Nowadays, with more and more threats putting democracy at risk, one of them being the erosion of democracy by fake narratives, it is crucial to counter disinformation and build resilience against it.
The Spanish media organisation Maldita.es supports this fight by fact-checking information and developing tools to help combat disinformation and misinformation. The NGO is one of the awarded projects of “ECAS Grant-making to its members in the EU”.
Our Communications Manager, Marta Azevedo Silva, sat down with Carlos Hernández-Echevarría, Maldita’s Head of Public Policy and Institutional Development, to discover more about the organisation that was appointed by the European Commission to take part in the high-level group on Fake News and Disinformation.
1 – Carlos, can you explain briefly to our readers what Maldita.es is?
Maldita is a nonprofit that fights disinformation. We do this in many ways: we started mainly doing fact-checking, and we have quite a large team monitoring the different online platforms for disinformation; we also have specialized teams working on scientific disinformation, tech awareness, data and transparency, and scam-debunking. But content is only part of what we do: we have an education unit that produces teaching materials and goes to schools, senior centres, and everywhere else.
We have an engineering team working on AI-powered tools to track and debunk disinformation more efficiently, a unit that works with academic researchers, and, of course, a policy unit that does our advocacy work in favour of more effective solutions to disinformation, with a focus on big tech accountability.
2- Your contribution to a more fact-based public debate and how you’ve raised awareness of disinformation and misinformation narratives had a substantial impact during the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you envision a similar strategy for the 2024 European Parliament Elections?
Some of the actors are going to be the same ones, and some of the general narratives will be too because for many of them the underlying cause is to delegitimize democratic institutions and push polarization. We already know that the electoral process itself will be the target of disinformation campaigns as this is a common practice now in many Member States. The problem is that those “big fraud” false narratives that put in question the fairness of an election can have very serious consequences: in the best of cases, they will disenfranchise voters and erode democracy; in the more extreme ones, they can lead to real-life violence as we saw in the US Capitol or the Brazilian Congress.
Since the EU is also commonly accused of being an oppressive and authoritarian regime in many of those disinformation circles, we can expect a contentious campaign. In previous elections to the European Parliament, EU-specific issues might have had problems getting into the agenda, but now after COVID-19 and Ukraine I think the election is going to receive a lot of attention, good and bad. We are already preparing for that.
3- The Digital Services Act (DSA) brought great accountability to the online environment. How relevant do you think EU’s legal frameworks are when tackling online disinformation?
It really all depends on the implementation. The European Commission is now the regulator of the bigger platforms and I think DSA provides a very interesting framework to ensure more seriousness and effectiveness from these companies in fighting disinformation in their services. The legal tools are there, but we need to wait to see there’s political will and adequate resources to make it work. I think a key test is when and how the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation becomes an official DSA Code of Conduct, and what use the Commission does of it when it comes to ensure platform accountability through DSA. As I said, the framework is promising: it puts the EU at the vanguard of the field, but in the end what citizens are looking for is effective change, safer platforms, more accountability. That remains to be seen.
4- Maldita is one of the organisations that approved the 2022 Code of Practice on Disinformation. This is an essential tool and a first step to draw self-regulatory standards to fight disinformation. After one year, how do you see that the implementation and oversight of the Code are being carried out? Do you think the Code is complimentary to the regulation in place?
I think we all knew that, without DSA, the Code was just a voluntary thing for platforms with all the shortcomings that entails. The DSA went into force for the larger services not a month ago, so we’re just starting the period in which the Code of Practice should show its real potential. I was very much involved in the negotiation of the Code, particularly on the issues related to fact-checking, and I think the platforms committed to a lot of important things that have not been implemented yet. We all understood it was a process, but as with DSA the key is whether or not the platforms feel that there will be consequences for noncompliance, and that depends on the Commission. I like the Code very much, but its whole purpose as I said is for it to facilitate changes in platform policies that have failed in the past and benefit the users. That’s the bar the Code will be measured up against.
5- You are one of the awarded projects of ECAS Grant-making to its members in the EU with the StEP project that aims to build a strong EU policy community against disinformation. Could you explain more about this project and how you will implement it across the EU?
We have always felt that EU policies were incredibly relevant in our field, but very hard to follow for many legitimate actors in civil society. Just staying up to date on EU regulatory processes is super taxing for small organisations, not to mention planning for common action to influence them. So we’ve been looking for opportunities to pool resources. Take platform accountability: these are massive companies with all the resources in the world, while on “our side” we are basically the opposite -too few people, too little money. We had always known that any success we might achieve would come joining and creating coalitions of like minded people and organisations, and the first part is to raise awareness about your issues and exchange information. ECAS support allowed us to do that: dedicate time to create a community and start feeding them information about disinformation policy.
6- Finally, what was your motivation to apply for the ECAS Grant-making to its members? How do you see our future collaboration?
Most of the people we are reaching do care about those issues but they are already very busy. Will they send an email to a policymaker voicing their concerns? Maybe, if you ask them. Do they have the time to follow the process, identify the key stakeholders, find the right moment…? No, they haven’t. So if you take the time to keep allies informed, they can respond and they mobilize when the key moment arrives.
Because of ECAS’s support, we are able to keep them engaged without demanding too much of their time. We send a monthly newsletter, plus alerts for key issues and situations, and we try to strategize together. The whole point is to keep growing a community of people and organizations that care about disinformation and would like to shape EU policies against it so they are more effective, and then to be able to leverage that at the right moment in terms of obtaining evidence, collaboration, and common action.