Censorship: the European Commission’s response to « non-authoritative » information

On June 10, 2020, the European authorities published a communication entitled  » Combating misinformation about COVID-19 — Sorting out the facts « (1). Under the guise of  » preserving democracy  » and  » protecting the integrity of public debate « , and in the wake of other European initiatives(2), this communication heralds a radical shift in the area of freedom of expression, confirmed on 15 December by a document from the Council of the EU(3).

At a time when some EU countries are declaring loudly and clearly that they will not compromise on the issue of censorship, for example on the subject of religious cartoons, it seems that in reality state censorship is taking place within the EU. In several passages of this communication (followed and preceded by oratorical precautions promoting democracy, freedom of expression, independent journalism, etc.), the EU explicitly mentions the role it expects « professional » media and social media platforms to play in the fight against misinformation, and just as explicitly envisages  » public measures « , presumably to legislate on this issue. Under the pretext of fighting against  » hybrid threats(4)  » aimed at  » destabilize democracies  » and « to The EU’s fight against disinformation seems unfortunately ready tostifle all forms of critical discourse, both political and scientific. By including the fight against disinformation in general, and covid-19 in particular, in the fight against hybrid threats, the EU is about to directly impede public debate and, in so doing, democracy. Below are some excerpts from this paper (in italics), followed by our comments.

« The lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis show that it is important to promote information from authoritative sources and that decisions should be made based on the advice of scientists and health professionals. »

Several points should be made at the outset: « Promoting information from authoritative sources » is an authoritarian conception of knowledge, to say the least. What are these authoritative sources? Who decides that they are authoritative? Obviously the authority. And on what basis are they authoritative? Because the authority has decided so.

In politics, there is no truth, only political choices. Among these choices, some favor freedom, others less so; some favor the interests of certain segments of the population, others the interests of other social groups. None of these choices is « authoritative »: they are all subject to democratic re-evaluation and change.

In the scientific field (and particularly in the medical field), if there are scientific truths based on rigorous reasoning and verified by experience, we must also take into account the fact that science is in perpetual construction/revision. To promote information from authoritative sources in science is to appeal to the argument of authority (which is not a scientific argument), i.e. either the position of the one who claims to hold the Truth, or the authoritative scientific consensus. However, the history of science shows that a scientific consensus is only ever a historical consensus, susceptible to change, because knowledge evolves. Moreover, a consensus of scientists does not always mean a scientific consensus if these scientists are driven, even unconsciously, by a certain vision of the world, or more prosaically by certain interests.

Why should we only promote information from « authoritative » sources when some of the scientists who support them have conflicts of interest, those who discuss them are censored, and others censor themselves to stay out of trouble?

And why should decisions be made solely on the basis of advice from scientists and health professionals, when there is more to human life than science and health? In what society, if not in a dystopia with the appearance of a health dictatorship, are social issues debated and political decisions made solely by scientists and health professionals? In a democracy, the debate is public and the decisions are made by the people through their representatives as long as they truly represent them.

« For this purpose, it is important, first, to distinguish between illegal content, as defined by the law, and harmful but not illegal content. Second, it is necessary to determine whether there is an intent to mislead or cause public harm, or to achieve economic gain. In the absence of such intent, such as when citizens unknowingly share misinformation with friends and family in good faith, the content in question may be considered to constitute misinformation; on the other hand, if such intent exists, the content may be characterized as misinformation, as the Commission clarified in its April 2018 Communication. »

This excerpt should be understood as a proposal to establish new restrictions on freedom of expression in the case of disinformation with content deemed harmful, as the following excerpt will confirm. However, introducing « intent to harm », « intent to mislead » or « intent to cause public harm » as grounds for restricting freedom of expression could have the perverse effect of curbing political and social dissent, and even scientific debate. Indeed, the terms « intent to harm » and « intent to cause public harm » can be interpreted in a subjective and partisan manner (e.g., challenging a policy measure could be interpreted as an intent to harm or cause public harm since it could be detrimental to the government in power; on the other hand, it could be beneficial to citizens). The « intent to mislead » is not a more objective reason. Indeed, as explained above, who is going to decree the error and the truth? Discussion of a current policy measure, assumption, or scientific « truth » to support a different or even opposing assumption would risk being interpreted as an intent to mislead. But discussion is intrinsic to both democracy and science.

