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

The right to freedom of expression is an inherent right of democracy. This right is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the European Convention on Human Rights. It is therefore a fundamental right, but it is not absolute: it is subject to a whole series of legitimate limitations. But for the past year, we have been witnessing totally illegitimate censorship initiatives:

  • on social networks, Facebook groups challenging the government’s measures have been deleted 
  • YouTube videos of doctors who do not share or qualify the official discourse have been censored;
  • For several months now, YouTube has been banning content that contradicts the consensus of local health authorities or the WHO regarding COVID-19 and its vaccines(1);
  • Twitter’s  » COVID-19 Misrepresentation Policy  » is along the same lines(2);
  • Google News also indicates that sites that contradict scientific or medical consensus are banned(3);
  • dozens of sites, videos and articles that are perfectly legal are censored because they do not respect a certain « consensus »;
  • In the traditional media, previously accepted critical articles were eventually rejected or withdrawn;
  • one could still speak about the obstacles encountered by independent journalists: of these microphones unfortunatly cut in press conferences (newspaper Kairos), of the media France Soir which fears censorship; of intimidations, arrests, arbitrary strip searches on people expressing their opinions(4);
  • or of this Belgian policeman in charge of tracking down « fake news » who tells us in an article of the RTBF(5) that one would have the right to say in a « post » that one does not wear the mask, but that one would not have the right to call on a part of the population not to wear the mask (I quote)  » by claiming anything  » because it could be detrimental to health. The idea behind this principle is clearly that arguments, even rational, even scientific ones, that allow one to contest certain measures and political orientations are no longer accepted(6).
  • Finally, we could also talk about the Belgian Order of Physicians, which now allows itself to prosecute doctors who express their doubts about the anti-COVID-19 vaccines(7). Physicians have received a letter from the College stating:  » The Order of Physicians will ensure that physicians respect their ethical duty by taking a pioneering role in recommending and promoting vaccination  » (…) ». The College will crack down hard on the dissemination of information that is not consistent with the current state of science.  »

In the same spirit, on June 10, 2020, the European authorities published a communication entitled « Combating misinformation about COVID-19 — Sorting out the truth from the false »(8). Under the guise of  » preserving democracy  » and  » protecting the integrity of public debate « , and in the wake of other European initiatives, this text heralds a radical shift in the area of freedom of expression. This communication is in fact only one element in a much broader European strategy on security, so-called « hybrid threats » and disinformation, a strategy that was greatly expanded at the end of 2020. There are indeed, at the European level :

  • since 2016, a Common Framework for Addressing Hybrid Threats(9);
  • Since 2018, a Joint Action Plan to Combat Misinformation;
  • since 2018, a Code of Good Practice against online misinformation;
  • In July 2020, the EU published its security strategy for 2020–2025.

As of December 2020, there are additionally:

  • an Action Plan for European Democracy, which addresses the problem of disinformation;
  • A new EU cybersecurity strategy;
  • two proposed regulations: the DSA (Digital Services Act) and the DMA (Digital Market Act) which also address, among many other issues, misinformation, manipulation and propaganda online;
  • a document of the Council of the EU(10) confirming the action of the EU in particular on misinformation in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic;

Moreover, there is a « fact-checking » web page of the European Commission entitled « Fighting misinformation »(11) which at least raises questions about its bias with regard to the sources on which it relies. To take just one example: on the issue of containment, this page states (without reference to scientific studies)  » Most scientists and policymakers agree that containment saves lives, » referring to a WHO page that also states that  » Large scale physical distancing measures and movement restrictions, often referred to as ‘lockdowns’, can slow COVID-19 transmission « , these two institutions totally ignore the study of Prof. John Ioannidis, world-renowned medical epidemiologist(12) whose recent study does not reach this conclusion.

What are hybrid threats?

A Belgian Defense report defines hybrid threats as  » The use by a state or non-state actor of all available diplomatic, informational, military and economic means to destabilize an adversary « (13). Ultimately, « hybrid threats » encompass just about anything that can be perceived as a threat, including misinformation(14). The Belgian intelligence services, for example, believe that, on social networks, individuals and groups are using the COVID-19 crisis to  » undermine the authority of the Belgian government ‚ » while disinformation campaigns, notably Russian and Chinese, would seek to  » destabilize democracies « ,  » undermine European values « ,  » toweaken the West « .(15) (geopolitical threats that the purpose of this article is not to dispute). However, specialists warn against the plasticity of the term « hybrid threats ». However, the EU includes in these hybrid threats disinformation (which implies an intention to harm) and also seeks to fight against misinformation (i.e. the simple fact of transmitting false information).

How does the EU intend to combat these phenomena?

In several passages of this communication (followed and preceded by oratorical precautions promoting democracy, freedom of expression, independent journalism, etc.), the EU suggests that it intends to fight against « disinformation » with the help of « professional » media, the collaboration of social media platforms (social networks, search engines, …), but also through regulatory and repressive measures. The problem is that the EU’s fight against disinformation seems ready, in the process, to stifle any form of critical discourse, of public debate, both political and scientific. Several elements confirm this trend.

