COVID-19 Disinformation: Remarks by HR/VP Josep Borrell at the European Parliament session on tackling COVID-19 disinformation and the impact on freedom of expression
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Thank you Madam President, Honourable Members,
It is really evident that the virus pandemic has been accompanied by an ‘infodemic’, by a pandemic of disinformation. We have witnessed a wave of false and misleading information, and an exponential increase in targeted influence operations by foreign actors.
We have seen again that disinformation can do real damage. In the case of a pandemic which affects the health of the people, it is even more dangerous. We have seen disinformation saying that drinking bleach can cure the coronavirus – I am not making any specific reference to anyone but this has been said: ‘drink bleach and you will be safe’ – or that washing hands does not help.
It can also spark crime – take for example the vandalism against 5G infrastructure in some Member States, mainly in the Netherlands.
In March 2020, the European leaders called on the Commission and the High Representative, through the External Action Service, to take action. Last week we followed up, with a Joint Communication on disinformation related to the pandemic. Together with my colleague and friend, Vice-President in charge of values [and Transparency, Věra Jourová] I will also comment this communication.
This communication summarises what the European Union has done to tackle disinformation in the crisis, and how to step up our actions.
Disinformation knows no borders. Democracies and the West as such have been the target of disinformation, which underlines the importance of international cooperation. Let me turn first to the external dimension. The ‘infodemic’ has clearly been exploited by foreign state and non-state actors.
Disinformation from Russian actors have spread conspiracy theories and orchestrated disinformation campaigns, targeting the European Union, its Member States and neighbours by alleging lack of solidarity and internal crisis within the European Union and sowing confusion.
China has also participated in that. Russian sources are old news but China has been much more active. China sources have been promoting its image, presenting their [system] as the better system, the best equipped to tackle the pandemic and blaming democracies for their handling of the virus.
One can imagine that doing propaganda on self-praise is something that everybody does, but I think there are limits. One thing is to explain that you believe to be the best, and another thing is to deflect blame on the handling of the virus by others.
At the same time, there is a clear risk of governments using the infodemic as an excuse to limit fundamental rights and freedom of expression. Some of the Members [of the European Parliament] referred to that in the previous debate. I think the European Union needs to take a stand against this.
What has been done to address these worrying trends? We have been working to promote strategic communications and public diplomacy in our neighbourhood, especially the Western Balkans.
The External Action Service has stepped up its efforts to address foreign influence operations, publishing regular reports, analysing the trends in disinformation and sharing findings with Member States, our international partners, civil society and the media.
People working at the External Action Service are doing an extraordinary and difficult work in this field. We have made good use of the instruments we have at hand to tackle disinformation overall in the current crisis. We mobilise the Rapid Alert System, which connects all relevant European Union Institutions and all European Union Member States, this has proven to be a very valuable network. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, a dedicated space has been set up to exchange information on disinformation related to the virus.
We have further increased our cooperation with our international partners, NATO and the G7 and its Rapid Response Mechanism. We have also been working with valuable partners as the UN and the WHO.
Looking ahead, we will step up our actions by enhancing concrete cooperation on strategic communication and public diplomacy with Member States and international partners; increasing the sharing of best practice in fighting disinformation and activating more quickly the Rapid Alert System; intensifying the joint work with relevant partners from civil society and the private sector; and stepping up monitoring of violations of press freedom and support advocacy for a safer media environment.
On this, we now have a specific programme under the Instrument Contributing to Stability and Peace, to support regional governments in tackling the crisis and to debunk disinformation that can further fuel tensions in conflict areas.
I could go more into details but I think it is time leave it now to the Vice-President for Transparency and Values, Ms Věra Jourová to continue on the important work with social media platforms and other aspects of this Joint Communication.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-191947