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Disinformation and Covid

The world of disinformation came to my desk last week with extraordinary force.

According to some of the 5000 emails I received, what I was about to do was ‘the same as’ the Nazis issuing papers to the Jews; not ‘similar to’ but ‘the same as’.

Photos of myself and other MEPs that voted in favour appeared online and included the claim that we were in fact Nazi MEPs.

What MEPs were being asked to consider was a proposal to ‘fast-track’ a Digital Green Certificate’ that would help the tourism and hospitality sector to get back to some sort of normal trading this summer.

The impact of these claims on our democracy is profound and requires those of us who value democracy to call them out forcefully. Disinformation is false information that is spread with the intention to mislead - misinformation is still false but not intentionally so. In that sense, much of what was sent to MEPs was coordinated initially on conservative websites as disinformation and disseminated by many people without malice as misinformation.

Here are a few of the claims that were contained in the emails most of which are, at best, stretching the truth or, at worst, outright fabrications.

1. First of all, the claim that this is the same as the Nazis issuing papers to Jews in the 1930s. At one time I was on the Board of the Holocaust Education Trust and in that capacity got to meet Tomi Reichantal, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He lost 30 relatives in the Holocaust. Serious reading about the Nazi era and the work of people like Tomi Reichantal serve as a useful antidote to complacency about real threats to European democracy and hysteria about imagined ones.

2. The Certificate will force people to get vaccinated. The European Commission’s communication on the subject is very clear. It states that people who are not vaccinated should be able to continue to exercise their fundamental right to free movement. It states that the Regulation should not be interpreted as establishing an obligation to be vaccinated.

3. The WTO considers the PCR test not fit for purpose. An article to this effect was flagged by Facebook in their efforts to identify fake news. Nevertheless it has been widely shared by millions of users. The PCR test is the gold standard for testing.

4. The existence of litigation against pharmaceutical companies relating to other vaccines means that vaccination in general cannot be trusted. Vaccination has saved many millions of lives across the world. Vaccine skepticism is widespread and possibly related to the fact that it is a long time since people were impacted by illnesses like Polio or Smallpox. Products liability litigation is common in all industries and is no reason to refuse future vaccines. There are lots of medical negligence cases but that would hardly be a good reason to refuse surgery.

5. The proposal is in breach of Article 191 of the Treaty of (sic) Functioning of the EU. Article 191 is about the EU’s environment policy and insists that it should be based on sound scientific evidence and the precautionary principle. It also states that such policy should contribute to promoting public health. It is hard to see how the proposal is a breach of this article.

6. The temporary proposal will become permanent. The Members of the European Parliament will insist on a sunset clause.

Disinformation is a high stakes issue. Democratic backsliding is at a crisis point as Freedom House has pointed out. According to their Democracy index, 2020 was the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Commissioner Thierry Breton said that reforming the digital space was ‘a matter of survival for our democracies’.

I was appointed to a special committee in the European Parliament last year examining foreign interference in European democracy and disinformation, known as the INGE committee. We have had presentations from experts across the world outlining the methods used by Russia, China and others to undermine public faith in democratic processes. It has also identified conservative news websites as sources of disinformation.

In December, Margrethe Vestager, the EU Competition Commissioner published the Digital Services Act. This legislation, if passed by the European Parliament, will place more responsibility on the large social media companies to take down disinformation.

Also in December the European Commission published a paper titled ‘A new EU-US agenda for global change’ which referred to ‘a growing convergence of views on tech governance’ while supporting President Biden’s idea for a Summit for Democracy.

Finally, fact-checkers, researchers and investigative journalists should be supported to work independently on exposing disinformation threats. We need to look at the concentration of media ownership and consider permanent funds for independent journalism.

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