European Union versus Disinformation – Pitfalls of an accountability approach on the internet
Author: Berry Groeneveld
The internet is wonderful. Never before in human history has the world been so connected and has information been so accessible. The internet does, however, have its drawbacks: Disinformation is disseminated easily. In this blogpost I analyze part of the European strategy to counter Russian disinformation, the potential impact it has on media outlets and what risks the strategy has from the epistemological perspective used by Frost-Arnold (2014).
You are fake news!
In 2015 the European Council set up the “East StratCom Task Force” in order to address disinformation campaigns by Russia. This task force launched a campaign: “European Union versus Disinformation” (EUvsDisinfo). On the campaign’s website disinformation reviews are published weekly and a database has been set up, containing 3500 messages that the task force has labeled as disinformation (EUvsDisinfo, 2018).
This labeling procedure proved imperfect. On March 8 2018 the task force removed three cases from the database after complaints by Dutch media outlets (EUvsDisinfo, 2018). The articles that were incorrectly labeled as disinformation all dealt with sensitive topics: the GeenStijl (2015) article was an opinion piece on a lecture that president Porosjenko of Ukraine gave at Leiden University. De Gelderlander (2015) wrote about the fact that a Russian rocket manufacturer did not agree with the conclusions of an inquiry into the MH17 tragedy, in which a passenger plane was most likely shot down by a rocket in Ukraine. The Post Online (2015) covered an event organized by Forum voor Democratie, a new right-wing party in the Netherlands. In the wake of this failure the Dutch parliament called for the abolition of the EUvsDisinfo campaign (NOS, 03-09-2018).
An Epistemological Perspective
Frost-Arnold (2014) first of all defines “Epistemic communities” as groups of people on the internet that are concerned with the acquisition of truthful knowledge. Media outlets can be seen as epistemic communities. It was already noted that disinformation is easy to spread through the internet. One of the reasons for this is the perceived anonymity that the users have. This is a threat to the epistemic integrity of the community. Because of this threat there have been calls for accountability mechanisms to be implemented. Frost-Arnold (2014) defines accountability mechanisms as “attempts to increase trustworthiness of agents” and she notes that, from a rational perspective, untrustworthy behavior should be detected and punished if it is to be avoided
Frost-Arnold (2014) focusses on strategies to shield internet users from false information and notes that accountability mechanisms imply that the agents in the epistemic community can’t discriminate between truth and falsehood adequately (quite a jarring thing to say about media outlets). Epistemic communities have two strategies to attain the goal of truthful knowledge: error avoidance and truth seeking, which can be in conflict with each other: complete error avoidance requires a strong filtering system, which filters out falsehoods, but also truths thus hampering the truth-seeking strategy.
Frost-Arnold (2014) distinguishes between two accountability mechanisms on the internet: the abandonment of anonymity and investigative accountability. I will focus on the latter because of its relevance to the EU strategy on disinformation.
Frost-Arnold (2014) names two ways in which the plausibility of a claim is assessed: it is weighed against background beliefs that the investigating actor holds and the number of times the claim has been repeated. Because the task force was explicitly created to combat Russian disinformation there may be a bias against stories covering Russia in a vaguely positive light, in the case of De Gelderlander story, merely mentioning disagreement in Russia with inquiry outcomes was enough to be labeled as spreader of disinformation. The diplomatic service of the European Union, which the task force falls under, explicitly states that the strategy is aimed at messages, not individual messengers (European External Action, 2017). That may be the intention of the strategy, but in practice this may pan out differently. By passing judgement on the products of media outlets the task force has a direct impact on the reputation of those outlets. Damaging the reputation of a media outlet not only impacts the public image of that outlet, but also the journalistic capacity of that outlet: Sources may be less willing to speak to journalists working for a known spreader of disinformation, for example. This situation creates some unhealthy incentives for a critical press.
It is true that investigative accountability can persuade actors to be truthful because of the adverse effects of an investigation, in the EU strategy that would be the reputational damage to media outlets. This strategy, according to Frost-Arnold (2014), costs a lot of resources and can have a dampening effect on speech on the internet. Media outlets might avoid covering a story that raises the suspicion of the task force, undermining the ideal of a critical media apparatus.
EUvsDisinfo (03-08-2018) Removal of three cases further to complaints by Dutch media
Retrieved from: https://euvsdisinfo.eu/.
European Union (2017) Questions and Answers about the East StratCom Task Force. Retrieved from: https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/2116/-questions-and-answers-about-the-east-stratcom-task-force_en
Frost-Arnold, K. (2014) Trustworthiness and Truth: The epistemic pitfalls of internet accountability, Episteme 11(1) pp. 63-81.
GeenStijl (2015) Live! GeenPeil-lezing Porosjenko aan Uni Leiden. Retrieved from: https://www.geenstijl.nl/4676801/27_november_president_porosjen/
De Gelderlander (2017) Buk-fabrikant verwerpt conclusies MH17. Retrieved from: https://www.gelderlander.nl/buitenland/buk-fabrikant-verwerpt-conclusies- mh17~ae0c17b5/
NOS (2018) Ook Ollongren wil nu af van Europese waakhond nepnieuws. Retrieved from: https://nos.nl/artikel/2221353-ook-ollongren-wil-nu-af-van-europese-waakhond-nepnieuws.html
The Post Online (11-19-2015) #Bruslog: Thierry Baudet is Neerlands belangrijkste expert over Oekraïne. Retrieved from: http://politiek.tpo.nl/2015/11/19/bruslog-thierry-baudet-is-neerlands-belangrijkste-expert-over-oekraine/