careful about [not] giving the platforms more power than they already have.

So you cannot expect from me any censorship and any attribution of more tasks to the platforms. But that’s why we asked the platforms to outsource the fact-checking. I never wanted Mark Zuckerberg to be the only arbiter of the truth. And fortunately, he doesn’t want it neither. But we have to employ or deploy the capacities of fact checkers, of professional journalists, of researchers to do the trustworthy fact checking.

And there will be many other things in the European Democracy Action Plan related to political advertising online. We have to find some balanced truth and many other probably also new things. Next to that we will be working on the Digital Service Act, which will be focusing on illegal content, and that you can expect some legislation which will increase the responsibility of the platforms.

But coming back to the disinformation world, we will be extremely careful not to come with the regulation which could decrease the freedom of speech.

Jakub Kalenský: In this COVID-related information, you asked some new tasks from the platforms, like for example the monthly reporting. So in case it turns out that this was a good step. Can you imagine that you would try and ask the platforms to deliver such monthly reports also to non-COVID-related disinformation also to other disinformation?

Věra Jourová: We will see how it will develop. Now, we wonder what’s related to COVID for a very good reason: because we are still in the crisis. It’s a little relief, but we have to continue the work on this. But we will also see how the Digital Media Observatory works, because here we are opening a new platform that should [provide] updated information about the situation, and it could be a very practical hub of the several channels of information that will be contributing not only from the site of the platforms, but also from the side of the research. We will be contributing there, the fact checker somehow employed also, so it will be a new system, which should start or it already has started its work, and we will see whether it also can work as a sustainable solution for keeping the public informed. So, there will be some public layer which will guarantee the permanent flow of information for the people. So, we have to think over how this increased transparency will be facilitated.

Jakub Kalenský: Okay, Ms. Vice President. Thank you. Thank you very much for your time. It was a pleasure talking to you.

Věra Jourová: Thank you very much. Have a good day. Bye.


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