Spain to monitor online fake news and give a ‘political response’ to disinformation campaigns

The government will be the arbiter of what constitutes such stories with no representatives from the media or journalist associations involved in the process

A meeting of Spain's National Security Council in March of this year.
A meeting of Spain's National Security Council in March of this year.Juan Carlos Hidalgo (EFE)

The Spanish government is planning to constantly monitor the internet in search of fake news stories, and will give a “political response” to such campaigns, including retaliatory measures when a foreign state can be identified as being behind a disinformation campaign against Spain. That’s according to the “Procedure for Intervention against Disinformation,” which was approved last month by the country’s National Security Council and was published on Thursday in the Official State Gazette (BOE).

The document makes provisions for the possibility of carrying out communication campaigns in order to counter fake news stories, albeit stopping short of censoring them. It leaves in the hands of the government the authority to decide what exactly constitutes misinformation. The protocol updates one that has been in place since March 2019, but that was not made public, and regulates an activity that began under the previous government, led by conservative Popular Party (PP) prime minister Mariano Rajoy.

While the text does not mention specific cases, Russian interference has been proven in the 2016 election campaign in the United States

The new order passed by the coalition government – which is led by the Socialist Party (PSOE), with junior partner Unidas Podemos – is based on the concept that the use of fake news aimed at destabilizing a country or interfering in public opinion on behalf of a third country constitutes a form of attack – in particular during election campaigns, which, the text states, are “ever more threatened by the deliberate, large-scale and systematic spread of disinformation that seeks to influence society with self-serving and spurious aims.” While the text does not mention specific cases, Russian interference has been proven in the 2016 election campaign in the United States, which saw Donald Trump victorious, as well as the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom the same year, which saw voters narrowly decide they wanted their country to leave the European Union.

When it comes to defining what constitutes disinformation, the text relies on the classification of the European Commission: “Verifiably false or misleading information created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public.” This includes electoral processes, but also sectors such as health, environment or security. The text underlines that the current coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by an “unprecedented infodemic,” i.e. a proliferation of fake news.

To apply an action plan that was approved by the EU in December 2018, and which called on member states to develop their capabilities for dealing with this phenomenon and coordinating with each other, the government gave the green light in March 2019 to a protocol that was not made public. The new protocol that has just been approved brings Spain’s fight against disinformation to light and updates it.

A permanent committee coordinated by the Secretary of State for Communication and directed by the National Security Department will be in charge of the initiative, with the aim of “ensuring inter-ministerial coordination in the area of disinformation.” The committee will be made up of representatives from the CNI intelligence agency, the State Secretariat for Security’s Office for Coordination and Studies, the Foreign Ministry and the Economy Ministry.

The decision about what is or isn’t a fake-news campaign will rest exclusively in the hands of the central administration

The document recognizes that the “news media, digital platforms, academic world, technology sector, NGOs and society in general play an essential role in the fight against disinformation, with actions such as its identification and not contributing to its spread, the promotion of activities that raise awareness and training or the development of tools to avoid its propagation.”

However, professional associations of journalists and media outlets will not be represented in this system, meaning that the decision about what is or isn’t a fake-news campaign will rest exclusively in the hands of the central administration.

The text merely states that the “competent authorities will be able to request the cooperation of those organizations or persons whose contribution is considered to be opportune and relevant within the framework of the fight against the phenomenon of disinformation.”

The protocol establishes four levels for the system. The first consists of monitoring the internet in order to detect and analyze disinformation campaigns, investigate their origin and purpose, track their activity, launch an early warning and either elevate the case to a higher level or shelve it, depending on its importance (the spread of the fake news, its persistence over time and its possible effects).

The second level involves monitoring and evaluating the fake news campaign on the part of the Permanent Commission against Disinformation. A coordination cell will be activated and if the severity of the campaign persists, it will be raised to the “political-strategic level,” which corresponds to the third level: the Situation Committee or the Government’s Crisis Cabinet. The fourth and final level of the plan corresponds to the “political response” from the National Security Council, which can opt for a diplomatic process or a complaint filed with an international body, among other options, when the campaign can be attributed to a foreign state.

Public communication campaigns

The protocol mentions the exchange of information with the EU’s rapid alert system and coordination with European strategic communication centers to identify and analyze “disinformation events.” It also plans for public communication campaigns from the Secretary of State for Communication in order to counteract fake news.

The text does not, however, mention the possibility of actions aimed at the large social media platforms so that they eliminate content linked to disinformation campaigns. This is a common practice of all governments, although the social networks themselves have the last word.

The measures included in the protocol have been implemented for some time now, in particular under the previous PP government, which was monitoring social networks in order to detect disinformation campaigns linked to the Catalan independence drive, which peaked in 2017 with an illegal referendum on secession from Spain and a unilateral declaration of independence.

The document also announces a future National Strategy against Disinformation and simulations of national and European disinformation campaigns to put the efficiency of the system to the test. Just like in the armed forces, the aim is to use exercises and maneuvers to prepare for a new kind of conflict: the war against disinformation.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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