BRUSSELS – The European Union will beef up efforts to counter disinformation and fake news, officials said Monday, as Spain's foreign minister voiced concerns about Russian interference in Catalonia's independence bid.
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The bloc has come under fire for its modest efforts to push back against what some member states say is orchestrated disinformation attacks from Russia. The issue has divided members, with some balking at any efforts that could be seen as EU-branded propaganda. But as allegations of interference by Russia in the region's elections have increased -- including from French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this year -- calls for a more aggressive response have increased.
On Monday, EU foreign ministers discussed where further work could be done. EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini has sought backing from capitals to increase the budget for countering disinformation. Eight member states wrote to Ms. Mogherini last month pressing Brussels to devote more financial resources to fighting fake news and push back harder against attacks on the bloc's work.
Meanwhile, the European Commission, the EU's executive body, said it would set up a new experts group of 25 to 30 members on fake news by January, consisting of individuals from academia, media, and independent organizations. It also announced a public consultation looking at the scope of the problem and possible future action to improve citizens' access to "reliable and verified information."
Sven Mikser, the foreign minister of Estonia, which has been a leading proponent of scaling up the EU's counter disinformation work, said there was a "growing consensus" about the threat posed to Western democracies, especially by Russian disinformation.
"We've seen hybrid tactics ever since we regained our independence in the early 1990s," he said of Estonia in an interview. "But now I think that what we have seen over the past few years -- actually not only in Europe but also on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean -- there has been a wake-up call and I think that the realization is there that this is something...we need to take very seriously."
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The debate in Europe comes amid the continued fallout in the U.S. from allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. Russian officials have repeatedly denied any government efforts to interfere in Western elections. U.S. President Donald Trump, after meeting with Mr. Putin at an economic summit in Vietnam, told reporters this weekend he believed Mr. Putin's denials.
Over the past two years, the EU has drawn on expertise from member states to create three task forces, with a staff of 20, dealing with Russian disinformation campaigns, countering online messages from Islamic State and providing information about EU work in the western Balkans. However, the task forces have no dedicated budget and borrow staff from member states.
Tech firms have been wary of initiatives that might impinge on freedom of expression. However following pressure from the U.K., French and German governments, Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s Google have rolled out initiatives and tools in Europe aimed at slowing the spread of online misinformation by flagging false or hoax news articles for readers. Google has implemented its own fact-check tool in several European countries.
Yet warnings continue to emerge that Europe wasn't coming to grips with the problems and fresh allegations of interference.
On Monday, Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis raised with his counterparts Spanish concerns about the information spread by Russian media and other sources after the Catalan referendum, officials said.
Ahead of the meeting, he also accused WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange of promoting the Catalan bid to secede and portraying Spain as an authoritative state.
"There are many indications that suggest that this man and others have tried to interfere and manipulate and affect what should be a democratic process in Catalonia."
Mr. Assange has publicly dismissed the criticism, saying Spain's government was trying to shift blame for the political crisis.
Last week, the top North Atlantic Treaty Organization and U.S. commanders warned against Russian interference in European affairs.
"We would encourage Russia to stay within the accepted international order and honor each sovereign nation's right to determine their means of government, their way of government and how they run their government, " Gen. Scaparrotti said.
Jeannette Neumann in Madrid, Natalia Drozdiak and Julian Barnes in Brussels contributed to this article
Write to Laurence Norman at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 13, 2017 10:47 ET (15:47 GMT)