Opening speech of Vice-President Věra Jourová at the conference “Disinfo Horizon: Responding to Future Threats” - EU monitor

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Wednesday, July 8, 2020
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Opening speech of Vice-President Věra Jourová at the conference “Disinfo Horizon: Responding to Future Threats”

Source: European Commission (EC) i, published on Thursday, January 30 2020.

I am very happy to see you here, experts on fighting disinformation and online manipulation, in one place.

I believe that the results are more important than the process itself, but all of you who are in this room know that shaping the European response to disinformation was not a walk in the park, to use a euphemism.

I was a big supporter of a European response on the challenge of disinformation in the previous mandate, and I woul like to thank today the experts sitting also in this room, from the EEAS's task forces, from the Commission, for your hard work and dedication over the years.

We have always said that to counter disinformation we have to work together, all the actors, including the guests of today's conference. We wouldn't be where we are today without you and I will not be able to do what I want to do without you. So, you also deserve a big ‘thank you.'

I can only be grateful to President von der Leyen of putting me in charge of designing the European Democracy Action Plan as a response to threats to our democracies, including disinformation and election interference.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Not a week goes by without a new evidence from the media or academia showing how serious threats to democracy disinformation and related forms of external interference pose.

The Road to Unfreedom by T. Snyder, the reports by the Atlantic Council, the University of Oxford's Computational Propaganda Research or the regular product of our East StratComm. This is not even a wake up call - this is a call to arms.

Disinformation is not simple, on the contrary - it is constantly evolving and complex. We have seen it used across different issues: migration, health, climate change debate, suppressing participation in the electoral process, and more.

There are different motivations of those who do this: economic or political and there is a myriad of state and non-state actors with diverse tools and manipulation techniques.

This is serious.

As a person who grew up in a communist regime, I know what it means to grow up surrounded by lies and manipulation. Every day we heard that bad is good, that less is more, that democracies are our enemies, that oppression is freedom.

It was one of the reasons why people of Central and Eastern Europe chose democracy.

And there was this blessed time when we thought the fight was over. That history ended and democracy will not only prevail but also spread. Today we know that it was wishful thinking on our side. Democracy is not a given, and we have to fight for it if we want to preserve it.

Disinformation and foreign interference are a soft underbelly of our democracy, because they attack one of our dearest values - freedom of speech and the right to information.

There are specific external actors - namely Russia, and increasingly China - that are actively using disinformation and related interference tactics to undermine European democracy, and will continue doing so until we demonstrate that we will not tolerate this aggression and interference.

They have weaponised manipulation, because they are smart and wanted to attack us where it will hurt. This is well illustrated in cases such as the downing of the MH-17 aircraft, the use of chemical weapons in the Salisbury attack or lately in attempting to paint Poland as a perpetrator of World War II and absolve the Soviet Union of any responsibility.

If there is one thing I would like you to remember from today it is this: we will fight back and defend ourselves. We will provide political leadership, more funding and creativity and take on these difficult issues.

Maybe you will think I am exaggerating, but I cannot help it. I have to share with you what I heard on Monday in Auschwitz during the Commemoration of the liberation of the German concentration camp.

One of the survivors, Mr Turski, gave a moving speech, not so much about the past, but about presence and maybe the future.

Mr Turski was explaining the anthology of Auschwitz - that it crept up, pattered with small steps, that it didn't suddenly descend from the sky. It was a product of lack of reaction to small steps from society and authorities. According to Mr Turski it was a product of indifference: to historical lies, to the past distorted for today's political needs, to the discrimination of minorities.

In response to that another Holocaust survivor, Roman Kent, coined the eleventh commandment - “thou shalt not be indifferent”.

I cannot help but see a parallel with what is happening today. Our democracy will be lost if we will be indifferent.

We are at the beginning of the new mandate and I want to promise to you - we will not be indifferent when others attack us with manipulation and disinformation.

You know we are not starting from scratch.

We have the Action Plan against Disinformation, we are getting better at detecting and countering disinformation. We have set up a Rapid Alert System among the EU institutions and Member States to facilitate the sharing of data and assessments of disinformation campaigns and enable alerts on disinformation threats in real time.

We have pushed the digital industry to sign up to the Code of Practice on Disinformation for online platforms and the advertising sector.

We have started working on media literacy.

But of course we wouldn't be here if this was enough. You know it is not.

In our efforts to counter disinformation, we need to enlist the whole of civil society, including media, academia and fact-checkers. This is why we have funded with 2.5 mln euro a digital service infrastructure, the so-called European Digital Media Observatory, to support cooperation between fact checkers and academia.

This is why for the first time we have proposed the Creative Europe Programme 2021-2027 to support quality journalism with more than 60 mln Euro.

As I mentioned to you, I am designing the European Democracy Action Plan. I have some ideas I wanted to share with you today, also for the first time in this new mandate.

The European Democracy Action Plan will be the response to numerous challenges to our democracy; but it should be broader than fighting disinformation alone. I want it to achieve clear goals: strengthen the media sector, make platforms more accountable and protect our democratic process.

I want to take time and gather evidence. We are assessing the Code of Practice, we are preparing the election report and they will inform my further steps.

But as a result I want our efforts against organised manipulation and disinformation to be more mature. We need to help creating digital ecosystem that will be able to defend and promote democracy.

For me it is clear that to achieve this, to achieve a healthy, balanced use of technology you will also need some degree of regulation, in particular addressed to the platforms.

I want the platforms that have contributed to breaking things - to fix them. We need to push them to become more accountable and responsible.

To give you some specific example that I think should be addressed in the Action Plan: political advertising. We have a lack of clarity and legal certainty on this in the market. We are dealing with very precise targeting based on our behaviour. But there is a lack of transparency: how content is channelled to us; who owns the algorithms.

But the plan should go beyond platforms and address the issues of media freedom and media pluralism, access to data by researchers and foreign interference.

We are actually increasingly concerned about disinformation by actors within Member States. Some campaigns are driven for profit, some others by ‘useful idiots'. So my aim is also to increase the cost of malign disinformation campaigns. Today, it is simply too cheap. Follow-the-money has always been a successful approach and I think we should do the same when we tackle organised and malicious manipulation.

But to fight disinformation effectively, we need more than just clarity on political ads and more than platforms alone. Lying is a problem, but the bigger problem is that we believe in those lies. We need to raise awareness about how disinformation works and invest in media literacy.

And the ultimate answer to the threat lies not with the platforms but in the society - with media, civil society and people who are empowered through education and media literacy.

Conclusion

You know better than I that to do this will not be easy. You know that one of the main objective of our enemies is not to convince us to their facts, but undermine credibility and show that democracy is no better that other regimes. This is not a new method. Let me quote Hannah Arendt here: The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.”

A bulk of disinformation efforts aim at exactly that: to blur the lines, to polarise, to make us indifferent.

So, I count on you, on your ideas what should be in the Plan. I want to be daring, but realistic. We need practical solutions, but solutions that go into the heart of the matter.

In case I was not clear - this was a call for help.

Thank you so much and enjoy the conference.