China has been accused by the European Union of running “targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns” globally, as the bloc set out a plan to tackle a “huge wave” of false facts about the coronavirus pandemic.
At the height of Europe’s coronavirus outbreak, French politicians were left furious when a Chinese embassy website claimed in mid-April that care workers in France had abounded their jobs and had left patients to die. It was also claimed, falsely, that over 80 French lawmakers had used a racist slur against World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“I believe if we have evidence we should not shy away from naming and shaming,” Vera Jourova, a European Commission vice-president, said. This is the first time an EU executive has publicly named China as a source of disinformation.
“I strongly believe that a geopolitically strong EU can only materialize if we are assertive,” Jourova added.
This stance by the European Union is a change in tone from the one adopted by the bloc in March vis-a-vis China. It had earlier described Chinese media narratives while focusing the spotlight on disinformation from Kremlin-backed sources.
The latest accusation comes after lawmakers in the European parliament accused the commission of watering down an earlier report on disinformation under pressure from China – charges EU officials strongly denied.
EU member states are grappling with measures to deal with China on a range of fronts, from foreign policy and security, to the economy.
The Commission has described China as a “systemic rival” in a 2019 report that was seen by many member states as marking a watershed in how the EU deals with an increasingly aggressive government in Beijing.
The Commission has further encouraged social media companies to sign a voluntary code of practice on disinformation while threatening regulation if they fail to act.
The latest report steps up demands on platforms to be more transparent in sharing data with researchers and intensify work with independent fact-checkers. “I would not like the platforms themselves to be the arbiters of truth,” Jourova was quoted as saying.
The Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok has become the latest company to sign the code of practice, the Commission said, joining the likes of Facebook, Google, Twitter and Mozilla.