I’m sick of the ‘blah blah’ on desinformation and fake news. Let’s start by providing good information

(B2) It is necessary to fight against desinformation, fake news, and to face interference. It has become the new leitmotif in fashion in Brussels and some capitals. A very convenient temptation to avoid pointing the finger at a problem: the lack of information

(crédit : EULEX Kosovo)

Foreign ministers are discussing this on Monday, after their colleagues in European Affairs. The Heads of State and Government discussed the issue last December (see: Stop à la désinformation. Les ’28’ demandent d’agir vite), on the basis of an ‘action plan’ presented by the European Commission in December (see: Un système d’alerte rapide, des unités anti-propagande du SEAE renforcées. Le plan d’action anti-fake news de la Commission). They all forget one main point. Politicians themselves are at the root of some attempts at desinformation.

A real problem….

There is a real problem of attempted influence, destabilization, through fake news and other Russian instruments. There’s no need to beat around the bush and hide it. But on the one hand, this problem is not really new. This was previously called ‘propaganda’; it is just the technical instruments that have changed. On the other hand, it is not insurmountable.

… and a real question

However, this raises a real question for society, for politicians and the press alike: what should we do? spend our time denying and correcting information? This is, in terms of efficiency, quite a lot and even very limited. It is like bailing an ocean with a landing net, and in the worst case, giving more value to what is initially a common foolishness. In a word, it is a misrepresentation of the duty of public authorities and the journalism profession to provide information. Perhaps we should start with a real information policy.

European-style desinformation

Attempts at desinformation are not Russia’s monopoly. Others use it, sometimes in a softer way, including within national governments or European bodies, giving information a dead end.

First notch: the transparency flouted

With the exception of the European Parliament, most decisions at European level are taken with closed doors. The counterpart of this logic, taken in the name of compromise and realism, should be a certain transparency, a precise and concrete rendering of decisions. The European Commission is committed to this (more or less successfully): after each Commission meeting, a Commissioner ‘goes down’ to the press room to report. In the EU Council, the mandatory reporting is much less respected.

  • Routinely, nowadays, the press conference supposed to report on decisions turns into a long monologue, followed by 2 or 3 questions. And then, “sorry… the minister, the commissioner, is in a hurry, has another appointment, has to catch a plane, etc.”. This was the case at the first press conference of the Romanian EU Presidency on 8 January. The Minister for European Affairs, George Ciamba, was in a hurry. As a result, he’forgot’ to report on the main decision of the day: the sanctions taken against Iran… after having spoken extensively (alone) about the need to fight desinformation. High Representative Federica Mogherini has now systematically taken this path. But there are worse things……

Some have gotten into the habit of not saying anything. This is the case of the French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who makes at best a statement on arrival in Brussels to say what he thinks (the famous “language elements” prepared well in advance) and answers a question. Two minutes and 30 seconds, all inclusive, on sunny days! No conference or minutes after the meeting, the Frenchman walks through a back door (often before the end of the meeting): he has appointments and prefers, after returning to Paris in the warmth, to do a good 20-minute interview on a radio (Europe 1 or RTL have his preference in general). It is more relaxing and more “profitable” for the image….
This situation has to change. On the one hand, it is a breach of the commitments made at the highest level between the European authorities and the press. On the other hand, good information implies that on all the topics discussed at a meeting, there may be at least one question, or even two or three, because it is the very diversity of the press that allows us to explain ourselves.

Second notch: the temptation of the harmful com’ coup

The communication of decisions taken by the Commission, a government, is often made at the last moment to the press, at the same time as the press conference, or even during or after.
Sometimes it’s an imponderable situation – the decision has just been made, and the documents have to be printed or translated. But, very often, this is not the case, it is to avoid questions that are too relevant or simply to keep the suspense to the end, to make a ‘comeback’.

  • The latest example to date is the Franco-German treaty. The Elysée thought it would be good to keep the document ‘secret’, where Berlin communicated more. However, the text is finalized, definitively approved, down to the smallest commas. A blow to democracy. In the end, a big fake came out on Alsace-Lorraine which would be returned to Germany. A big joke that could have been avoided, if not avoided, at least lessened.

Third notch: monolingualism, taken at every possible deviation

At European level, texts are often not translated into’useful’ or major languages. As a result, media like Russia Today are given not only the first but also the exclusivity on the web in certain languages on certain European topics. Read: French excluded from European defence. Financial Gabegie. Strategic error

Fourth notch: the misrepresentation or blocking of information

Too often, some communication managers persist in delaying, leading us on false paths, when they do not complain about the information activity. When politicians hide, hide important or insignificant information, or even disguise reality (cf. Benalla case in France), they play with fire, devalue their word, and in fact contribute to preparing the ground for the next desinformation. In other words, they collect a lot of dry leaves, all that remains is to throw away the match.

  • At European level, Heads of CSDP Mission and Operations deployed in the field never again report on certain defence missions or operations launched (1). While they act on behalf of Europeans and in missions entirely financed by the taxpayer. Budgets committed to military operations are not made public (2). This is in contradiction with the (moral) commitment to be accountable for public funds. Finally, when the European Commission singles out a communication, let us say very optimistic, twisting the statistics a little bit, to justify what it considers to be’good for Europeans’, it leaves the door open to all critics (3).

Better, clear, healthy information

Better combating desinformation does not mean putting a few million euros into an action plan, without big ideas, or recruiting three more people, to distribute good and bad points to the media, it means first of all giving priority to sound, concrete, early information, by making the work of professional journalists easier and not by making it more complicated.
Better combating desinformation means playing fair play with the press, not putting obstacles in its way, playing the game of cat and mouse, complaining once the doors are closed that “the press has too much information”.
To better fight desinformation is to keep one’s commitments, to come and report, to publish all available information as soon as possible and in a language accessible to all.
Only then can we build real’resilience’ in the population and restore trust in institutions. Then we can talk about fighting misinformation….

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Reinvesting in the web: a reflection that must be a challenge in the media

This questioning of policies must be extended to the media. By leaving the web, to deliver only similar information, because it comes from the same sources (AFP news, Reuters,…), by engaging in a’click’ culture (to generate an improbable advertising resource…), the media, we, made a double mistake: 1. delivering almost identical content (so lend themselves to the accusation of ‘you are all the same’); 2. leaving the field open on the ‘net’ to ‘other’ information, sometimes interesting, but sometimes completely false.
It is the squaring of the circle: How to reinvest the web and, at the same time, find adequate resources that preserve independence? How can we ensure the diversity of media and opinions, and at the same time produce healthy and honest information for all and not just for the elite? How can we ensure a certain traceability of information, a prerequisite for trust, by preserving the confidentiality of sources? We need to look at it. B2, who has always had a ‘blog’ next to his paid site, is reflecting on this point (4). We encourage other media to think about it.

  1. As a matter of course, the heads of mission and operations deployed by the European Union no longer report to the European media on their activities.
  2. Example: The Athena mechanism, which collects Member States’ budgetary’contributions’ for military operations, does not publish its detailed accounts.
  3. Read: Avec les accords de libre échange, demain on rase gratis !
  4. On certain points, in particular the traceability of information, our first answers are in our (revised) Editorial Charter, which outlines our commitments and our editorial line.

Nicolas Gros-Verheyde

Rédacteur en chef du site B2. Diplômé en droit européen de l'université Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne et auditeur 65e session IHEDN (Institut des hautes études de la défense nationale. Journaliste depuis 1989, fonde B2 - Bruxelles2 en 2008. Correspondant UE/OTAN à Bruxelles pour Sud-Ouest (auparavant Ouest-France et France-Soir).