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Spain divides opinion with strategy to combat online disinformation

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The government strategy came into force at the end of October.
The government strategy came into force at the end of October.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Manu Fernandez, Pool
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Spain's government has divided opinion over a new strategy to tackle the spread of online disinformation.

The procedure was approved last month and it details how a commission comprising Spain's intelligence service (CNI), the foreign ministry and defence ministry should combat the issue.

Madrid has stated that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by an “unprecedented infodemic”.

But media organisations and opposition political parties have accused the authorities of wanting to establish a "Ministry of Truth" and of violating freedom of expression.

The new measures have been implemented in Spain as part of a wider push by the European Union to combat false rumours which are intentionally spread.

The plan uses the European Commission's definition of disinformation, which is "verifiably false or misleading, which is created, presented and disseminated for profit or with the deliberate intention of misleading the public".

The EU has previously accused China and Russia of being responsible for false information campaigns aimed at undermining the continent's democracies.

'Risk the government will act as a censor'

Authorities in Spain will now monitor the internet for disinformation campaigns and investigate their origin, and implement a "policy response" if necessary.

This response may, for example, take the form of a diplomatic warning if there is evidence that a foreign state is behind a disinformation campaign.

Spain says the measures will apply to electoral processes, but also sectors such as health, environment or security.

The protocols are an update on measures which have been in place in the country since March 2019.

The Madrid Press Association (APM) have accepted the government's wish to combat disinformation, but have expressed concerned about a "clear risk" that the government will act "as a censor rather than a guarantor of the truth".

"We seriously object to the tools announced for that fight because it leaves in the hands of the National Government a function that should enjoy independence from the public powers," said the APM in a statement.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have also questioned the power of the retaliatory measures given to Spain's government and has called for more clarity.

"RSF asks the Government to demonstrate its commitment to transparency and to publish data on the disinformation campaigns that it has detected against Spain".

'An Orwellian Ministry of Truth'

Meanwhile, the leader of the opposition Partido Popular accused Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of creating "an Orwellian Ministry of Truth", in reference to George Orwell's famous '1984' work on a totalitarian state.

Spain's new Minister of Justice, Juan Carlos Campo, assured Parliament on Tuesday that the government's plan was aimed at "combating disinformation campaigns ... from abroad" and not at "censoring" information.

"It is not to say what is true or what is not, to close web pages, withdraw broadcasting licences or put journalists in prison," Campo said during a debate in the Senate.

A number of analysts have also said the reaction of the media and opposition parties to the measures was "disproportionate".

Like other European states, Spain is struggling to contain the flow of false information on social media, especially during its recent electoral processes.

During the campaign for the April 2019 legislative elections, nearly 9.6 million voters - a quarter of the total - received messages containing false information via WhatsApp, according to a study by the NGO Avaaz.

One rumour falsely claimed that Pedro Sanchez had agreed to support the independence of Catalonia.