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The EU’s disinformation machine

Brussels has been spreading outrageous falsehoods to justify its surveillance of European citizens.

Norman Lewis

Topics Free Speech Politics World

When it comes to hypocrisy and doublespeak, the EU is in a class of its own. Last week, the European Commission loftily announced that it had decided to stop advertising on social-media platform X (formerly Twitter). It cited ‘widespread concerns relating to the spread of disinformation’ on the platform, particularly in relation to the Israel-Hamas war. This advertising boycott is part of a broader campaign by the EU to bring X into line with European laws on online-content moderation, in particular the Digital Services Act, which gives Brussels the power to censor what it deems to be ‘hate speech’ or ‘disinformation’.

But if the EU is really so worried about being associated with ‘disinformation’, then perhaps it ought to look at itself in the mirror. Back in September, the European Commission launched an illegal and factually questionable ad campaign on X. The EU’s ads feature emotionally charged images of scared-looking children, juxtaposed with adults who are implied to be sexual predators. The ads insist that ‘time is running out’ to stop these paedophiles.

The purpose of the campaign was to promote a Commission pet project, the Child Sexual Abuse Regulation (CSAR), proposed by European commissioner for home affairs Ylva Johansson last year. On the face of it, this regulation might seem uncontroversial. After all, who would object to stopping child abuse? In reality, what was being proposed is deeply authoritarian.

One of the key measures that was initially part of the CSAR was a process called ‘chat control’, which would have allowed the EU to monitor people’s private conversations. The idea is that digital correspondence would be screened for potential criminal offences with the use of AI technology. Every single message sent by EU citizens would be included in this – including on Instagram, TikTok, X and even end-to-end encrypted messaging apps, like WhatsApp or Telegram.

This tyrannical proposal provoked an understandable backlash, with many citizens and organisations recognising it as an attack on Europeans’ fundamental right to privacy. Over 80 NGOs have signed an open letter opposing the CSAR.

The push to pass the CSAR has also been mired in scandal. Back in September, an investigation published on Balkan Insight revealed that certain NGOs and ‘stakeholders’ had exerted an undue influence on the drafting of the policy. This included child-protection NGOs that would have gained financially from selling the very user-scanning tech that would be vital for implementing the CSAR’s chat control.

One NGO at the centre of this elaborate lobby network was WeProtect Global Alliance, an organisation co-founded by the EU, the US and the UK, which had received nearly €1million in EU funds between 2020 and 2023. According to Balkan Insight, one of WeProtect’s board members is also Commission official Antonio Labrador Jimenez, who ‘played a central role in drafting and promoting [CSAR]’ – the same proposal that WeProtect was ‘actively campaigning for with EU funding’.

Although the CSAR was clearly popular inside the EU bubble, the Commission was having trouble getting every member state on board. The considerable public backlash against the chat-monitoring measures meant that many national governments were cautious about giving away their constituents’ privacy. Minutes acquired from the Council of the European Union meeting on 14 September revealed insufficient support for the proposal from member states, meaning it would fail to pass.

A day later, Ylva Johansson commissioned the paid advertising campaign on X to try to revive the proposal’s fortunes. The campaign specifically targeted the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Finland, Slovenia, Portugal and the Czech Republic – all countries that the European Council minutes showed were unwilling to back the proposed legislation. Clearly, the goal here was to scare Europeans into putting pressure on their governments to back the CSAR.

While political advertising is allowed under EU law on social-media platforms like X, there are some restrictions placed on targeted advertising by the EU’s own General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This means that political ads aren’t allowed to target users based on their political or religious beliefs. Yet this is exactly what the Commission did with its CSAR campaign.

A transparency report by X damningly shows that the European Commission used unlawful ‘microtargeting’ to ensure that the ads did not appear to people who might be critical of the CSAR. The campaign was not shown to users who had posted about or engaged with content about privacy, Euroscepticism or populism. That meant anyone who had shown an interest in Brexit, Viktor Orbán, Nigel Farage or Julian Assange was excluded from seeing the campaign. And for some reason, people interested in Christianity were also excluded.

As citizen-advocacy group None of Your Business (NOYB) points out, the campaign used personal data that had been mined online – a tactic the Commission had itself once denounced as ‘a serious threat to a fair, democratic electoral process’. NOYB has now lodged a complaint about the campaign with the European Data Protection Supervisor.

Not only did the campaign violate the EU’s own data-privacy rules, but it also spewed blatantly false information. One of the ads claimed that ‘87 per cent of Europeans support automatic detection [of criminal activity] by internet companies’ – a number that doesn’t quite check out, according to transparency activist Dr Vera Wilde. In fact, other surveys, such as one conducted by Novus, found the exact opposite – namely, that there is virtually no support for this proposal among the European population.

Thankfully, the Commission seems to finally have listened to the majority of EU citizens who don’t want their private messages to be combed through by Brussels. Last month, the European Parliament’s civil-liberties committee announced that the CSAR would be diluted and the chat-control aspect would be removed. But that should not distract from what a colossal scandal this was.

The European Commission clearly believes itself to be above the very rules it drafted. Once again, this proves the contempt the EU elites have for the public. They would prefer to sow disinformation about their proposals than have an open, democratic discussion about them and face public criticism.

The CSAR was a sinister attempt to introduce online surveillance on a massive scale. For now, the EU has backed down. But if this scandal proves anything, it is that the bureaucrats in Brussels are determined, by hook or by crook, to erode Europeans’ fundamental freedoms.

Dr Norman Lewis is a visiting research fellow of MCC Brussels. His Substack is What a Piece of Work is Man!

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Free Speech Politics World

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