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Empowering journalism should be at the core of Europe's fight against disinformation

With all the elections this year, especially the European Parliament elections set for June 6-9, 2024, concerns regarding the disruptive influence of disinformation campaigns have heightened, leading to intensified efforts to mitigate the risk. Disinformation is an old issue, but it has resurged in a more complex form due to the evolution of digital platforms and artificial intelligence technologies, which enable the manipulation of content and exploit individuals' vulnerabilities. These technologies also enable the rapid, large-scale, and even personalised distribution of false and misleading content. However, the issue at hand is not solely a technological one. In fact, it extends beyond just disinformation campaigns to the deeper fallibilities of today’s information environments and is closely intertwined with political dynamics.

An intentional creation and spread of manipulated content for political and other gains, is still predominantly human activity, even if facilitated by technology. Research continuously finds evidence of the use of disinformation by politicians or states to achieve certain domestic- or foreign-political goals. This presents the fundamental paradox of the disinformation challenge: those tasked with designing and implementing measures to enhance the integrity of the information environment are frequently the key actors of disinformation campaigns. This paradox is compounded by the reality that politicians in power, who have the obligation to provide an enabling environment for independent journalism, are often the very source of threats and intimidation to journalists. This has been continuously recorded by the Council of Europe’s Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists.

The dual pressures facing journalism today—traditional risks to its independence and economic viability, paired with new digital challenges—give rise to yet another paradox that defines today's information environment, and thus democracies. While the role of journalism has perhaps never been more crucial in guiding citizens through the chaos of information disorder and holding the powerful accountable, it has never been weaker both economically and professionally. Structural shifts in the information landscape, marked by the emergence of powerful new actors who wield considerable influence over the distribution and monetization of journalism, present significant challenges to the traditional watchdog role fulfilled by professional journalists.

The risk of disinformation cannot be solved solely by reactive measures of detecting and debunking disinformation, especially not in the intense period prior to elections. The solution is to be sought in a comprehensive set of measures that include fact-checking, but above all greater transparency and accountability of digital platforms and other technology companies, systematic investment in the development of media literacy, and strengthening of journalism as “voices of reference” when acting in accordance with professional standards. The European Union's approach to tackling disinformation - first outlined in 2018 - is on such track.

After years of relying on self-regulation by leading online platforms, whose effectiveness was difficult to measure largely due to these companies' limited data access, and following a decade of monitoring risks to media freedom and pluralism revealing systemic issues shared across the EU and inadequately addressed at the member state level, the EU has proposed stronger legal instruments. As of 17 February 2024, the Digital Services Act (DSA), an EU regulation aimed at creating safer digital space and increasing transparency and accountability, especially of the largest digital platforms, entered a full application. In early May 2024, the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) entered into force, a pioneering attempt to safeguard media and journalistic freedom both from traditional (political and economic) undue influences and from the overwhelming power of digital platforms.

The implementation of these important EU regulations will heat up during the mandate of the new European Commission. Regarding EMFA, the key factor will be the political will at the national level to ensure its thorough and effective implementation, as well as strong EU-level coordination on safeguarding journalistic content in content moderation by leading online platforms. The DSA contains a distinct set of challenges, mainly stemming from the regulation's view of disinformation as a systemic risk that technology companies with more than 45 million EU users per month are tasked with identifying and addressing. However, these companies may lack sensitivity and a peculiar understanding of the fundamental rights and values upheld within the EU. Being under great pressure to respond to disinformation, platform actions may, in some cases, result in over-removals due to their lack of contextual understanding.

The powers to supervise platforms and enforce these provisions of the DSA are with the European Commission. However, the Commission will need to collaborate closely with designated national authorities as disinformation, albeit a global phenomenon, is strongly nationally contextualised. Its impact varies based on national vulnerabilities and factors like legal traditions, media literacy levels, political climate, trust in institutions, and the quality of media and journalism in a country. Furthermore, member states lack a unified understanding and approach to disinformation. In some countries, it is perceived as legal but harmful content, while others deem it illegal, particularly in the context of elections, and may even criminalise it under certain circumstances. This may affect the harmonised implementation of the DSA.

Given the sensitive nature of this area, where freedom of expression meets with harmful speech that can have numerous negative consequences on democracy and society, the actions of platforms should be subject to regular public scrutiny. Ensuring adequate public oversight and independent monitoring of the implementation of both the EMFA and the DSA will be crucial in the coming period.

Iva Nenadić is a Research Fellow of the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF) and an Assistant Professor in media policy, platform governance, and computational propaganda at the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Political Science.

All opinions expressed in the blog section are solely of the authors.