Crossroads for the EU: Why It’s Never Been More Important to Vote

Stephen Gilmore, Lola Boom, Mohamed El Khalouki, Tibo Duhamel, Ilaria Cassani, Melanie Weber, Maren Schmid, Eléna Lefèbvre

This week’s elections to the European parliament are of critical importance. Not only will they set the course for the EU over the next five years, but they will help to shape the longer-term future of the European project.

Europe is confronted with a series of fundamental, intertwined challenges. There is the continued rise of far-right and anti-EU forces, who are consistently polling well in many member states and, according to some projections, could win more than one-third of the seats at the next election. We can also see substantial discontent with politics more generally, notably in movements such as the Gilets Jaunes in France.

Perhaps even more pervasive, and arguably a contributing factor to both of these issues, is a widespread lack of knowledge about how the EU operates – highly problematic considering, in the understated words of academic Bo Laursen and Chiara Valentini, the EU’s “considerable influence on European citizens’ daily lives”.

In this light, cliché though it may be, these European Parliament elections look like being the most important for a generation. The significance of voting cannot be overstated. Yet, if we look at the data since 1979, there is an obvious and pronounced downward trend in turnout across the continent as a whole. In 2014, countries such as Slovakia or the Czech Republic didn’t even hit 20% turnout.

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Mass Precision in Digital Lobbying – a Myth or a Fact?

Bade Kızılaslan, Fréderic Christoph Heymans, Florian Baronyai, Ibtissam Amri, Lilia Kaberova, Margaryta Makovetska, Nevena Nedeljkovic, Omar Djedidi, Raquel Del Ri, Vera Sordini

How Does Lobbying Change with the Digitalization?

Lobbying, a persuasive form of action towards policy and decision makers, has changed over the years. Institutions, corporations, and interest groups with immense resources and well-skilled activists have used lobbying as a powerful way to push legislation in their favour. With the development of computing technologies, often referred to as ‘Big Data’, lobbyists today are better equipped than ever before.

Not only is there more information available, but it is also more easily accessible – regardless of time zones or location. We are only a few clicks away from accessing huge data banks that we can use to back up arguments with proficient facts and figures.

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Hunting for Voters? Countering Political Micro-targeting and Big Data Exploitation in Times of Elections

Aida Sanchez, Fatima Ali, Jordan Higgins, Marcella Via, Paz Marquez Arellano, Renjani Pusposari, Bruna Maria Do Rego, Aroa Molero Gonzalez, and Sonia Reveyaz

Political microtargeting is threatening media pluralism and democracy at a global level, with Facebook influencing political campaigns in 66 countries, half of which are European states. Due to their opaque nature, algorithms are manipulating voters’ behavior and politicians are well aware of this trend. In times where the hearts and minds of people are gained via posts, campaign budgets are invested in colonizing the digital arena. Within this context, investigative journalists are the ones who need to hold algorithms to account to protect users’ data, assuring the respect of democratic values.

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EU Approach: Fighting Disinformation with Information

Denisa Chvojkova, Leonard Kamps, Lan YANG, Anna Zimniak, Margherita Contro, Marcello De Giorgi, Rituparna Banerjee, Anna Mazur, Adrianna Adamczak

When people hear about fake news they think about famous examples like Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump. However, it is not just that. An information disorder in the public discourse with significant implications on how democracies think, feel and vote for their representatives has been growing in Europe. The EU takes measures but merely scratches the surface. This blogpost shows that disinformation is a symptom of deeper underlying issues affecting contemporary societies in Europe.

The EU defines disinformation as “verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and may cause public harm.” This definition comprises two core elements: falseness and the intention to deceive. Fake news (false stories mimicking real news) is just one variation of disinformation.

A recent Eurobarometer opinion poll has found  85% of European citizens perceive disinformation as a problem in their country and 83% as a problem for democracy in general. The most prominent example of the toxicity of disinformation is its interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Moreover, disinformation is said to have changed election results in at least 18 countries.


Media audiences across the world doubt if the public is resilient against disinformation (63%) or if they themselves can recognise trustworthy media outlets (59%)

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How to Minimize the Impact of Filter Bubbles in the EU Election

Farzaneh Azadasl, Cristina M. Gonzalez, Anna Kary, Ghufran Muhibi, Elena Sánchez Nicolás, Theodoros Papachristou, Emilija Tamosiune, Fazil Tercan, Qiao Zhou

European integration is at a crossroads. With the EU election just weeks away and Brexit on the horizon, polarization on social media and personalized digital algorithms threaten the cohesiveness of the European project.

The EU is very well aware of the danger, demanding action on election advertising transparency on platforms, for example. But it isn’t enough. We, citizens, need to be better informed about the power of algorithms, which shape our digital worlds and galvanize us on issues which can threaten our democracies. As EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager recently told The Atlantic, we are experiencing a “slow tsunami that is changing us, without being able to really fend for ourselves or give direction to our society.”

We’ll tell you some ways we can “fend for ourselves,” but first let’s talk about why this is so important.

