I thank the committee for inviting a representative of the European Commission to this important event. I am head of the unit responsible for media convergence and social media policy at DG Connect. Respect for democracy, fundamental rights and the rule of law are core values of the European Union. They bind us together and underpin the functioning of our institutions. President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has announced that protecting European democracy will be a priority of the new Commission and underlined we must do more to protect our democratic processes and institutions from external interference. Disinformation poses major challenges to our democracy as new technologies can be used, notably through social media, to disseminate disinformation on a scale and at a speed that are unprecedented. They can create personalised information spheres and become powerful echo chambers for disinformation campaigns, polarise the public debate, and create tensions in society. Media manipulation, however, and the strategic use of disinformation are not the exclusive prerogative of foreign actors. Domestic actors, too, can exploit digital technology to interfere in electoral processes and, increasingly, to manipulate policy debates in areas such as climate change, migration, public security, health and finance.
While the conduct of free and fair elections is primarily a responsibility of member states, the cross-border dimension of efforts to manipulate democracy, as well as the importance of joined-up efforts to address such threats, make a European approach necessary. What affects one member state affects us all. The Commission, along with other EU institutions, has put in place a robust framework for co-ordinated actions against disinformation, with full respect for European values and fundamental rights. We often mention free speech, freedom of association, press freedom, and pluralism, which are fundamental principles that need to be kept in mind.
Our work on combating disinformation has evolved over three major, interlinked initiatives. Last December, the Commission adopted an action plan against disinformation, a plan that builds on the communication on tackling online disinformation and was adopted in April 2018. Furthermore, in September 2018, the Commission put forward a comprehensive election package, setting out a variety of measures, with a focus on what were then the upcoming elections to the European Parliament.
Broadly speaking, the work carried out in recent months centred on the strength of action. First, we improved the EU capability to identify and counter disinformation via our strategic communication task forces and the EU hybrid fusion cell, which operates within the European External Action Service. Second, we supported member states by setting up a rapid alert system to facilitate the exchange of information between member states and the EU institutions. The system has become a reference point for national authorities and a mechanism for strength and co-operation with platforms. It also links up and facilitates co-operation with other international partners, not least the G7 and NATO. Third, in the run-up to the European Parliament elections, we closely monitored the implementation of the code of practice on disinformation, to which the major online platforms signed up in October 2018. The platforms, in particular Facebook, Google and Twitter, were subject to a programme of targeted monitoring that required them to report each month from January to May, inclusive, on the progress made on the implementation of their commitments under the code.
The monitoring was carried out in co-operation with the audiovisual authorities of the member states, the ERGA. It focused on those actions that held particular relevance to the integrity of elections, namely, actions to disrupt the advertising and democratisation incentives for purveyors of disinformation; to ensure the integrity of the platform services against inauthentic behaviour, including fake accounts and malicious bots; and to ensure the transparency of political advertising. In the final respect, searchable political advertising libraries were created and they resulted, for the first time insofar as online political advertising is concerned, in a better view of the identity of the sponsors, the amount spent and the basic targeting criteria used in the campaigns.
The fourth strand of actions included a number of initiatives directed to improve societal resistance to disinformation.
One of the aspects on which I wish to focus is the effort to promote media literacy, which is important to enable citizens to evaluate the credibility of information they encounter online and access alternative points of view when they navigate on social networks. In the long run, media literacy initiatives may prepare users of online platforms and social media to better understand the effects of disinformation and the malicious actors with which they may be confronted.
We are facilitating the creation of a European multidisciplinary community of fact checkers and academic researchers. The programme will arrive in 2020. The Commission has supported investments in new technologies for content verification and network analysis through social media. It has also launched a new platform, the Social Observatory for Disinformation and Social Media Analysis, SOMA, to facilitate networking, knowledge exchange and best practices among independent fact checkers. The Commission will follow this up by founding a new digital infrastructure entitled the European Digital Media Observatory, which will offer tools and networking possibilities to link fact checkers and academic researchers to improve their understanding of the phenomenon and to exercise better oversight of the dynamics that disinformation shows online.
Disinformation is a multifaceted phenomenon, which requires a multidimensional response. Our preliminary view is that all the efforts I mentioned have contributed to narrow the space for malicious activities online. On 29 October, we published a report that takes stock of the self-assessment reports prepared by the signatories of the code of practice. Our initial view is that it is a mild kind of assessment. After all, the recent elections to the European Commission were not free from disinformation and malign actors constantly change their strategies. As such, we need to strive to be ahead of them. The evolution of the code is ongoing. When the full evaluation has been carried out, we will see what further actions are necessary.