30/05/2018: 2018 Brussels DisinfoLab summary

The EU DisinfoLab’s annual event, under the title “Disinformation – the playbook and how to fight it: 2018 Brussels DisinfoLab”, co-organised with the Atlantic Council, was held on April 11th at the EurActiv premises in Brussels with 80 participants.

The goal of the event was to shed light on disinformation operations not only in the EU, but also globally. Disinformation, just as “fake news” among the population, is a buzz word among Brussels officials and experts. There is a consensus that it’s a priority for Western societies to fight it, but often without an understanding of the complexity of the issue.

With our events we don’t just want to discuss the issue, but expose the mechanisms behind it, analyse concrete disinformation campaigns, and most importantly come up with solutions as well as share successful cases of countering the phenomenon.

To have as wide as an overview as possible, we have invited counter-disinformation professionals, researchers, journalists and officials, not just from Europe but also from over the Atlantic. Below is a summary of their input.

 

The event was opened by Christophe Leclercq, EurActiv Founder and EU HLG on Fake News member, who summarized the HLG’s work, listed its recommendations and next steps. Then Alexandre Alaphilippe, EU DisinfoLab Executive Director, welcomed the participants and introduced the event.

The event consisted of two panels:

Panel 1: Exposing the Kremlin’s Toolkit

Panel 1: Exposing the Kremlin’s Toolkit

– Peter Pomerantsev, Senior Visiting Fellow, LSE

Peter described how transnational disinformation networks, especially those linked to Russia, pushed content in various EU elections. He then focused on his & ISD’s work on the German federal election. His main recommendations were, firstly, to think and monitor transnationally, as diluting disinformation with quality information isn’t enough, and secondly to face the challenge of the fragmentation of the public sphere, what he called “parallel universes”.

– Ida Eklund Lindwall, EU East StratCom Task Force, EEAS

Ida’s input was held under the Chatham House Rule, but we highly recommend East Stratcom’s excellent website, www.EUvsDisinfo.eu, and Twitter channel @EUvsDisinfo.

– Dr Guillaume Chaslot, Founder, AlgoTransparency, fmr Google Software Engineer

Dr Chaslot’s input focused on his deep understanding of YouTube’s algorithms, which he worked on at Google. He explained how they favour extreme content and can be hijacked, as their goal is for the user to stay on the platform. His main takeaway was the need for transparency on how algorithm recommendations work.

Moderated by: Stephen Dalziel, Senior Fellow, The Institute for Statecraft

Stephen used his vast knowledge of Kremlin’s policies to elaborate why Russia is a leading source of disinformation. He also pushed on Federica Mogherini to provide much greater resources to East Stratcom and be stronger on attributing the disinformation campaigns to Russia.

 

Panel 2: How to Fight Back – Lessons and Recommendations

Panel 2: How to Fight Back – Lessons and Recommendations

– Dr Alina Polyakova, David M. Rubenstein Fellow, The Brookings Institution

Dr Polyakova summarised the Atlantic Council report, “Democratic Defense against Disinformation”, formally released the day before at the EED. She also commented on the current Facebook crisis and Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony, criticizing the company’s approach motivated by profit and focus on microtargeting for advertisers, finally foreseeing the company to cease to exist if it doesn’t change its practices.

– Michał Boni, Member of the European Parliament

Michał focused on his experience in digitalisation, which he was the minister of back in Poland, and the EU’s digital agenda. He first talked about disinformation ecosystems, pointing out that the problem was old, but the digital era requires a new approach, as the speed & scale were different. He opted for building a coalition and involvement of all partners, as well as on a reform of the educational system to teach people to think critically. He underlined the need to redefine the position of platforms, to reconsider the responsibility of their owners & managers.

– Andy Pryce, Head of Counter Disinformation, FCO, British Government

Andy’s input was held under the Chatham House Rule, but we highly recommend following the FCO’s Twitter @ForeignOffice, which offers fact-based counter-narratives to Kremlin’s propaganda targeted at the UK.

– Ambassador Daniel Fried, Distinguished Fellow, Atlantic Council

Ambassador Fried expanded on Alina’s presentation of the Atlantic Council report, and then used his vast diplomatic experience to give a holistic, geopolitical and sociological overview of the issue. He reminded that our principle should be “to operate within the democratic norm, to not become them when we fight them”. He stressed that governments cannot censor, become ministries of truth, but instead expose Russian disinformation and impose transparency requirements. He summarised the biggest single recommendation in AC’s report being to build a transatlantic coalition, with an informal setting for all stakeholders to cooperate. He also mentioned the need to create a common regulatory climate to makes platforms “up their game”. On the EU side, he pointed out how much leverage we had over the platforms, having already successfully negotiated with them common conduct on hate speech. He also defended EU East Stratcom, saying that the US would be lucky to have such an institution, despite it being heavily understaffed and underfunded.

Moderated by: Brian Maguire, independent journalist

 

The panelists touched on many subjects, causes and possible solutions to the disinformation epidemic. The main takeaways could be summarised in 3 categories:

cooperation: to successfully counter disinformation there needs to be full cooperation between all the stakeholders and existing initiatives, incl. EU institutions, governments, media, academics & civil society.

role of civil society: there are numerous civil society initiatives and cases of countering disinformation through innovation. They should be supported, linked together and have their practices shared with the rest of the world.

responsibility of social media platforms: platforms like Facebook or YouTube should offer more transparency, especially regarding the algorithms governing the spread of information, abused by disinformation actors. They should offer researchers access to anonymised data, so that they can analyse how disinformation spreads and develop ways of countering it.

For more insights from our panelists be sure to check our new Videos page: http://disinfo.eu/videos/.