Countering disinformation and hate speech

Informal meeting of EU justice ministers Countering disinformation and hate speech

At the informal meeting of the justice ministers of the 27 EU member states, the spotlight was on two major issues: strengthening democracy and the rule of law, and the fight against hate speech and disinformation in the age of COVID-19. This was the first meeting held under Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Don't forward dubious messages. Don't share dubious content, report questionable inputs. Be alert, ask critical questions and counter with factually correct arguments. (More information available below the photo under ‚detailed description‘.)

Be proactive, find out the facts and protect others from fake news

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Photo: Bundesregierung

Fake news and disinformation – information that has been deliberately manipulated to mislead people and cause public damage – are a global phenomenon that is occurring increasingly often. The COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, has been accompanied by a massive wave of false information and attempts to influence and distort debates within society. 

What makes disinformation so dangerous?

False assertations and disinformation can jeopardise democratic processes and be targeted to hit a large number of different areas, including the health, science and research, education and finance sectors. They often fuel fears and aggravate existing uncertainties.

During the pandemic, denying and distorting facts about the virus can endanger lives. And it is a threat to the foundations of democratic discourse and debate. If people base their actions on false information, and, for instance take substances that will have no effect or might even be harmful, they expose themselves to serious individual risk. Where disinformation threatens to undermine the legitimacy of collective measures, such as social distancing and hygiene rules, it is a threat to society as a whole.

Conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic often include hatred against people of Asian descent or racism and anti-Semitism.

What was discussed at today’s informal video conference of EU justice ministers?

To protect the lives and the health of their citizens, the EU states were forced to impose draconian restrictions on personal liberty during the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic. They took various approaches. The justice ministers discussed how citizens have dealt with these restrictions on their individual liberties. "Parliaments and courts managed to retain their ability to take action, even under these extremely challenging conditions," said Federal Minister of Justice Christine Lambrecht. And she stressed, "Freedoms should not be restricted even a day longer than absolutely necessary."

The justice ministers also addressed the issue of how the political level has responded to criticism, scientific findings and court rulings. The aim is to ensure that democracies and rule-of-law states are better armed to deal with crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The meeting was chaired by Germany’s Federal Minister of Justice Christine Lambrecht and attended by the 26 other justice ministers of European Union as well as Věra Jourová, the European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Didier Reynders, the European Commissioner for Justice, Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, and from the European Parliament, Adrián Vázquez Lázara, the Chair of the Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI), and Juan Fernando López Aguilar, the Chair of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE).

How does disinformation spread?

In times of crisis in particular, disinformation and fake news spread extremely swiftly and frequently. Understandably, people have a great need for information. At the start of a crisis, the authorities often have no precise information. In the case of COVID-19, we are dealing with a novel virus, and it took time before scientists were able to provide valid, proven information. The gap was used to intentionally spread false assertions with the explicit aim of confusing people. "During a pandemic, spreading nonsense about vaccines or simply denying that the virus exists can put people’s lives at risk," said Federal Minister of Justice Christine Lambrecht.

Social media and messaging services are particularly popular. Disinformation spreads like a virus itself, as it is ‘liked’, commented on, and forwarded. Each and every one of us can break disinformation chains. Consider contents critically, and if in doubt do not forward information. Report dubious and unlawful content in social networks. That way you can protect others from putting their own health at risk.

How to recognise disinformation in three steps

In social media, fake news spreads like lightening. That is dangerous, because fake news is a threat to the cohesion of our society, and to our health. Fake news that is spread through social media or messaging services like WhatsApp can appear to be particularly credible because the messages come from people we know. And that makes it all the more important to recognise disinformation and ensure that we do not pass it on. About 85 per cent of Europeans believe that fake news is a problem in their country, and 83 per cent see it as a problem for democracy as a whole. The following three steps can help you recognise disinformation:

Step 1: Check sources, images and author
It is always a good idea to compare dubious information with other sources. Are serious sources quoted? Are the figures in the text correct? You can find information on the official websites of the German federal government and the governments of the individual federal states as well as public news broadcasters and respected newspapers. In social networks, stick to the verified accounts of official agencies and institutions (marked with a white tick in a blue circle after their name) and check the publishing details of a website. A website should name the person responsible for the contents and give a complete address, not only an anonymous email address.

If you run an image search, you can check whether an image has previously been used in a different context. A specially developed tool allows you to check whether an image or a video has been manipulated.

Check whether the author of the text actually exists. Check whether the alleged expert is really a specialist in the area in question.

Step 2: Use fact checks
Some state and private-sector organisations, and some public-sector media specifically check and correct individual fake news items. COVID-19 is accounting for an increasing volume of their work. The fact checkers include the podcast of the German Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb) on conspiracy theories (German only), the European External Action Service’s EUvsDisinfo and the World Health Organization’s Mythbusters. The website of the European Commission also offers a section ‘Separating fact from fiction’ which debunks frequently found false information. 

Step 3: If in doubt do not forward information
This step is not about checking facts, but about stemming the spread of false information. This misinformation is often forwarded by private individuals not with any ill intent, but because people are concerned. Incorrect information can, however, fuel uncertainty or even spread panic. The more emotional the message, the more frequently it is forwarded. That makes it all the more important not to get involved, but to keep calm. It is better to delete messages of this sort than to forward them.

You will find a detailed description of how to spot when news is fake, on the European Parliament fact sheet.