Is fake news a threat?

The European Union is raising the alarm about foreign-inspired fake news. If it truly wants to do something about disinformation, the best place to start would be to communicate honestly with its own citizens.

Commission Julian King is the EU point man for cyberattacks
Brussels, Sept. 19, 2017: European Commissioner for Security Union Julian King speaks on the European Union’s latest package of countermeasures to cyberattacks. © dpa

Sir Julian King, the European Commissioner for the Security Union, has described “fake news” – allegedly spread by the Russian military and some sources in the United States, including Breitbart – as a strategic threat to the European Union.

Unfortunately, propaganda and disinformation, including fake news, have always been part of the toolbox in international politics. Today, these instruments are used openly and with great sophistication by virtually all political actors. They are less effective, however, against systems where institutions are trusted by the citizenry. In such cases, the old proverb applies: “Dogs bark, but the caravans move on.”

Sir Julian’s concerns are alarming not so much because fake news is being spread, but because the European Commission regards it as a threat. What his comments reveal is a lack of confidence between the Commission and the European public.

The best way to counter fake news is honest communication and clear policies. Open debate and freedom of expression are of the essence.

Fertile biotope

Unfortunately, neither the Commission nor the governments and political parties of many EU member countries appear ready to recognize this.

Their mindset is best revealed by some classic comments from the ultimate EU insider, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker:

  • “We decide on something, leave it lying around and wait and see what happens. If no one kicks up a fuss, because most people don’t understand what has been decided, we continue step by step until there is no turning back.” (Speaking in 1999 on the adoption of the euro.)

Arrogance and lack of accountability leave plenty of room for conspiracy theories to develop.

  • “When it becomes serious, you have to lie.” (On the importance of protecting sensitive Greek debt negotiations in 2011, including a threat from Athens to leave the eurozone, from premature public scrutiny.)
  • “If it’s a Yes, we will say ‘on we go,’ and if it’s a No, we will say ‘we continue.’ ” (On what would happen if France rejected the 2005 EU constitution in a national referendum, as it in fact did.)

This arrogance toward the public and rejection of political accountability is by no means limited to Mr. Juncker and the Commission. It is also general among the governments and political parties of the EU member countries.

Such attitudes leave plenty of room for conspiracy theories to develop. They create a fertile breeding ground for fake news.

Losing touch

What is missing here is the essence of democracy – the need to convince fellow citizens through discussion and debate. It invalidates the plurality of opinion, free speech and freedom of thought that make democratic politics possible.

Europe is losing touch with these important values. Technocrats, represented in the so-called liberal democracies by personalities such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, suggest that there are no alternatives to their proposals – whoever deviates is either irrational or radical. Similar attitudes are expressed by some international institutions and nongovernmental organizations.

Some people who rightly disagree with this arrogant and opinionated thinking have been attracted to so-called “populist” or “radical” movements. Unfortunately, many of these new “populists” are quite self-righteous themselves and equally keen to marginalize their political opponents.

The only remedy to this vicious circle is open debate and honest politics.

In fact, there is a sad convergence between technocrats and populists. Both act in perfect symbiosis to feed conspiracy theories and fake news.

The only remedy to this vicious circle is open debate and honest politics. Betraying fundamental principles for short-term gains, as practiced by some established political parties, has become a cancer to the democratic system. The public reaction to this was shown most recently by the losses suffered by Germany’s ruling parties – the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats – in the September 2017 elections.

Fake news becomes dangerous only when people lose trust in their political system.

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