Fake news: Does Spain’s disinformation battle plan limit freedom of expression?

A Spanish government plan to fight disinformation has sparked complaints from the media and the opposition, which say it limits free expression and seeks to establish a "ministry of truth".

Fake news: Does Spain's disinformation battle plan limit freedom of expression?
Photo: AFP

The plan, which came into effect last month after it was approved by the National Security Council, outlines how government bodies — including intelligence agency CNI and the foreign and defence ministries — should respond to disinformation.   

It uses the European Commission's definition of disinformation as “verifiably false or misleading information created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public”.

The plan establishes four stages of action, starting with monitoring the internet to detect disinformation campaigns and ending with a possible “political response” from the government if it is deemed necessary.

This could, for example, be a diplomatic protest if there is proof that a foreign state is behind the campaign.

Intermediate steps involve working with the media and launching a government information campaign to correct the false information being spread.   

The plan is Spain's answer to a request from the European Union for member states to step up their fight against disinformation. Brussels has accused China and Russia of mounting targeted disinformation campaigns to undermine European democracy.

While the Madrid Press Association (APM) acknowledged the state needs to fight disinformation, it warned of an “obvious risk” that the plan would lead the government to act “more like a censor than as a guarantor of the truth”.

The plan “leaves everything in the hands of the government” and calls for the media to be consulted only “if needed”, said Luis Ayllon, an APM board member who used to work for the conservative daily newspaper ABC.

“The media should control the government rather than the government control the media,” he told AFP.

The leader of the rightwing Popular Party (PP), Pablo Casado, went further, accusing Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of “issuing an order to monitor the media” and “creating an Orwellian ministry of truth,” in a nod to George Orwell's novel “1984” about a totalitarian state.   

But many of the measures have been in place for some time, with the previous PP government monitoring social networks to detect disinformation campaigns linked to the Catalan independence drive three years ago.

Vaccine worries

Justice Minister Juan Carlos Campo rejected the criticism, telling the Senate on Tuesday the aim was to “fight disinformation campaigns” and not to “censor” news stories.

“It is not to say what is or is not the truth, nor to close web pages, remove broadcast licences or put journalists in jail,” he added.   

As an example, the government has cited the need to be prepared for any disinformation campaign about being vaccinated against Covid-19 once a vaccine is available.

Like other EU nations, Spain has struggled to contain a flood of fake news on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, especially during election campaigns.

In the run-up to Spain's April 2019 election, some 9.6 million voters — just over a quarter of the total — received WhatsApp messages deemed to be peddling false information, according to a study by online campaign group Avaaz.

Among the stories disseminated were claims that Sanchez had agreed to back independence for the northeastern Catalonia region and that his grandfather fought alongside General Francisco Franco during Spain's 1936-39 civil war.

'Disproportionate' reaction

Alexandre Lopez-Borrull, a professor in information sciences at the Open University of Catalonia, said the government should have sought “maximum political consensus” for its plan in order to gain more acceptance in Spain's polarised political climate.   

“Many groups felt targeted,” he told AFP.    

But Manuel R.Torres Soriano, a political scientist at the Universidad Pablo de Olavide in Seville who has written a book about disinformation, said the reaction from the opposition and the media has been “disproportionate”.

“It's an attempt to administratively organise the work of different state bodies that already supervise disinformation. It does not create new capacities, nor does it interfere with anything,” he told AFP.

“Unfortunately, this plan to fight against disinformation has become fuel for acts of disinformation,” he said.

By Daniel Silva and Alvaro Villalobos

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German Greens’ chancellor candidate Baerbock targeted by fake news

With Germany's Green party leading the polls ahead of September's general elections, the ecologists' would-be successor to Angela Merkel has become increasingly targeted by internet trolls and fake news in recent weeks.

German Greens' chancellor candidate Baerbock targeted by fake news
The Greens chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock on April 26th. Photo: DPA

From wild claims about CO2-emitting cats and dogs to George Soros photo collages, 40-year-old Annalena Baerbock has been the subject of a dizzying array of fake news, conspiracy theories and online attacks since she was announced as the Greens’ chancellor candidate in mid-April.

The latest polls have the Greens either ahead of or level with Merkel’s ruling conservatives, as the once fringe party further establishes itself as a leading electoral force in Europe’s biggest economy.

Baerbock herself also consistently polls higher than her conservative and centre-left rivals in the race to succeed Merkel, who will leave office after 16 years this autumn.

Yet her popularity has also brought about unwanted attention and a glut of fake news stories aimed at discrediting Baerbock as she bids to become Germany’s first Green chancellor.


False claims

Among the false stories circulating about Baerbock is the bizarre claim that she wants to ban household pets in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Another fake story firmly denied by the party claimed that she defied rules on mask-wearing and social-distancing by embracing colleagues upon her nomination earlier this month.

Baerbock has also been presented as a “model student” of Hungarian billionaire George Soros – a hate figure for the European far-right and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists – in a mocked-up social media graphic shared among others by a far-right MP.

More serious online attacks include a purported photo of Baerbock which in fact shows a similar-looking naked model.

The Greens’ campaign manager Michael Kellner said that the attempts to discredit Baerbock had “taken on a new dimension”, that “women are targeted more heavily by online attacks than men, and that is also true of our candidate”.

Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock earlier this month. Photo: DPA

Other false claims about the party include reports of a proposed ban on barbecues, as well as plans to disarm the police and enforce the teaching of the Quran in schools.

While such reports are patently absurd, they are potentially damaging to Baerbock and her party as they bid to spring a surprise victory in September.

“She has a very real chance, but the coming weeks are going to be very important because Baerbock’s public image is still taking shape,” Thorsten Faas, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University told AFP.

In a bid to fight back against the flood of false information, the party has launched a new “online fire service” to report fake news stories.

READ ALSO: Greens become ‘most popular political party’ in Germany

Russian disinformation

Yet stemming the tide is no easy job, with many of those who peddle disinformation now using private messaging services such as WhatsApp and Telegram rather than public platforms such as Facebook.

The pandemic and ongoing restrictions on public life will also make it harder for the campaign to push through their own narratives at public events.

Miro Dittrich of Germany’s Amadeu-Antonio anti-racism foundation claims that lockdown has “played a role” in the spread of fake news.

“People are isolated from their social environment and are spending a lot more time online,” he said.

Another factor is Russia, which has made Germany a primary target of its efforts to spread disinformation in Europe.

According to the European anti-disinformation platform EUvsDisinfo, Germany has been the target of 700 Russian disinformation cases since 2015, compared to 300 aimed at France and 170 at Italy.

As an outspoken critic of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Germany and Russia, Baerbock may well become a target of such attacks during the election campaign.

By Mathieu FOULKES