A trial run for the EU’s co-regulatory approach: the Strengthened Code of Practice on Disinformation

By Miguel Pereira (Master in European Union Law from the School of Law of the University of Minho)

On the 16 June 2022 the Strengthened Code of Practice on Disinformation was signed and presented to the European Commission, marking the end of a year long process that revamped the original 2018 Code of Practice on Disinformation.

The Strengthened Code, following the lines of the 2018 Code, is a self-regulatory and voluntary mechanism by which participants of the digital economy assume commitments to combat disinformation online. It forms part of a wider strategy that has been developed by the EU institutions since 2018 but has assumed a central role in the EU’s response to phenomenon. The 2018 Code was particularly important to highlight the mechanisms that online platforms had developed (and could develop) to address the issues this threat posed to their services and allowed for closer cooperation between its signatories and the Commission, with special focus around two events: the 2019 European Parliament election and the Covid-19 crisis.

Notwithstanding the successes we have highlighted and the groundbreaking nature of the initiative, a 2020 assessment of the implementation of the code levied criticism at the lack of oversight, erratic reporting practices, vagueness of the commitments, relatively disappointing adherence by industry players and difficulty in evaluating its effectiveness and enforcing the commitments vis-á-vis its signatories. Based on this assessment, the Commission issued a guidance calling for a strengthening of the Code’s structure and commitments and laying out specific areas which merited improvement. The signatories heeded the call and led the review process, with the resulting Strengthened Code closely following the recommendations laid out in the Commission’s Guidance.

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The other side of War: disinformation

Ricardo de Macedo Menna Barreto (Guest Professor at the University of Minho Law School) 
 

Last Tuesday, March 8, 2022, during a debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Josep Borrell, EU diplomacy chief, warned that the Russian government will systematically lie about Ukraine’s military situation. At his intervention, Borrell defended that: “(…)accompany Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine, spreading false information among their own population about why this invasion has taken place and what is the situation in Ukraine(…) it not just bombing houses, infrastructure, the bodies of the people; they are bombing their minds, they are bombing their spirits”.[1] The EU diplomacy chief underlines a problem that, in his opinion, is getting worse as our lifetime goes by: the daily battle in the informational field. A battle whose main characteristic is the manipulation of information, a particular form of abuse of power, that is, of social domain. According to Teun van Dijk, manipulation is a form of illegitimate influence, achieved through discourse, in which manipulators make the manipulated believe in (or even do) things that are of special interest to the manipulator (and usually against the interests of the manipulated). In this sense, we can consider discursive manipulation as a complex social phenomenon, involving interaction and abuse of power (domination) between certain groups and social actors. It is also a complex phenomenon, taking into account that it presents itself in two ways: a) as a cognitive phenomenon, since it implies manipulation of the participants’ minds; b) as a discursive-semiotic phenomenon, since it can be expressed in the form of text, conversation or visual messages.[2]   

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Defining disinformation in the EU: a matter beyond linguistics

Miguel Pereira (Master’s student in European Union Law at the School of Law of the University of Minho)

The EU has been a trailblazer in what regards combating disinformation. Through initiatives involving online platforms and drafting of long-term strategies tackling multiple fronts, it has recognized the issue and attempted to address it through non-regulatory policy making. The instruments that have been put forth to combat the phenomenon are often controversial (as is to be expected in all discussions impacting freedom of expression and information) and their effectiveness hard to assess. The debate surrounding these instruments tends to absorb most of the attention, leaving less room to discuss the actual definition of disinformation. This concept is, nonetheless, vital to the successful implementation of policies in this area and to an adequate protection of fundamental rights in the EU, meriting a closer look.

Disinformation is often wrongly equated to, and used interchangeably with, “fake news”. This approach muddles the debate with imprecision and can be particularly pernicious for two reasons. On one side, it does not adequately capture the full scope of the problem which goes well beyond fake news reporting and includes a wide array of:

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