1) The communication reveals that platforms must now favor information that is  » accurate and from authoritative sources, » including COVID-19 and vaccines. Isn’t it a bit early to talk about « accurate » information on covid-19? Furthermore, what are the sources presented as authoritative in these texts? WHO, national health authorities and professional media. On the one hand, the independence of the WHO has often been questioned, and not only in this crisis. On the other hand, it is well known that most « professional » media are owned by interest groups(16). 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 only 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, likely to evolve because knowledge evolves. Moreover, a consensus of scientists does not always mean a global scientific consensus if these scientists are driven, even unconsciously, by a certain vision of the world, or more prosaically by certain interests. Finally, promoting only the sources presented by the authority itself as authoritative poses a real democratic problem when some of the scientists who support them are in conflict of interest, when those who discuss them are automatically discredited in the public arena, and when others still censor themselves to avoid getting into trouble? How will researchers who obtain results that contradict authoritative information be treated?

Vaccine « misinformation »: censoring critical positions

2) The communication emphasizes that misinformation and misinformation surrounding COVID-19 vaccines are likely to complicate their deployment. It is possible. But some of the objections to these new vaccines are not the result of misinformation or disinformation, but come from the scientific community, and even from specialists(17). Every citizen has the right to complete information allowing him to freely form the most informed opinion possible.

3) The communication adds that policy decisions should be made on the basis of advice from scientists and health professionals. There is no problem with decisions being informed by science, but there is more to human life than health, and health itself should not be limited to the control of covid-19: other opinions and public interests must be taken into account. Moreover, one cannot neglect the non-transparent aspects linked to scientific discourse: commercial interests, patents, lobbying, conflicts of interest, scientific fraud(18). We are therefore entitled to take a critical step back from certain conclusions presented as purely scientific, and especially from the political and ethical injunctions that would follow from these conclusions: we are entitled, in a democracy, to demand that contradictory debates be held, both scientific and citizen.

Official information and citizen (re)information: double standards

4) Combating misinformation is not limited to health issues related to covid-19:

 » 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(19)« 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?

5) Reading these different documents, the EU’s project is clearly to establish new restrictions on freedom of expression in the face of what it considers to be disinformation with content deemed harmful. This is done by defining new offences in general terms (« disinformation », « harmful speech », « intent to mislead », etc.) that will lead either to careful self-censorship or to denunciation, censorship and even repression. Introduce  » intent to harm « ,  » the intention to mislead  » or  » The fact that this text includes  » the intention to cause public harm  » in the grounds for restricting freedom of expression is indeed problematic: the expressions  » intent to harm  » and  » The term « intent to cause public harm  » can be interpreted in a subjective and partisan manner (e.g., challenging a policy action could be interpreted as an intent to harm or cause public harm).  » Intent to mis lead » 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. In the same vein, the difference established by the Commission between misinformation and disinformation is one of intent. Determining the intention of the author of a piece of information is anything but a perfectly objective exercise. What then is the risk of researchers, field professionals (e.g. doctors, field psychologists), citizen groups, journalists, human rights activists observing contradictory facts or expressing critical analyses that might be considered « harmful » from the point of view of the scientific or political authority? Communication reveals:

  • that the social media will be diligent in seeking out the perpetrators of  » misinformation  » or  » pernicious influence operations  » and reporting them to public authorities;
  • that criminal provisions on disinformation will be introduced or reinforced in the Member States;
  • while an army of facts-checkers will restore the « official truth » via the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO).

The EU’s approach to the fight against disinformation does not seem to be the most democratic one. There is a real risk that headlines like this one will one day become our reality:  » Freelance journalist/citizen convicted of ‘stirring up trouble’ for reporting « (20).

So what can we do about misinformation?

It is true that misinformation exists, but if it is multiplied by the Internet, access to information and knowledge is also multiplied (at least as long as censorship is not exercised). On the other hand, misinformation is not new. In history, mistakes(21)Propaganda, disinformation and lies do not only come from pressure groups: they also sometimes come from political authority (there are many examples in history, from demagogic tyrants to war propaganda, …); and sometimes from scientific authority, for example when the latter is not independent (just think of the past and present scientific studies financed by lobbies) This is why counterpowers are needed. To sweep aside these different objections with authority and a simple wave of the hand in the name of « conspiracy » is to refuse to look at the facts.

In such a context, it is therefore only through debate, that is to say the presence of a plurality of opinions (among which some may be false, fanciful, irrelevant, inappropriate, etc.) that truth in science and, one may hope, social consensus in politics can finally emerge. On both the consensus and the dissenting sides, the best way to fight against stupidity, manipulation, propaganda or disinformation is the argumentative response. 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.

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(22) 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.

