Good day, Disinfo Update readers!

Last week was filled with news having a direct impact on the counter-disinformation community. You surely have gone through the fantastic investigations carried out by the Forbidden Stories consortium that dived into a world where troll armies, cyber espionage, and media meddling are intertwined.

Those revelations about Team Jorge clearly show how the media can be at the centre of the propaganda machine. Yet, on Friday, Contexte revealed that the EU Member States have agreed on an extended media exemption. With this proposal, platforms won’t remove and reduce the visibility of disinformation in the media.

As we’re watching this unroll on our doorstep, your support is more critical than ever to ensure that media exemption, which was rejected in the DSA by all co-legislators last year, should be rejected in the EMFA too. 

A lot of food for thoughts, and actions. On that note, wishing you a good read!

Disinfo news & updates

  • Media at the heart of disinfo. Last week’s extensive #StoryKillers investigation by the Forbidden Stories consortium uncovered an Israeli company, “Team Jorge”, operating worldwide and boasting to be involved in meddling with media, elections, and more, via different disinformation tactics and tools. Those revelations of interference led to the suspension of a journalist on French 24-hour news channel, BFM TV, who allegedly broadcasted fake content without any editorial validation.
  • Resilience. Google announced that it will expand its “pre-bunking” misinformation initiative in Germany after seeing promising results from a pilot project in Eastern Europe, and aimed at building resilience to manipulation tactics online.

Brussels corner: media exemption is back 

  • Here we go… again. Media exemption is back. Last week, the Swedish Presidency put forward a proposal for Article 17 of the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) according to which platforms won’t be able to remove or reduce the visibility of disinformation in the media. Media exemption was rejected in the DSA by all co-legislators last year. Yet, it’s coming back through the EMFA door. We need to ensure that Article 17 is deleted from the EMFA, and we will need your support in this fight.
    Wanna help but don’t know how? Reach out to your national governments and MEPs, and ask them to reject the media exemption and delete Article 17 in the EMFA. 
  • White smoke. Not quite yet. Services had until last Friday to announce the number of their European users so they can be designated as Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs) or Very Large Online Search Engines (VLOSEs) under the Digital Services Act (DSA). This designation means that they will be subject to a broad range of new obligations, including mitigating risks posed by disinformation. However, all of this still needs to be confirmed by the Commission. Some services, like Spotify or eBay, did not disclose their actual numbers, but indicated whether they are above or below the required threshold. The final list might change with some other familiar names. Here is some more data on who claims to be a VLOP or a VLOSE. 

What we’re reading

  • FIMI. The European External Action Service (EEAS) released its first report on Foreign Information Manipulation and Interference (FIMI), which outlines how building synergies and standards can fuel the collective understanding of the threat and help with appropriate answers.
  • Xinjiang narrative. In its latest study, the CrossOver project investigates whether China is trying to control the narrative around the Xinjiang province on Google News in the Belgian media landscape. A joint CrossOver and EDMO BELUX webinar is organised on 28 February on this study. Register here
  • DSA into practice. This Stiftung Neue Verantwortung (SNV) paper provides a concrete proposal on how the auditing of algorithmic recommendation systems in the Digital Services Act (DSA) could look like.  
  • Digital Peacebuilding Toolkit. Developed by Search for Common Ground & Build Up, this interactive guide will help peacebuilders figure out how to best use digital tools to achieve their goals – whether it’s building a chatbot, a disinfo toolkit or making a video game.

This week’s recommended read by

Ana Romero-Vicente, researcher at EU DisinfoLab, highly recommends following @sector035. While his ‘Weekly dose of OSINT‘ helps her in her daily work, it’s also a lot of fun! For those of you who might be newer to the disinfo field, you will learn here that OSINT is not simply about collecting data or information from the internet. It has to be processed in the so-called ‘intelligence cycle’.

EU DisinfoLab monthly trends

Highlights from our January monitoring of fact-checked disinformation in France, Germany, and Spain include:

  • In Germany, the level of disinformation about Covid-19 was on par with the war in Ukraine. The hoaxes focused on attributing an alleged increase in deaths at several German institutions (the University of Saarland or the Youth Welfare Office in Stuttgart) to the Covid vaccine. Regarding the war in Ukraine, hoaxes about arms deliveries to Ukraine circulated, coinciding with the German government’s decision to supply Leopard tanks. The main aim was to discredit Berlin by claiming that the decision had been taken earlier than announced. On another note, the riots on New Year’s Eve in Berlin triggered hoaxes with anti-migration narrative, mainly using decontextualised videos; meanwhile, Greta Thunberg’s presence to avoid the expansion of a coal mine in Germany framed discourses against the efforts to stop climate change in the country.
  • The war in Ukraine and Covid-19 continued to fuel many of the hoaxes that have spread in France in January. On the political front, fact-checkers are making great efforts to verify government and opposition statements in the highly polarising debate on the pension reform law. The press has covered the publication of a study showing that a large climate-skeptic community has been structured in France since the summer 2022, with more than 10,000 accounts listed. The majority of these accounts relayed pro-Kremlin propaganda about the war in Ukraine. Many are also anti-vaccine and close to the far right.
  • In an electoral year in Spain, we already see how the contents that seek to polarize and fragment society are increasing. There were a remarkable number of fact-checks against the government: from those seeking to undermine the image of the president to those instrumentalising the energy crisis to generate mistrust towards the government. Hoaxes about climate lockdowns have also reached Spain with great virality. No, the so-called 15-minute cities will not impose climate quarantines or restrict the mobility of people. The World Economic Forum has promoted many theories, almost all of them of a conspiracy nature and related to the supposed hidden agenda of 2030 (pedophilia claims, several alleged prohibition, etc.). 

The latest from EU DisinfoLab

  • Replay available! Watch the replay of the webinar with Alicia Wanless, Director of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who shared how to foster a collaborative approach to researching and protecting the information environment.

Events & announcements

  • 22 February. Join the International Forum for Democratic Studies for the launch of its new report, ‘Shielding Democracy: Civil Society Adaptations to Kremlin Disinformation about Ukraine’ (10:30-11:30AM EST).
  • 28 February. Register to this joint CrossOver and EDMO BELUX webinar “Is China trying to control the narrative about Xinjiang on Google News?” to learn more about the study of the Belgian media landscape as aggregated by Google News. 
  • 28 February. Submission deadline to apply to the 150 fellowships offered by the Global Investigative Journalism Conference.  
  • 3 March. Deadline to submit your application to ARTICLE 19’s Internet of Rights Fellowship cohort.
  • 6 March. EDMO BELUX is kicking off its first Lunch Lecture with Grégoire Lits, Assistant Professor in political and media sociology at UCLouvain (1-2PM). Register here.
  • 4-5 May. Data & Society is organising a 2-day workshop on Digital Doppelgangers. Apply by 1 March here
  • 29-31 May. Save the date for the 18th edition of the GLOBSEC Bratislava forum. 


This good thread!