In December 2018 I wrote the following article warning about the possibility that has just been borne out by the 2019 Annual Report of the National Security Department (Informe Anual 2019 del Departamento de Seguridad Nacional, i.e., the threat of foreign disinformation campaigns aiming to whip up a climate of tension to upset the results of the 2019 elections.
This report claims that there was an “Increase in activities carried out by other countries” with the aim of swaying the elections of Europe and, in particular, Spain. The report listed the main threats to national security as well as the damage-limitation measures taken. It also included a chapter on pandemics that, at the time, we did not realize would come to pass only months later. Just as we citizens could not have suspected the “lethargic” state in which, to judge from the reaction of the competent authorities, the epidemiological surveillance systems “seemed” to have fallen into.
As of 02.06.2020 this report is not available in the official website of the Departamento de Seguridad Nacional https://www.dsn.gob.es/es/estrategias-publicaciones/informe-anual-seguridad-nacional; the latest report posted on the website dates from 2018.
As I was saying nearly two years ago ….
Offensive before the European elections of 2019
The word “fake” has become popular and, when in conjunction with the noun “news”, we all know what it refers to nowadays: news that is false, everyday lies, but that is also disseminated en masse at lightning speed through social networks, without any filtering or pause for thought before its publication.
We recently saw how this type of “news” changed the way Americans voted in the last Presidential election. We have also seen the alleged Russian interference in the Brexit referendum or the lengths gone to by supporters of Catalonian independence to disseminate “their version” of events outside of Spain.
With a series of both European and national elections on the horizon, the EU is taking a “safety first” approach. The Middle East, the north of Africa, the Balkans and, above all, Russia, are, according to the “EU’s Hybrid Fusion Cell“, the monitoring unit that forms part of the EU’s Intelligence Analysis Centre ─ the ones to watch. It is well known that in Saint Petersburg, the Kremlin has a team of about one thousand persons, working full time so that a battalion of bots can contaminate social networks such as Facebook and Twitter with fake news. The investment earmarked for this goal is 1,100 million euros.
At present, to protect the upcoming European elections of 2019, Brussels has put on the table an action plan with a range of measures, including increasing the 1.9 million euros invested in 2018 in the fight against disinformation to 5 million euros in 2019, with surveillance of social networks being the main item on the agenda. In addition, the Commission has also proposed the creation of a “rapid warning system” to guarantee “the joint and coordinate response” of all its members against propaganda attacks. The boosting of support measures to facilitate cross-border cooperation between media; the creation of independent teams of fact-checkers and the launch of campaigns aimed at inculcating a state of alert in public opinion as regards possible distortions are other proposals contained in the plan of action.
Social networks and citizen responsibility
If Internet has been a revolution for the traditional print and audiovisual mass media, with the arrival of digital platforms that act as “content aggregators and distributors without necessarily taking on the editorial frameworks and capabilities of such outlets” (1), social networks have added a new twist which has required the mass media to carry out a “total re-styling”.
In journalism faculties, students still learn about ethics in their profession; the verification and checking of information against reliable sources before sending news items for publication … and reference is even made to the responsibility of the party providing the information to society as a whole. In the words of Elsa González, former President of the Federation of Associations of Spanish Journalists (FAPE) “defending the truth is what journalism is about, but moreover by doing so we help build freedom and democracy.”
When Edmund Burke, in his speech to the UK’s House of Commons in 1787, recognised the journalists sitting in Parliament as the fourth estate (in addition to the Lords Spiritual, Lords Temporal and the Commons), he was simply describing the way things were at that time. 231 years later, with everyone having accepted the role of the press in society, a “new tribune” has burst onto the scene which could be recognised as a sixth estate: social networks. Unsurprisingly, universities are busy analysing social networks’ role in politics and social movements (2), being tools used by parties in their campaigns.
If we can assume that “communicators” will observe the rules of professional ethical standards applicable to journalists in their work, given the appearance of the “sixth estate” (The Fifth Estate having already been attributed to WikiLeaks by the producer Steve Golin, based on the novel Inside WikiLeaks by Daniel Domscheit-Berg) composed of enormous “newsrooms” of anonymous citizens bombarding Internet with immediate messages, it is worth asking the following question: individually, do we behave cautiously, prudently, ethically, before publishing news items or reproducing them? Do we check the facts against reliable media and verify that the news is not fake, thereby avoiding us becoming accomplices in a campaign of disinformation or manipulation?
This century, thanks to technology, citizens have a much bigger role in various fields and this has empowered us. As regards our relationship with the state, public authorities have started to give citizens the opportunity to help design action in our neighbourhoods or cities. The “semi-transparent” and participative policy not only entitles citizens to choose, but also to propose. The same thing is happening with science. In “citizen science”, an idea fostered by the European Union, individuals become involved in research to find a cure for this century’s main illnesses. A good example of this is MOPEAD, a project for the early detection of Alzheimer, which uses the “citizen science” model, giving those of us who are concerned about the health of our brains or those of our loved ones the chance to participate by filling out the memory tests available online. Nobody would dispute that these are examples of progress because, amongst other things, there is improved communication between the public authorities and citizens or researchers and citizens. And, in general, the degree of involvement of all concerned increases.
As empowered, participative and responsible citizens, we need to appeal to the conscience and ethics of all social media users so that, before posting a news item, people think twice, check their sources, analyse the facts… because in the end, we’re talking about something that belongs to everyone, and the stakes are very high. Given that Spanish citizens are the most concerned about the vulnerability of our election system, as the report entitled “Democracy and elections” of the Special Eurobarometer 477 shows (3), we must decide whether we want to join the fake-news army or, instead, denounce and stop ordinary lies from being propagated.
- La comunicación política y las nuevas tecnologías. Coordinado por Ramón Cotarelo García e Ismael Crespo Martínez. http://catalogo.rebiun.org/rebiun/doc?q=978-84-8319-773-8+%7C%7C+9788483197738&start=0&rows=1&sort=score desc&fq=msstored_mlt172&fv=LIB&fo=and&redo_advanced=false
Author: Maole Cerezo
Las opiniones vertidas por el autor son enteramente suyas y no siempre representan la opinión de GMV
The author’s views are entirely his own and may not reflect the views of GMV