Combatting Fake News: The EU's Motivations, Strategies and Challenges
Posted on 2023 Mar,02  | By Ghada Azzi

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The European Union has launched an awareness campaign in Lebanon to combat the issue of disinformation and fake news. As part of this campaign, a rulebook was released in the local press to educate individuals on how to critically evaluate news sources and recognize common tactics used by fake news purveyors. The ultimate goal of this campaign is to empower citizens to be more discerning when it comes to identifying and combatting the spread of fake news. ArabAd spoke with Rany Kassab, the Strategic Communication Officer at the European Union Delegation in Lebanon, to gain insight into the EU's motivations, strategies, and challenges in this ongoing effort.

What prompted the EU to launch its new initiative for an awareness campaign on propaganda, misinformation and fake news? Don’t you think fighting fake news is a monumental challenge?

Propaganda, misinformation, and fake news have always existed. In 2018, Pope Francis even dated it back to Genesis, referring to the Snake that duped Adam and Eve through disinformation, into eating the forbidden fruit. Europe, meanwhile, knows too well the dire consequences of propaganda and misinformation, both of which fueled, to a large extent, the World War II, whether by mobilizing support for the Nazi regime or by stoking anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred. Fighting this phenomenon has become all the more relevant in today's world, with the advent of digital and social media, particularly as it continues to be used to influence democratic elections, justify wars and aggressions (such as Russia's war on Ukraine), and create distrust in science and public authorities (such as the anti-Covid vaccination campaigns).

The European Union certainly recognizes the monumental challenge that combatting this phenomenon presents, yet the greater the challenge the more important it is to take it on. This is why the European Union has been investing in media literacy programs and initiatives, including in Lebanon, in order to build societal resilience against information manipulation, while concurrently working on the legislative and regulatory fronts to minimize the spread of disinformation, especially on social media platforms.


What are your observations on the rise of fake news and the concurrent decline in trust in legitimate news sources?

It could be argued that the shift from traditional to digital media, with its lower barriers to entry, has played a role in eroding trust in news organizations. This is due to the multiplication of media outlets and the pressure to stand out from the crowd, even if it means sacrificing professional journalism and the truth. Additionally, the greater polarization we are witnessing across the world has contributed to the proliferation of fake news. Some individuals are predisposed to be receptive to fake news due to their bias towards news sources that they fundamentally disagree with. This has created a void and market for those who offer a narrative that is diametrically opposed to that of traditional media outlets, leading to a cacophony of voices that are increasingly difficult to discern and filter.


 “Fighting [fake news] has become all the more relevant in today's world, with the advent of digital and social media”


How effective can awareness campaigns be in addressing the issue of "weaponized" media, specifically fake news and its proliferation on social media? Is it possible to completely eradicate the spread of false information and media manipulation, or is it a constant battle that will always be present?

Information manipulation campaigns have long existed and will continue in the future. The strategy, therefore, is not only to work on one side of the equation in tackling the ‘supply’ of disinformation, but also to work on the other side of it, i.e. the 'demand,' or more precisely, the societal resilience to disinformation. This is where awareness campaigns and media literacy programs and initiatives can make a positive difference to counter the reflex of always believing what we read and amplifying what otherwise can be misinformation or fake news.

In Lebanon, as an example, the European Union Delegation produced a series of media literacy videos which it promoted online, in addition to organizing media literacy sessions across public and private schools to build the capacity of students to deal with information manipulation. Additionally, the newspaper supplement that the Delegation produced will also help engage with a target audience that is often prone to such malicious operations, namely seniors.


What is the main goal of the EU during this campaign? Is it to safeguard Lebanon's democratic government? Or is it to reduce social and political tensions in the country and protect citizens from the spread of extremist ideologies and hate speech?

The main drive of the European Union, in this regard, is to build societal resilience against information manipulation that can sow divisions and trigger extremism, hate speech, discrimination, xenophobia, and ultimately violence. We also cannot discount the impact that such manipulation can have on democratic processes and milestones, whether in influencing voters or in stifling free speech. As a partner of Lebanon, the European Union is keen on the stability of the country and on ensuring that it perpetuates its traditions on human rights and freedom of expression. To that end, the awareness campaign is first and foremost educational, with an ultimate objective of protecting against the destabilizing 'weaponization' of information.    


Do you believe that using state power against fake news creators, as many governments have done, is a more effective solution to combatting the fake news problem, rather than implementing guidelines for identifying fake news? 

As previously mentioned, combatting fake news and information manipulation requires efforts on multiple fronts. Accordingly, beyond focusing on awareness, the European Union has been increasingly focusing on both legislation and regulation to address the issue. In 2018, the European Commission launched the Action Plan Against Disinformation to strengthen EU capability and cooperation in the fight against disinformation, while the European Parliament adopted the Digital Services Act in 2022, which is meant to improve content moderation on social media platforms. It should be noted that balancing tackling disinformation with protecting free speech is never easy, which is why the European Union and its Member States have to be cautious and tread carefully in drafting such laws and regulations.


How much effort is the EU willing to put into combating disinformation on social media platforms, knowing that it may be a long-term and ongoing issue?

The European Union is committed to fighting disinformation, even when it causes tension with large tech companies and social media platforms. In fact, the Action Plan Against Disinformation, which recognizes the scope of the challenge, has led to the creation of several positions and task forces within the European Union that are specifically tasked with combating disinformation. This reflects the EU's determination to address the issue and minimize its impact on its constituents.