« An adapted response must be given by all the groups that make up our society according to the degree of harmfulness, the intention, the mode of dissemination, the actors involved and the origin of the latter. Misinformation can therefore be combated by well-targeted rebuttals, demystification actions and media literacy initiatives; disinformation, on the other hand, must be combated by other means, including actions by public authorities, as set out in particular in the action plan against disinformation. (…) « Platforms must limit coordinated manipulation actions and increase transparency around malicious influence operations. »

The difference established by the Commission between misinformation and disinformation is therefore one of intent. Determining the intention of the author of a piece of information is anything but a perfectly objective exercise. And what will happen, for example, to a researcher, a teacher, an activist, a political opponent expressing, alone or in a network on platforms, facts or critical opinions that are sometimes « harmful » to the authority (scientific or political), the core of their mission being, for the first, to advance knowledge by discussing what is established or, for the others, to advance a political or social cause? The risk is that headlines like this one will one day become our reality: « Journalist/citizen convicted of ‘stirring up trouble’ for reporting »(5).

Vaccine « misinformation »: censoring critical positions

« Thus, misinformation and misinformation surrounding a potential COVID-19 vaccine continue to flourish and are likely to complicate vaccine deployment once they become available. »

Certainly. And why is it a problem if citizens feel on their own or if it is shown that new vaccines are not a panacea? Moreover, there is far from being a scientific consensus on the safety and efficacy of vaccines and vaccine candidates. Every citizen is free to express his or her opinion. Any opposition to these new vaccines does not necessarily stem from misinformation or disinformation, contrary to the premise of this excerpt.

« Within their respective responsibilities, the Commission and the High Representative will work in partnership with WHO to strengthen WHO’s epidemiological surveillance through effective media monitoring and to promote the detection and control of misinformation and harmful speech (…) »

Every citizen is free to express his or her opinion. Opposition to these new vaccines is not necessarily the result of misinformation

A distinction is made here between « disinformation speech » and « harmful speech ». Will a speech be considered harmful if it informs about the current limitations of covid-19 vaccines and results in some people being deterred from getting vaccinated, for example? Based on the intent of this communication, this is not impossible. Is such an orientation in the direction of democracy? Certainly not.

The role of online platforms: to identify and denounce

« Online platforms have indicated that they have adapted their policies to combat the threat of misinformation about COVID-19. They have promoted accurate and authoritative information about COVID-19 from the WHO, national health authorities, and professional media. »

Isn’t it a bit premature, and therefore naive, to talk about « accurate » information on covid-19? « Accurate and authoritative information » is supposed to come exclusively from the websites of international organizations, health authorities (WHO in the first place, whose independence has often been questioned, and not only in 2020) and « professional » media (many of which, it should be remembered, are owned by interest groups(6)). How will information and analyses from, for example, an association of researchers, a human rights organization, a political party, or a citizens’ group be treated? Media censorship? Or even research censorship for researchers whose results deviate from authoritative information?

« Platforms will be asked to (…) promote authoritative content at EU and Member State level. Platforms should provide data on actions taken to promote information from national and international health agencies, national and EU authorities, and professional media. (…) Platforms should report any cases of social media manipulation, pernicious influence operations or « inauthentic coordinated behavior » detected in the services they offer. (…) Platforms should also cooperate with Member States and EU institutions to facilitate the evaluation of disinformation campaigns and influence operations and to identify the perpetrators.

What is a « perverse influence operation » or « inauthentic coordinated behavior »? It all depends, of course, on which point of view is adopted and which is contested. What we must remember from this excerpt is that social media are in any case diligent in seeking out the perpetrators of what the powers that be or the media themselves will consider « pernicious influence operations ».

« The newly launched European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO) aims to support the creation of a cross-border, multidisciplinary community of independent fact-checkers and academic researchers (…) for the purpose of researching and better understanding disinformation threats and trends. »

This observatory will be populated by « fact checkers » whose mission will be to establish what is Truth and Error.

« Such as the Health Emergency Response in Interconnected Networks (« HERoS ») project, which is developing a new method for extracting information from social media regarding rumors and misinformation about COVID-19(7). (…) EDMO could also put research to work for public authorities and establish useful links with the early warning system. »

The authors guilty of « misinformation » will therefore be reported to their public authorities.

« Provisions on disinformation, including criminal law provisions, were already in place in several Member States and one Member State introduced a new criminal offence related to the dissemination of disinformation during the state of emergency (cf. amendment of Article 337 of the Hungarian Penal Code). Laws that define these offenses in overly broad terms and attach disproportionate penalties to them can lead to a reluctance on the part of sources to talk to journalists and lead to self-censorship, which raises particular concerns with respect to freedom of expression. »

Under the guise of denouncing it, this is exactly what this text does: defining offenses in general terms (disinformation, harmful speech, intent to mislead, etc.) that will lead either to careful self-censorship, or to denunciation, censorship, or even repression.