According to a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, even information that might be false is part of the freedom of expression(23). In another ruling on a public health issue, this court stated that freedom of expression cannot be limited to commonly accepted ideas(24). The freedom to criticize, to challenge, to bring in other visions is indeed 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 speech constitutes a crime. There is indeed content to be removed because it is criminal, and perpetrators to be prosecuted under the existing law. But doubting policy or scientific consensus is not a crime and should not become one: it would be fatal to free speech to add « non-authoritative information » to the list of free speech offenses.

To conclude: the UN Secretary General declared a few days ago that some countries (without naming names) were using the COVID-19 crisis as a pretext to repress dissenting voices, including scientific ones, and to silence independent media: this is clearly the path in which the EU, and our country after it, is engaged. Restrictions on the right to assemble and the right to demonstrate are in the same direction. What do you call a regime that prohibits dissent? A totalitarian regime in the making: on this point I refer readers to the excellent interview with Mattias Desmet republished on Kairos in February 2021(25)(26).

*This text is the transcript of an interview done as part of the cycle « Deconfining Thought ». 

Notes et références
  1. https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/9891785?hl=fr
  2. https://help.twitter.com/fr/rules-and-policies/medical-misinformation-policy
  3. https://support.google.com/news/publisher-center/answer/6204050?hl=fr
  4. https://www.kairospresse.be/article/ticket-pour-le-cachot/
  5. rtbf.be/info/societe/detail_definir-ce-que-sont-les-fake-news-et-les-discours-de-haine-une-priorite-pour-assurer-l-ordre-et-la-securite-selon-la-police?id=10700425
  6. En outre, c’est infantiliser et déresponsabiliser les gens : une personne adulte qui ne porterait pas le masque sur le conseil d’un autre ne reste-t-elle pas responsable de son choix et de ses actions ?
  7. Décision qui n’est pas sans rappeler ce décret français de décembre 2020 qui interdit aux médecins d’exprimer des opinions divergentes de la doxa officielle.
  8. Communication conjointe au Parlement européen, au Conseil européen, etc., « 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
  9. Voir aussi la communication « Accroître la résilience et renforcer la capacité à répondre aux menaces hybrides » datant de 2018 et les Conclusions du Conseil sur les efforts complémentaires pour renforcer la résilience et lutter contre les menaces hybrides datant de 2019.
  10. 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 : https://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-14064–2020-INIT/fr/pdf
  11. https://ec.europa.eu/info/live-work-travel-eu/coronavirus-response/fighting-disinformation_fr (page consultée le 16/03/21).
  12. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/eci.13484
  13. http://www.irsd.be/website/images/livres/etudes/VS131.pdf, p. 13.
  14. « 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, par exemple : « 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).
  15. Par exemple, sur la page Lutter contre la désinformation | Commission européenne (europa.eu) de la commission européenne, on déplore que des acteurs pro-Kremlin fassent la promotion du vaccin Sputnik V en Amérique latine, tout en tentant de discréditer d’autres vaccins…
  16. Voir https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/cartes/PPA. Voir aussi « Ceux qui vous informent sont ceux qui vous dominent »: https://www.kairospresse.be/article/nos-flyers-sont-la/. 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/
  17. Voir par exemple https://www.kairospresse.be/article/vaccination-de-masse-contre-la-covid-19-fruit-de-consentements-individuels-libres-et-eclaires/; https://www.kairospresse.be/article/covid-19-rapport-dexpertise-sur-les-vaccins-ayant-recours-aux-technologies-ogm-synthese-de-la-note-du-dr-velot/
  18. Voir par exemple: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fraude_scientifique; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0248866320300461; John P.. Ioannidis, « Why Most Published Research Findings Are False », in PLoS Med 2(8), 30 août 2005 : https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124
  19. Cet extrait provient d’un autre document (« Efforts complémentaires pour renforcer la résilience et lutter contre les menaces hybrides », op. cit.) auquel renvoie la communication analysée dans cet article.
  20. 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
  21. S’il est vrai que de nombreuses informations fausses circulent sur les réseaux sociaux, suscitant de la confusion et de la méfiance de la part des populations envers le politique et la science, les injonctions politiques et l’expertise scientifique officielle de ces douze derniers mois diffusent elles aussi une avalanche d’informations très rapidement contredites par la suite, y compris par les mêmes intervenants, provoquant elles aussi la confusion et la méfiance d’une partie de l’opinion publique. Au final, le manque de transparence et de discours contradictoire que provoquerait (que provoque déjà) la censure ne peut qu’aggraver encore cette méfiance.
  22. 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.
  23. CEDH, Cour (Deuxième Section), 6 sept. 2005, n° 65518/01, §113.
  24. CEDH, 25 août 1998, Hertel/Suisse, §50.
  25. Cet auteur montre notamment que les régimes totalitaires en devenir se rabattent généralement sur un discours « scientifique », montrent un grand intérêt pour les chiffres et les statistiques, qui se transforment rapidement en pure propagande, caractérisée par un  « mépris des faits » radical : https://www.kairospresse.be/article/les-mesures-contre-le-coronavirus-revelent-des-traits-totalitaires/
  26. 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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