Misinformation, the big European problem

These five years of European legislature that now end have been nothing less than those of the 'Brexit' and Trump's victory in the United States and that of Macron in France; those of the migratory crisis and the rise of national populism. In addition to the attempted coup in Catalonia, a matter of less international impact than they would like their alleged perpetrators. However, despite all these events, if I have to choose what has really marked this period, I would say that it has been disinformation. A more appropriate and far-reaching term than 'fake news'.

Misinformation has had a role, not at all minor, in all the events that I mentioned. The 'brexit' and Trump's victory would have been unthinkable without her. France came out unscathed by the hair. The European national populism, from Budapest to Rome, feeds on it. And the Catalan case has touched us closely enough so that some clarification is necessary.

The misinformation was experienced at a time as a security crisis, especially when it was seen that it was propitiated by foreign governments not too friendly as the one presided over by Vladimir Putin from Moscow. We turned to the experts and explained that it was a new form of hybrid warfare whose goal was to take advantage of the liberal democracies as if they were weak points: freedom of expression facilitated the spreading of hoaxes that divided society and undermined the trust in institutions.

We started later to worry about the role of social networks, which led us to review the way we looked at the platforms that have become part of our daily lives. We learned that the new digital ecosystems are a propitious field for the dissemination of disinformation, and that the data that we give in a completely innocent way in exchange for photos of kittens reveal more of us than our closest friends know.

This led us to understand the extent to which misinformation endangered the foundations of liberal democracy. The objective of the disseminator is not to deceive, but to make citizens give up knowing the truth, throw in the towel in understanding the facts and engage in their tribal prejudices. Without the common certainty that it is possible to share a factual ground, there is no hope of reaching the minimum consensus that makes democratic coexistence possible. Nothing less than this is what is at stake.

I can affirm that the European Union has acted. By becoming aware of the problem, a group of experts was launched with agility that analyzed a tremendously complex problem and prepared a report that reflected this complexity and recommended avoiding options that put freedom of expression at risk. Then, the European Union developed a plan that is already in force and that focuses on four areas: provide resources to the External Action Service to improve the detection of misinformation, establish a Rapid Alert System that obliges national governments to inform if an attack is perceived, collaborate with digital platforms including the signing of a Code of Good Practices, and improve the capacities of citizens to avoid being victims of misinformation and knowing how to behave with criteria and security in the digital environment.

It will be enough? Probably not, insofar as there are threats that never disappear. Misinformation has always existed, it has just now taken new forms and has become more dangerous than one might have expected. Our relationship with authoritarian states such as Russia, China or Venezuela – places of origin of many of the hoaxes that invade us – may improve, but it will never be idyllic. The tensions will continue and however much we enable mechanisms, it is likely that the technology will provide new ways of cheating, such as the so-called 'deep fake'.

The upcoming European elections will be a test of fire to assess our resistance to misinformation and cyber attacks. A significant alteration in the electoral results would suffice in only one of the twenty-eight Member States that would prevent them from being able to validate them so that the blockade of the entire EU could take place, since the European Parliament could not be established. The computer systems that collect information from the tables could be vulnerable. It would not be necessary that this hypothetical interference favored one or the other suspiciously. Imagine, for example, a 'Saramago scenario': an inexplicable high percentage of blank votes. There is no anticipated reaction to such a circumstance. The danger increases with governments that are admirers and express collaborators of Russia, like Hungary or Italy. In Spain, obtaining and disseminating the provisional results of the European elections for the first time will not be done by Indra, but by Scytl, a company of Catalan origin without previous experience in these elections with its own characteristics. Dystopia? They also looked like the 'brexit' or Trump's victory.


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