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Ursula von der Leyen launches a new war on disinformation

The Queen of Europe. Credit: Getty

May 15, 2024 - 5:15pm

With European parliamentary elections approaching in early June, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is staking another term in office on her pitch to protect the continent’s security. Speaking at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit on Tuesday, she pledged to create a “European Democracy Shield” if she wins reelection, which will combat “foreign interference and manipulation”.

The battle for control over the narrative being consumed by Europeans is increasingly divisive. The potential for a poisonous political atmosphere to spill out of control may have been illustrated this afternoon, when Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot outside a government meeting. Von der Leyen condemned the “vile attack” on Fico, saying such acts “undermine democracy, our most precious common good”.

Von der Leyen’s proposed approach to the bitter information war which is shaping EU politics may, however, only deepen divides. Her proposed Democracy Shield would establish a new disinformation unit for the detection and removal of online disinformation while “inoculating” EU citizens against false information through education.

During her speech to announce the initiative, von der Leyen focused on events in her native Germany, claiming that “we have seen far-Right politicians and candidates from the AfD in Germany in the pockets of Russia.” Her comments refer to investigations into Czech-based Russian propaganda website Voice of Europe, from whom AfD politicians are accused of accepting bribes. Von der Leyen has claimed that AfD politicians carry Russian propaganda in Europe “whether they have taken bribes for it or not”.

Though the acceptance of bribes would, if proven, be indefensible, such statements show the potential for von der Leyen’s proposed Democracy Shield to be used against specific political parties. The subjectivity of deciding what constitutes “disinformation” would clearly leave parties outside the mainstream of political opinion deeply vulnerable.

While the AfD causes mainstream consternation in Germany, the influence of the information war on party politics is also in evidence across the border in the Czech Republic. The Czech coalition government recently launched a much-criticised campaign displaying opposition politicians accompanied by slogans expressing their supposed devotion to Russia. This campaign could be described as “disinformation” in its own right — an ironic twist, given that accusations of disinformation levelled at opponents are central to the current government’s messaging.

Regardless of von der Leyen’s personal fitness to stand up for Europe’s security — well-known mishaps during her tenure as Germany’s defence minister would hardly seem propitious — questions must be asked about the intent of her proposed Democracy Shield. In the context of the febrile debates shaping EU politics, further censorship may prove a slippery slope. As recent panicked calls for the AfD in Germany to be banned entirely prove, the leap from censoring opinion in the name of protecting Europeans against “disinformation” to banning entire political parties in an attempt to silence debate may be smaller than some think.


William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz

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Peter B
Peter B
4 days ago

Let me make a prediction – the so-called “European Democracy Shield” will be used to keep democracy out and not in !
In the same way that anything labelled “progressive” has the opposite effect. Or anything to do with “equality”.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
4 days ago

Here’s the only misinformation info people need to be educated about. Every authoritarian leader in history has implemented censorship in the guise of protecting people. It’s what they do. Political leaders who promote censorship are enemies of the people.

The political elite are terrified of the AfD. In the German province of Thüringen, the current governing parties have links to the DDR and Stasi. It’s all bullshit of course. Just like links between the AfD and the Naz! Party are bullshit.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
4 days ago

In what sense is von der Leyen elected? Not by a popular vote of the people.
The last person to take lectures on democracy from

Mark Cornish
Mark Cornish
3 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Wise

I voted to ‘remain’ in the referendum but I would retrospectively change my mind in a heartbeat after having witnessed the machinations of the EU since we DEMOCRATICALLY decide to leave.

R Wright
R Wright
4 days ago

Unelected official at a democracy summit threatening to attack elected politicians using the most Newspeak sounding programme imaginable. These people are truly vile.

AC Harper
AC Harper
4 days ago

Did she mention a “basket of deplorables” at all?
Because if you navigate through politics by your emotions then you will rapidly come to believe that those who disagree with you (however politely and rationally) must be against you personally and must therefore be evil.
If you mentally rename a ‘disinformation unit’ as a ‘disinfection unit’ then the ‘fear of being contaminated’ becomes more obvious.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
4 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

I’ll cop to the “being evil” part, but I won’t cop to the “being against her personally” part; I’ve never met her.

Peter B
Peter B
4 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Don’t entirely agree with the point about emotion. Having – and using – some emotional response in politics doesn’t necessarily make you intransigent or tribal. It does make you human though. And voters expect some emotion.
I can recall many fairly emotional politicians from the 1970s and 1980s who still managed to respect each other – and in some cases actually liked each other.
I’d rather have more emotional, but more competent politicians than today’s media-trained, never done a real job robots.
The real problem I think is more from the tribal politicians who will defend errors on their own side regardless of merit (or, indeed, actual guilt in so many cases).

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
4 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Her use of the term “inoculation” is telling in that regard.

El Uro
El Uro
4 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

There is nothing worse in the world than a self-confident, stupid woman

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
4 days ago

It is more important to be seen to govern well than to actually govern well.