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Fighting Back Against Big Tech

Emma De Souza reports on how countries are tackling the rise in misinformation through the legal and education systems

Twitter owner Elon Musk. Photo: Suzanne Cordeiro/For the Austin American-Statesman/TNS/Sipa USA

Fighting Back Against Big Tech

Emma De Souza reports on how countries are tackling the rise in misinformation through the legal and education systems

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As we continue to navigate the digital era, the threats posed by state and non-state actors alike have become an all too familiar fixture of the landscape.

Countries around the world have had to contend with an ever-evolving litany of methods of interference in their democratic processes, seeing foreign interests artificially skew public opinion.

Following the 2016 US Presidential Election, efforts to mitigate against foreign interference in Western democracies have significantly increased, but can the tidal wave of misinformation and disinformation be stopped in an age of increasing digitisation?

Foreign interference in democracy can take many forms – from cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns to lobbying efforts and the funding of political candidates. In recent years, several countries have taken steps to strengthen legislation and cyber-security firewalls. These efforts have increased dramatically in Europe following Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which was coupled with a high-level, sophisticated and malicious disinformation campaign targeting Ukraine.

To minimise the reach of Putin’s propaganda machine following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU banned Russian state-owned media such as Sputnik and Russia Today from broadcasting in the EU.

Other efforts to defend against harmful disinformation and the impact it has on democracy have been evidenced in the EU’s 2022 Media Freedom Act – the legislation that seeks to protect against propaganda and misinformation, and safeguard media pluralism and journalists, among other related areas of media freedom. It will be a thorn in Elon Musk’s side.

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Since taking over social media giant Twitter, the world’s richest man has been moulding the platform’s long-established policies to benefit his every whim – disregarding international standards and safeguards with no concern for the detrimental influence and impact his newly acquired company could have on democracy.

Irish MEP Billy Kelleher has said that there is “very strong evidence, quite systematic, that Western democracies – through misinformation, disinformation – are being attacked”, believing that a growing challenge when it comes to combating disinformation is discerning between “domestic and foreign interference”.

The Fianna Fail MEP thinks “more cooperation” is necessary and that this brings “the whole issue of [Ireland’s] military neutrality into the conversation”.

Ireland has been neutral since the 1930s, a position that has been contested since the 1970s. But the issue has once again bubbled to the surface following the launch of Russia’s war, with some arguing it is the weak link among EU member states.

Last June, the EU established a Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the European Union, including disinformation, to analyse the various forms of interference in democratic institutions and processes. It has since released a report calling for the creation of a permanent system for the world’s democracies to share anti-coercion practices as well as information on threats, in an effort to take a more joined-up approach.

Australia has emerged as a global leader in mitigating against foreign interference in the country’s attempts to tackle disinformation and interference from China. It is clear that the EU and other Western democracies are keen to learn from its response. Further measures taken in Europe include rules screening foreign direct investment, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation system, and Digital Markets Act. 

One of the most significant challenges facing Western democracies is that authoritarian regimes are also learning to adapt and, as digitisation of democratic practices continues, not only social media, but in the proliferation of normalised online voting, the opportunities for interference are growing.

Having tracked a 15-year decline in democracy, independent monitoring body Freedom House contends that in every region of the world, democracy is under attack. In 2022, the body marked worrying declines in internet freedom and increased efforts by authoritarian regimes to use digitisation to weaken democracy.

Protecting against the malicious intent of authoritarian regimes and others who seek to weaken democracy requires not only stronger legislation and cooperation but government action to equip the populace with the skills and tools necessary to recognise disinformation.

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Several countries are successfully tackling the rise in misinformation through the education system.

Finland – recently rated Europe’s most resistant nation to fake news – teaches digital literacy in primary schools. The curriculum is part of a unique, broad strategy devised by the Finnish Government in 2014 to counter media manipulation. Since 2016, multi-platform information literacy and strong critical thinking have become a core, cross-subject component of the national curriculum.

Critical thinking and digital literacy are fundamental instruments in the toolbox to protect against foreign interference, given the rise in disinformation campaigns, which can in turn influence those susceptible to fake news during elections.

But education is but one lever that countries can pull. If democracy is to be safeguarded in the digital era, a multi-pronged approach is required to build cooperation – not just between governments but between people too. As we watch war unfolding in Ukraine, it is clear that not enough is being done to safeguard democracy. 

There will be a raft of legislation to follow in 2023 – from the UK’s Online Safety Bill to the implementation of the EU’s Media Freedom Act – as countries grapple with this new digital landscape, but one thing is clear: foreign interference in democracies won’t be eradicated.

No amount of legislation or software can fully prevent disinformation in the digital era. But if western democracies work together, in the spirit of cooperation, they can at the very least mitigate against the harms.

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