MEPs call for tough sanctions regime against disinformation

The European Parliament’s Special Committee on Foreign Interference (INGE) sounds the alarm in its final report: According to it, the European public and government officials are “overwhelmingly” unaware of the extent of the threat posed by foreign autocratic regimes – particularly Russia and China. Inadequate defenses made it easier for malicious actors to take over critical infrastructure, launch cyberattacks, recruit former high-ranking politicians, and polarize public debate.

“Our investigations have provided highly disturbing evidence of how malicious foreign actors are attacking our democracies in all sorts of sectors and sectors of society,” stressed rapporteur Sandra Kalniete by the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) at the conclusion of the panel’s 18-month analysis. The members had conducted around 50 hearings with around 130 experts.

“Foreign hostile actors have declared a hybrid war on the EU and its member states,” warned INGE leader Raphaël Glucksmann of the Social Democrats. The final report, which was approved by 25 votes to 8 with 1 abstention, therefore contains “a number of important recommendations for protecting our democracies and safeguarding European sovereignty”. So-called hybrid threats can include various forms of illegitimate influence by foreign states. Above all, it is about the manipulation of public opinion through disinformation and propaganda spread online.

To counter such threats, Committee members call on the EU to raise public awareness through training for people in sensitive positions and general information campaigns. Furthermore, the community should increase its capacity and set up a sanctions system against disinformation. Also the rules for social networks that According to the report serve as a massive vehicle for foreign interference would need to be tightened.

MEPs are “deeply concerned about the proliferation of foreign state propaganda, mainly from Moscow and Beijing as well as Ankara, which is translated into local languages.” They point to broadcasters, news agencies and newspapers such as RT, Sputnik, Anadolu, CCTV, Global Times, Xinhua and TRT World. Content is often “disguised as journalism”. The committee advocates that such channels should no longer be considered “real media”. They should “not enjoy the rights and protections of democratic media”.

Campaigns from Russia and China are aimed at questioning democratic values ​​and dividing the EU, officials complain. They represent “the main source of disinformation in Europe”. The EU Commission is therefore appealing to “initiate a study on minimum standards for media as a basis for a possible license withdrawal in the event of violations”. Foreign “interferers” who falsely pose as journalists are to be named, denounced and excluded from press events. A withdrawal of their press accreditation is also an option.

The committee condemned “the massive and illegal use of the NSO Group’s surveillance software Pegasus by government agencies” in countries such as Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, Poland, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan against journalists, human rights defenders and politicians. He reminds that this is just one of many examples of spyware being “used by the state for illegal mass surveillance purposes against innocent citizens”.

MEPs urge the Commission to draw up and constantly update a list of illegal surveillance software. The member states would have to use this list for export checks. It is important to ensure a “comprehensive human rights due diligence”. Based on the model of the Citizen Lab in Toronto, a comparable institution should also be created in the EU that can reverse engineer relevant malware and uncover its use for illegal purposes.

The parliamentarians also complain that the EU is working with third countries in the judiciary and police sector, which have used Pegasus & Co. to spy on European citizens as well. They are pushing for “additional security precautions and increased democratic control of this cooperation”.

The digital voting infrastructure should be treated as “critical,” the committee demands. The protection of the entire electoral process must be considered “one of the most important questions of European and national security”, since free and fair elections are at the heart of the democratic process. The Commission should therefore develop a better response framework with direct communication channels to citizens to counteract foreign interference in electoral processes.

According to the report, the EU institutions and member states must rapidly increase their investments in strategic cyber capabilities to detect, unmask and counter foreign intrusions, such as those using artificial intelligence (AI), in order to improve the EU’s cybersecurity. At the same time, however, respect for fundamental rights must be guaranteed.

According to the plea, European networks of data infrastructures and service providers with European security standards such as Gaia-X should be further developed as part of the critical infrastructure. This would be an important step towards building viable alternatives to existing cloud systems and “towards an open, transparent and secure digital economy”. The integrity, availability and confidentiality of public electronic communications networks such as Internet backbones and undersea cables are of vital interest. The Commission and EU countries should therefore prevent sabotage and espionage on these lines and promote the use of interoperable secure routing standards.

The committee wants online platforms to be obliged to “do their part to reduce information manipulation and interference”. For example, operators should use labels that indicate “the real authors” of posts and deep fakes, and limit the reach of accounts “that are regularly used to spread disinformation or that regularly violate the platform’s terms and conditions”. Relevant non-authentic accounts would have to be deleted on the basis of “clear legal provisions”.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube & Co. should also be encouraged to minimize the “risks of influencing” their algorithms, advertising models, recommendation systems and AI technologies and to follow the principle of data economy. However, legal content should not be removed arbitrarily, for example through the mass use of upload filters. The use of human examiners and fact-checkers with knowledge of all EU languages ​​is important.

According to MEPs, business models that “encourage people to stay longer on platforms through appealing content” should be abolished, as should monopolies in the online advertising market. Algorithms should offer users a variety of perspectives and “prioritise facts and science-based content, especially on important societal issues such as public health or climate change”. A harmonized EU legal framework is needed to take targeted action against the spread of disinformation and hatred on issues such as gender, LGBTIQ+, minorities and refugees.


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