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The EU Member States and Freedom of Expression in the Digital Era: Can the EU Protect Its Fundamental Values?

Rebecka Larsson, Filzah Adini Lubis, Eva Maria Kadian, Despoina Melissinou, Eloísa Gutierrez, Miao Wei, Da Zhang

Freedom of Expression: EU vs. the Member States

One of the European Union’s core values is that of Freedom of expression, as enshrined in Article 11 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and defined as the ‘freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by a public authority and regardless of frontiers’. While the current digital communications era has enabled many people to share their views and opinions with others in a way they previously could never have done, it has also led to fake news and hate speech becoming ubiquitous through websites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube.

However, despite the EU’s commitment to upholding this Freedom of Expression, several of its Member States have adopted laws that have been in breach of these values and ideals. As the Annual report 2019 by the Partner Organisations to the Council of Europe Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists indicates, countries including Italy and Hungary have committed a significant number of media freedom infractions. There are different ways in which freedom of expression can be curtailed. Below, we explore three countries which have introduced laws (or keeping existing ones) that have damaged freedom of speech: Germany, Spain, and Hungary. 

Freedom of Expression Hampered by German Legislation

Starting on the 1st January 2018, the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) became legislation in Germany, causing controversy. According to this law, social media platforms are legally obliged to take down ‘illegal’ content or face a fine of up to €50 million. These intermediaries are requested to delete content that has been reported by users and that can clearly be identified as hate speech or fake news, all within 24 hours. For content where legality remains in doubt, platforms have 7 days to react and remove posts.

The issue with the Network Enforcement Act is that social media platforms, in seeking to avoid large fines, are deleting content that is not, in fact, illegal or hateful. Accusations of censorship have therefore surfaced, with fears that such a law will have a negative impact on freedom of expression. While the intentions behind this law are admirable (attempting to stamp out hate speech and disinformation), it has largely been as ‘rushed through’ by lawmakers and has been described Renate Künast, a German Green MP as‘ a big mess’.

The incentive for social networks to delete content that may not be illegal out of the fear of big fines has led to satirical messages and parodies being removed, in clear breach of freedom of expression. Human Rights Watch has called the law ‘flawed’, stating that it is ‘vague, overbroad, and turns private companies into overzealous censors to avoid steep fines, leaving users with no judicial oversight or right to appeal”. The European Federation of Journalists wants an outright repeal of the bill due to its chilling consequences in the public discourse.

The EU as a whole has taken a different approach to handle fake news by adopting a voluntary approach, whereby stakeholders agree to uphold a Code of Practice, ‘a set of industry self-regulatory commitments to fight disinformation’. The Network Enforcement Act runs counter to what the European Union is enacting to fight disinformation and shows the difficulty in creating a European approach to such an issue as MS can simply enact laws as they please.


Spain Attempts to Fight Terrorism and the Price is Freedom of Expression

Spain has very strict anti-terrorism laws which are landing citizens in prison for making jokes on Twitter. In 2017, a 21-year-old student’s tweets joking about ETA were deemed to ‘glorify terrorism’ and she was handed a 1-year prison sentence. Amnesty International has spoken out, criticizing Spain for making excessive terrorism allegations against people expressing a difference of opinion on social media. Its report states that authorities have ‘pressed criminal charges against people who had expressed opinions that did not constitute an incitement to a terrorism-related offense’.

Aside from punishing the supposed ‘glorifying of terrorism’, there are also penalties for insulting the monarchy and denouncing political corruption. Rapper Jose Miguel Arenas was sentenced to 3 and a half years in prison for glorifying terrorism and slandering the crown. As the UN experts on Freedom of expression stated in 2015, there should only be criminal responsibility for the incitement of terrorism and that concepts such as ‘glorifying’, and ‘encouraging’ terrorism should not be used.

The European Union agrees and makes it clear that the glorification of terrorism has to include ‘gathering support for terrorist causes or to seriously intimidating the population’, which does not apply in the examples outlined. However, the EU has failed to challenge this unjust Spanish law which breaches its very own charter of human rights.

Hungary’s Government Increasingly Controls the Media

In Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, media freedom can be seen as being “under attack”. The infamous politician is criticized for a range of things: from the way he has handled the refugee crisis to the control he has over Hungary’s media scene. Under his party, Hungary has dropped 50 positions in Reporters Without Borders ranking since 2010. Meanwhile, Mediaworks Holding, a media company that owns 2/3 of the regional Hungarian newspapers belongs to Lörinc Mészáros, an old and wealthy friend of Orbán.

Independent online media outlets are being bought by government-affiliated companies. In 2014, when the editor-in-chief of Origo, an online media outlet, published an article about the possible use of public funds by a government member, he was fired. Three years later, the outlet was bought by Ádám Matolcsy, who is close to the government. The outlet now supports government propaganda. Orban has gone further, handing over private media to the Central European Press and Media Foundation (CEPMF) that is run by supporters and prioritising funding for pro-government media.

