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Balloons over the Atlantic or how to defend Europe in an era of post truth

Crossing the Atlantic in a balloon is not just a commendable venture, it also happens to be one of the biggest lies of the 19th century. Edgar Allan Poe, the author of this sham event, is just one of many writers who, in the absence of any laws that would effectively protect their rights, were reduced to plying their trade as literary hacks, forced to invent and propagate hoaxes in the sensationalist newspapers of the time in order to make a living from writing. The Atlantic was not, in fact, crossed by balloon until 1978, yet Poe had no hesitation in claiming in an 1844 newspaper report that a group of adventurers had flown over the ocean on board the balloon "Victoria". Readers of the New York Sun received this news with a mixture of enthusiasm and credulity: if the French had made the first voyage in a balloon in 1783 - when a cockerel, a sheep and a duck rose over Versailles to the astonishment of Marie Antoinette - why should anyone doubt the news published by the New York daily? Years later, the writer confessed to his mendacity in the "the Great Balloon Hoax".

Was Edgar Allen Poe the first perpetrator of "fake news"? Blatant lies served up with just a trace of credibility are known today as fake news, and they have become a twenty first century phenomenon. Spreading false reports in order to confuse and destabilize the establishment is nothing new. However, what is worrying today is the consummate ease with which such fallacies are spread online, and how they manage to convince millions of people. No headline is more persuasive as when it tells us exactly what we want to hear; no news item is so damaging as that which distorts and blurs the boundaries between honorable and scurrilous causes, nothing is so dangerous as that which elides and undermines the credibility of democracy (and thus its electoral processes, and its values and institutions), by appealing solely to the emotions, belittling and side-lining the value of real facts. Social networks have emerged as the major proponents of fake news, yet those who actually devise these stories are real flesh and blood people who are pursuing a set of preconceived objectives. And they do so using algorithms that endlessly repeat their bogus claims: Barack Obama is a foreigner, Emmanuel Macron, a homosexual, or the smokescreen of Spanish democracy in dealing with Catalan defiance of the rule of law. The pretext is irrelevant, as long as it serves to change the course of elections or provides the key to gaining power.

The language used is by no means innocent; President Trump's advisers coined the term "alternative facts" in order to give semantic legitimacy to the lie. Putin's Russia encourages massive confusion in the networks, yet equally hides behind accusations of fake news to discredit anyone venturing to question his methods. Now, under the auspices of the European Commission, a group of experts known as the "High Level Expert Group on Fake News” or HLEG) is recommending that we rephrase the somewhat slick term "fake news” and replace it with that of disinformation. Disinformation would cover any type of false, incorrect or deceptive information aimed at damaging any particular group or designed to increase financial revenue. The expert committee report provides an outline, in broad brush strokes, of how the EU proposes to address the phenomenon of disinformation. But, should Europe legislate to halt the relentless expansion of post truth? And if it does, how can this be achieved without affecting the rights and freedoms that define us as Europeans, namely our freedom of expression, the right to information or press freedom? There is no easy or unequivocal answer to this conundrum. The HLEG group advises against legislating in the short term and has opted instead to promote a framework of self-regulation to be agreed on by the main interested parties, that is, internet platforms, communications media, the advertising industry and "fact checkers" (journalists or not for profit organizations that oppose and question dubious news).

On 26 April, the European Commission, having taken on board the HLEG's findings, announced imminent measures. The Commission has given the various platforms until October 2018 to implement a code of good practices which will include the following aims: 1) identification of news published in exchange for money - with special emphasis on political propaganda - and restriction of advertising as a means of funding for those spreading campaigns of disinformation: 2) greater transparency regarding algorithms that will enable independent third parties to check that they have not been created through ideological bias; 3) closure of fake profiles and persecution of so-called "bots", that is, robotic algorithms that help to place some news items more prominently above others; 4) platforms should also suggest to their users, information sources that offer diverse points of view in order to prevent sectarianism. In short, the task is one of tracking and controlling the origin of disinformation, the sources of its funding, and the protocols followed in its dissemination.

The Commission will also promote the creation of a European network of fact checkers in a bid to exchange national experiences, and implement educational programs aimed at inculcating a critical attitude to networks (announcing a "European media literacy week") and providing support for Member States in strengthening electoral processes in the event of increasingly sophisticated cyber-attacks. All of this will be part of the coordinated strategy of the Union and the governments of its 28 Members in an endeavor to debunk fictitious narratives about Europe, and to protect the European press and media ecosystem (“a conscious type of journalism, that is aware and capable of guiding the interests of the majority towards relevant themes in order to form a political opinion” according to Jürgen Habermas in a recent interview given to a Spanish news source). 

Europe has taken a stand against fake news and has allocated a specific timeframe, until December 2018, within which to decide whether self-regulation will suffice as an effective measure. In the meantime, the message of combating disinformation needs to be delivered in civil society as well; it is our responsibility as citizens to take a bold approach to exercising freedom of expression in order to counteract the expansive power of lies - far too often given credence by fashionable fads or current opinion - and to address with skepticism summary judgments of representative democracy. Because, as Edgar Allan Poe warned, manipulating the truth to please the public or to reinforce their prejudices is far more effective than scrupulously reporting on current affairs which can often be complex and rather dull. From this perspective, combating post truth is just one flank of the battle lines drawn up to protect democracy in Europe. According to Ovid, the law is designed to ensure that the powerful cannot win on all fronts. Twenty-one centuries after Ovid, almost two centuries since Poe, and following two world wars, Europeans have learnt that the only possible certainty that lies beyond the law and democracy is the dishonorable truth of totalitarian regimes. We all need to be concerned with ensuring that history does not repeat itself.