Official information and citizen (re)information: double standards

« In hybrid threats, « Examples include (…) disinformation campaigns, including on social media. (…) « In order to work coherently, the findings call for building resilience to hybrid threats in different policy areas, for example when developing and using new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence and data collection techniques, and when assessing the impact of foreign direct investment or future legislative proposals.(8) »

Will dissent be relegated to the side of conspiracy and disinformation, and these deemed criminal?

In clearer terms, the EU intends to strengthen the fight against misinformation in these different political and strategic areas. But, again, who will determine if this is misinformation? Who will determine what the Truth is? Unanimous experts only? What will happen to the words of dissident researchers, journalists, writers, citizens, philosophers, contradictors from other fields of knowledge, etc., who try to put technologies or proposed laws into a global context?

« An avalanche of information about the virus, often false or inaccurate and spreading rapidly through social media, can — according to the World Health Organization (WHO) — sow confusion, generate mistrust and undermine an effective public health response. » (…) « This ‘infodemia’ feeds the most basic anxieties of citizens. « (…) « Misinformation can have serious consequences: it can lead people to ignore official health advice and engage in risky behaviors, or it can have negative repercussions for our democratic institutions, our societies, and our economic and financial situation. » (…) « Among the information that is circulating are (…) false claims (such as ‘There is no point in washing your hands’ or ‘Coronavirus is only dangerous for the elderly’). Such content is not necessarily illegal, but it can directly endanger lives and seriously undermine efforts to contain the pandemic. « (…) « Conspiracy theories that can endanger human health, undermine the cohesion of our societies, and lead to acts of mob violence and social unrest (…) require greater engagement (…). »

Without contesting the fact that a lot of false information is circulating on social networks, citizens observe that the political injunctions and the official scientific expertise of these last twelve months also spread an avalanche of information that is very quickly contradicted afterwards, either by the same speakers or by their peers, and also create confusion and mistrust among a part of public opinion. Without contesting the fact that certain information circulating on social networks feeds the anxieties of the population, these citizens object that the daily ginning up of deaths and contaminations by the scientific authorities, the media hype and the way of life imposed since March have been at the forefront of this process of creation of anguish. Without disputing that misinformation can be harmful, these citizens note that the political measures adopted also have negative repercussions for our democratic institutions (which are now mute), our societies (which are disintegrating), as well as on our economic and financial situation (or at least on that of small economic actors and on the state of public resources, since it is true that some actors seem to be doing well). Finally, without disputing that certain allegations can have negative consequences in terms of health, these citizens note that the lack of care provided to many patients confined to their homes or in nursing homes, the restrictions on the freedom to prescribe and the savings made in recent decades in the hospital sector have also endangered the health of people; certain measures such as social isolation, confinement, bubbles, curfew, distant schooling or prohibitions of visits have also damaged psychological health and human cohesion; and, perhaps more than conspiracy theories, the pursuit of strict measures (e.g., closing down entire sectors of the economy that condemn thousands of people to unemployment and undoubtedly favor certain larger economic actors) is likely to « lead to acts of collective violence and social unrest. Is it not undemocratic and contrary to the scientific approach to sweep aside these different objections with authority and a simple wave of the hand in the name of « conspiracy »?

Freedom of expression: a recent and intrinsic right of democracy

Censorship has existed since antiquity; so has the fight for freedom of expression. The right to freedom of expression is a recent right(9) and intrinsic to democracy. Some have lamented that social networks give so much space to the « 1% of dissident scientists » instead of censoring them. But without scientific debate, how would science progress? Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein represented less than 1% of scientists. And yet, they have opened new scientific eras. The same is true of political consensus: in a democracy, it can always be discussed and questioned on the basis of aspects of reality that have not yet been taken into account. By including the fight against covid-19 misinformation in the fight against hybrid threats, the EU is about to put an end to public debate and, in the process, to democracy. The freedom to think differently, to criticize, to challenge, to bring in other visions is at the foundation of the progress of science, at the foundation of social progress and at the foundation of the fight against political tyranny. Censorship and repression of speech is only a solution when it constitutes a crime, and it would be fatal for freedom of expression to add « non-authoritative information » to the list of crimes in the area of freedom of expression(10). On both the consensus and the dissenting sides, the best way to fight against stupidity, manipulation, propaganda or disinformation is the argumentative response. Contrary to the view put forward in this Commission communication, we maintain that the fight against what the EU or one of its states considers to be disinformation should not justify infringements of the fundamental right to freedom of expression. The citizen has the right to expect that the public authorities provide access to transparent, complete, critical and contradictory information. It is precisely through the possibility of free and plural reflection and information, and not through censorship and propaganda, that the fight against misinformation, the construction of a critical mind of the populations and the restoration of a greater confidence of the citizens towards politics and science are possible.