Prior to the 2018 election in Hungary, there was a ‘continual erosion of the online media environment and pro-government propaganda proliferating online’. While Hungarian law defends the right of freedom of expression and of the press, it limits it if it “violates the dignity of the Hungarian nation.” This vague wording can encompass everything and anything, making it very easy to create an environment where censorship escalates.

The situation in Hungary is particularly extreme but serves to show that being a part of the European Union, and signing up to its charters and treaties is simply not enough to ensure that freedom of expression and other values the EU claims to espouse are protected.

An EU approach to safeguarding Freedom of Expression?

Member states adopting legislation that impact on freedom of speech without taking cues from the EU or using its values as their compass, means that having an effective European approach to protecting freedom of expression seems highly unlikely.

It appears that the digital environment we live in seems to have made it even more difficult for fundamental values such as freedom of expression to be upheld. The internet has made freedom a speech more vulnerable in a number of countries, even in an EU that sees itself as liberal and free.  Attempts to contain disinformation have led to censorship in Germany. Jokes that would once have been told in private to one’s circle of close friends, are now posted on Twitter for all to see, leading to more people being arrested in Spain. The digital era has also made certain governments seek to control the media both online and in print, like in Hungary.

Each of these examples shows a divergence from the values the EU claims to hold dear. They also happen to be in very different countries, with distinct histories and traditions, showing that the problem with upholding freedom of expression spreads across the continent and could happen in any member state. So, how can the EU find a uniform approach to protect freedom of speech when member states can do pretty much as they please? That is a question that should concern us all.

Media Literacy For The Future: The Real Solution For The Challenges Of The Digital Era

Liang Hong, Blessing Adewale, Dandong Zeng, Xin Lin, Thu Phuong Luu, Tugce Akkoyun, Domenica Simoneth Torres Vaca, Gülsen Güler, Alejandro Maya Toro

The Importance Of A Media-Literate Society

Nowadays, our society is characterised by elements that were unimaginable only twenty years ago. Our routines include things such as online shopping, posting on social media on a daily basis, and reading the news from electronic versions of newspapers and news channels. Such routines create more and more data while feeding digital systems. It is said that by the end of 2025, 163 zettabytes of data will be created globally. Surely, this much amount of data in our daily lives brings about many questions: what do we do with this amount of data? How could we prevent its misuse? How could we understand and use it? It is not necessary for every person to be a data scientist nor to have knowledge of programming algorithms. However, it is definitely relevant to have a rational and critical understanding of what is being done with all the data we put out there, as well as its possible effects in our personal lives and our society. Hence, it is not the intention of becoming a media expert but somehow a bit of a media literate.

Moreover, what does it mean to be media literate? In the Digital Single Market policy of the European Union, media literacy is defined as “the capacity to access, have a critical understanding and interact with the media. It is a tool that empowers citizens as well as raises their awareness and helps them counter the effects of disinformation campaigns and fake news spreading through digital media”.

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30% Quota – A Trouble-Making “Guardian” of EU Content

Zlatitsa Dimitrova, Consuelo Naranjo, Diandra Velica, Bo Pan, Juliane Henn, Özge Akman, Santiago Otalora, Alorila Murataj, Jiaqi Nie

The European Parliament and the Council of Europe have approved an update in the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) The revised AVMSD officially entered into force on 19th December 2018 and aims to guarantee a 30% share of European works on subscription video on demand (SVoD) platforms. The European Parliament declared: “In order to support the cultural diversity of the European audiovisual sector, MEPs ensured that 30% of content in the video-on-demand platforms’ catalogues should be European.” This change is expected to support cultural diversity and promote European production. It could help to fix the existing uneven relationship not only with the American content, but also within Europe itself. As a significant instrument to support European content against American superiority, the 30% quota along with the revised AVSMD will be implemented obligatorily by the member states before the end of 2020. The consequences of it have aroused pervasive debate.

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Platformization: the Challenges and Opportunities for Traditional European Media

Gabriel Rosa, Valerio Spinosi, Vesë Latifi, Yangyang Yang, Abdirahman Mohamed Issa, Ali Nishikawa, Ágnes Modrovich, Xiaochen Zhang, & Xuwen Zheng

An Epochal Change: Can Traditional Media Survive in the Era of Platforms?

Platforms are doing to traditional European media what the press did to the spiritual influence of the Catholic Church, which had the complete power on communication and information in the 15th century. It happened once in a blue moon in history that such strong organizations lost their communication and political supremacies towards something totally new without having the possibility to win their authority back and without having to change their traditional structures and mode of action.1

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Losing My Attention? Journalism’s Renewed Interest in Content and Membership Models

Janneke Aerssens, Spriha Dhanuka, Katharina Beck, Rosanna Fanni, Ana Sofia Madrid Vargas, Sameer Padania, Giordano Zambelli, Mehmet Solmaz

Attention has always been a finite resource, even more so in an era of superabundance of information. Having the power to attract and manage it has been a struggle from the moment citizens had a say in what happens in society. Attention merchants were already there, before the internet and the so-called information society. Why then is attention now such a hot topic? Has the attention economy trapped the news industry? Is there a fire exit?

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