Disinformation, as the latest iteration of propaganda suitable for a digitally interconnected world, shows no signs of abating. Instead, it mutates and expands, threatening states’ political security, civil rights, and even public health. The Delegation of the European Union to the United States commissioned this Chatham House paper with the aim of contributing to global efforts to tackle disinformation. The paper provides a holistic overview of the current state of play and outlines how EU and US cooperation can mitigate disinformation in the future.
After defining disinformation as a term, the paper maps legislative, institutional and technological actions to counter disinformation taken by governments, civil society and digital intermediaries (social media, search engines and app platforms) both in the US and the EU. The paper looks at previous and ongoing global interventions to tackle the problem and investigates how international efforts can inform and empower future EU–US cooperation. Echoing other researchers in the field it finds human rights rather than security to be the most appropriate basis for ongoing research and deliberations on disinformation. The paper recommends that the EU should harness its normative power to provide direction and share best practices from different member states that have been tackling disinformation.
- EU and US cooperation on tackling disinformation needs to be grounded in an international human rights framework in order to bridge the differences of both parties and include other countries facing this challenge.
- The disinformation debate needs to be reformulated to cover systemic issues rather than merely technical or security concerns. A lag in regulatory development has led to systemic vulnerabilities. In this context, policymakers need to push for more evidence-based analysis, which is only attainable if technology companies engage in honest debate and allow meaningful access to data – as determined by government appointed researchers rather than the companies themselves – taking into account and respecting users’ privacy.
- Data governance needs to be the focus of attempts to tackle disinformation. Data’s implications for information, market and power asymmetries, feed into and exacerbate the problem.
- Policymakers should focus on regulating the distribution of online content rather than the subject matter itself, which may have implications for freedom of speech.
- Disinformation is mainly the result of inefficient gatekeeping of highly extractive digital companies. The old gatekeepers, journalists and their respective regulators, need to be actively engaged in devising the new regulatory framework.
- Legacy media need to urgently consider the issue of ‘strategic silence’ and avoid being co-opted by political actors aiming to manipulate the accelerated, reactive news cycle by engaging in divisive ‘clickbait’ rhetoric verging on disinformation and propaganda. When strategic silence is not an option, contextual analysis is fundamental.
- The EU delegation should assist the coordination of EU–US efforts to tackle disinformation by drawing on the work and expertise at the G7 Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM), the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity (TCEI), the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE), the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, and work with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to foster a long-term interdisciplinary forum to harness technological innovation to protect and support democracy from threats such as disinformation.
- The EU and US must avoid rushed regulation that may condone enhanced surveillance or vilify journalism that scrutinizes those in power in the name of security