Notes et références
  1. « Lutter contre la désinformation concernant la COVID-19 – Démêler le vrai du faux »: https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/communication-tackling-covid-19-disinformation-getting-facts-right_fr.pdf
  2. « Cadre commun en matière de lutte contre les menaces hybrides » ; « Accroître la résilience et renforcer la capacité à répondre aux menaces hybrides » ; Plan d’action contre la désinformation ; Plan d’action pour la démocratie européenne ; Code de bonnes pratiques contre la désinformation en ligne.
  3. Conclusions du Conseil sur le renforcement de la résilience et la lutte contre les menaces hybrides, y compris la désinformation, dans le contexte de la pandémie de COVID-19.
  4. Les « menaces hybrides » englobent un peu de tout, y compris la désinformation : « Les menaces hybrides sont diverses et en constante évolution, et les outils utilisés vont des faux profils sur les médias sociaux aux cyberattaques sophistiquées, voire jusqu’à l’emploi manifeste de la force militaire, en passant par tout l’éventail des actions intermédiaires » : https://www.nato.int/docu/review/fr/articles/2018/11/23/cooperer-pour-lutter-contre-les-menaces-hybrides/index.html. Pour un historique du concept, voir http://www.irsd.be/website/images/livres/etudes/VS131.pdf: ce rapport de la Défense rapporte plusieurs définitions du concept : « L’utilisation par un État ou par un acteur non-étatique de tous les moyens diplomatiques, informatifs, militaires et économiques disponibles pour déstabiliser un adversaire » (p. 13) ou encore « Des campagnes de désinformation massive, faisant appel aux médias sociaux pour contrôler le discours politique ou pour radicaliser, recruter et diriger des acteurs agissant par procuration peuvent être des vecteurs de menaces hybrides » (p. 19) et rapporte certaines mises en garde par rapport à ce concept : « De son côté, Tenenbaum met également en garde contre la « plasticité » de la notion de « guerre hybride ». D’après lui en effet, celle-ci « renvoie à des réalités tant politico-stratégiques que tactico-opérationnelles et, sans un accord de ceux qui l’emploient sur le sens exact de l’expression, elle risque de mener à bien des incompréhensions, voire à de dangereux quiproquos » (p. 21) ou encore « Tous les défis émergents, militaires ou non, sont tout à coup devenus susceptibles d’être désignés comme des menaces hybrides » (p. 26).
  5. https://www.rtbf.be/info/monde/detail_coronavirus-une-journaliste-citoyenne-chinoise-condamnee-a-4-ans-de-prison-pour-provocation-aux-troubles-pour-des-reportages-a-wuhan?id=10662233
  6. Voir https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/cartes/PPA. Comme le note A. Penasse : « Les groupes auxquels ils appartiennent sont liés à des investissements dans le secteur médical. Le Soir par exemple, est entré dans le capital de la société belge Redpharma qui conseille notamment GSK, Sanofi, Roche, Nestlé, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, etc. » : https://www.kairospresse.be/article/la-course-aux-milliards-du-covid-19/
  7. Pour en savoir plus: https://cordis.europa.eu/project/id/101003606.
  8. Cet extrait provient d’un autre document (« Efforts complémentaires pour renforcer la résilience et lutter contre les menaces hybrides ») auquel renvoie la communication analysée dans cet article.

  9. Inscrit en France dans la Déclaration de 1789 mais mis en oeuvre en 1881 (loi sur la liberté de la presse) ; inscrit en 1948 dans la Déclaration universelle des droits de l’homme et en 1950 dans la Convention européenne des droits de l’homme.
  10. En Belgique, il existe déjà de nombreuses limites à la liberté d’expression comme le respect de la vie privée, le droit à l’image, le droit à l’honneur (dignité), l’interdiction de la diffamation, de la calomnie, de l’injure, de l’offense, de l’outrage, l’interdiction de l’apologie de la violence, de l’incitation à la haine, à la discrimination, à la ségrégation, l’interdiction de l’homophobie, du racisme, de la xénophobie, du sexisme, du négationnisme, du harcèlement, l’interdiction de la divulgation d’informations confidentielles ; il existe encore d’autres restrictions pour garantir la sécurité, la santé (ex. pas de publicité mensongère pour un médicament), etc.
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