DW Global Media Forum session on information control in the European public sphere

The latest virtual session of this year’s Global Media Forum discussed the "Battle for influence – the media’s role in a European public sphere." The panelists were EU Vice-President Vera Jourová, Tobias Schmid, director of the Media Authority of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and Herman Wasserman, director of the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
The EU’s rapid expansion in recent decades has had an impact on the political discourse and media coverage in most member countries. However, the civil society keeps discussing European topics in relation with domestic issues. National approaches to European or global problems remain the go-to solution at a time when nationalism, patriotism and populism are gaining strength. Experts are calling for a European public sphere, particularly in the digital realm, for this is where transnational democratic discourse can confront the propaganda and disinformation spread by authoritarian states and radical groups.

Asked by DW presenter Ben Fajzullin who was infiltrating the media, Jourová said: "I am thinking more about who is infiltrating the public space with toxic information and an avalanche of lies and our phantasmagoric ideas which we, the people, have a tendency to believe. In fact we are speaking about infiltration through disinformation which is not always easy to identify. But we have techniques to do it. We have people who work on it in the Commission and in the member states. We have platforms such as Facebook and Google who have good insight, good information about what’s happening in their systems."

The EU commissioner said that disinformation "is produced in a coordinated manner with a very clear target, which is the goal to distract the society, to attack the institutions by decreasing the trust of the people at our institutions. So we speak about something which is not only a battle in the field of freedom of speech, but also has a security aspect."

Jourová announced that "this year, the European Commission will work on two pieces of legislation. One is the Digital Services Act, which addresses the problem of illegal content. And this is neither disinformation nor misinformation. This is terrorist content. This is extremism. This is child pornography. This is hate speech. The second piece of work will be the European Democracy Action Plan, where we will try to calibrate and define very well what’s the difference between misinformation and disinformation. (…)  We will focus on more transparency. We will focus on the channels, on the behavior of the protagonists and also on the algorithms."

Jourová said that "the Russian Federation spends more than one billion euro a year on state-run media, which includes media operating globally and frequently spreading disinformation.” She mentioned by name Russia Today and Sputnik and “the famous troll factory, which has been active before very important elections, such as the presidential elections in the U.S. in 2016."

Tobias Schmid said that disinformation needed yet to be defined and then laws to be passed and enforced. "We’ve got to take care that the action against disinformation is not destroying freedom of expression. (…) We’ve got to find a balance between securing the stable democratic systems we have in Europe and protecting the freedom of expression."

He said that the media authorities were "enforcing the law, but not designing it. As a regulator, I can only use the legal framework I have and forward this information," adding that "it’s not a solution to just ask companies to implement standards. They are supportive and I like it. But that’s not the solution." Schmid said that disinformation is a phenomenon that’s been an issue for several years. "The European Commission took action so we have taken the first steps. We have done the monitoring and now there comes the next step, and that’s the normal procedure."

Herman Wasserman stressed that "people have high levels of anxiety at the moment. In this context, people are often willing to grasp at straws when somebody promises a miracle cure or when there is a conspiracy theory about who is promoting and spreading the virus. I think when people are anxious, then they are more likely to believe these theories."

He believes that to counter misinformation, "the regulation by platforms like Twitter and Facebook and so on, these are important. (…) And media literacy campaigns are very important. We have to try and understand what people’s social and cultural conditions and environments are that are conducive to the growing and the sharing of this misinformation."

To Wasserman, to empower citizens to make their own decisions is to make them more aware of and critical towards information "and less willing to share information unless they have verified it."

Watch the discussion on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/dw.gmf/

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