Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Questions (48)

Niall Collins


48. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the steps being taken at EU level to address potential interference from outside actors in the upcoming European Parliament elections; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17781/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

I ask the Minister what, if anything, is being done at EU level to address the political interference from outside actors in the forthcoming European Parliament elections? I ask this against the backdrop of alleged outside interference in numerous other major elections across the globe, which we have seen reported and argued on across the media.

The European Council conclusions of June 2018 called for the formulation of an action plan with specific proposals for a co-ordinated EU response to disinformation. A joint action plan was subsequently developed by the Commission and the European External Action Service and endorsed by the European Council in December 2018, with the aim of improving the detection and analysis of disinformation, strengthening co-operation and joint responses, mobilising the private sector, raising awareness and increasing societal resilience.

The objective of the action plan is to create a consolidated approach among the EU institutions and member states to disinformation activities, especially in the context of the upcoming European parliamentary elections. In particular, the EU has established a rapid alert system focused on electoral disinformation. Comprising national points of contact, this system informs member states of disinformation activities and facilitates information-sharing on threat analysis, trends, best practices and lessons learned.

The EU Commission has also prepared a code of practice on disinformation, which was signed in October 2018 and saw a range of online platforms, leading social networks, advertisers and the advertising industry agree a self regulatory code of practice to address the spread of online disinformation and fake news. This code of practice sets out a wide range of commitments from transparency in political advertising to the closure of fake accounts. The code is an essential step in ensuring transparent, fair and trustworthy online campaign activities ahead of the European elections.

We all agree that the European parliamentary elections are important in light of Brexit, the rise of nationalism and the suffocation of civil society and the threat to the rule of law in some EU member states, including Poland and Hungary. While interference in and manipulation of elections is not necessarily new the methods being deployed are new. The European Parliament elections in May will take place in a different political and legal environment to that which prevailed in 2014 and so all the actors involved, in particular member states and political parties, have to assume a responsibility.

The Tánaiste will be aware of the nine conclusions adopted by the European Council in February. I would welcome an update on what has been done to ensure that we have free and fair elections and on what actions the Government has taken in recent weeks following on from the European Council conclusions in regard to this matter.

I share the Deputy's concerns. The European elections, because they will be taking place across the entirety of the EU, potentially can be undermined by disinformation, fake news and people paying for false information to be used on social media platforms to try to impact the result of elections. The sense across the European Union that we need to work together to combat this activity is strong. The Deputy is correct that in February the General Affairs Council adopted conclusions under which countries have committed to work together to share information and best practice and to red flag issues emerging in one country so that they can be looked for in another country. Ireland is very much part of that discussion. We have a cyberecurity response in Ireland that is active anyway. It is managed by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and is linked to An Garda Síochána when necessary. No one country can combat this threat on its own, particularly in a Union that is as open and border-free as the European Union. For this reason, a collective approach across the European Union, with countries leaning on and learning from each other in terms of best practice, is the approach we are taking.

I am sure the Tánaiste will agree that the integrity of our democratic processes is of paramount importance in any election, particularly in light of the advance of disinformation and fake news. It is a silent agenda, as we know, operating in the dark web across social media platforms.

In regard to the Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill 2017, sponsored by my colleague, Deputy Lawless, I would like to see more urgency on the part of Government in regard to the progression of this Bill. I would also like to note that in June 2018 the Government published the report of the interdepartmental group on security and Ireland's electoral process and disinformation, which concluded that the risks to electoral processes in Ireland are relatively low taking into account the mitigating factors already in place but that it is recognised that the spread of disinformation online and the risk of cyber attacks on the electoral system pose a more substantial risk that is in line with EU findings in recent international experience. Has the Government taken any specific actions on foot of the 2018 interdepartmental group report on the security of Ireland's electoral processes and disinformation? The Fianna Fáil Party supports sanctions against countries that manipulate elections. Will the Tánaiste outline the Government's position in that regard?

On the interdepartmental group on security of Ireland's electoral process and disinformation, which reported in December 2017, there are three initiatives in this area that are worth noting: an open policy forum on regulation of transparency of online political advertising to identify balanced and transparent policy solutions to protect our electoral processes from hidden influences and disinformation; the opening of public consultations by my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for local government and electoral reform, on the establishment of an electoral commission, which I think will have a strong role in this area; and the establishment by Media Literacy Network Ireland, supported by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, of a media literacy campaign entitled, Be Media Smart. This campaign aims to tackle disinformation and support our citizens in learning how to critically analyse the information they consume.