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European Union goes on offensive against fake news

Brussels - The European Commission released a set of proposals on Wednesday aimed at fighting fake news, with an eye on European Parliament elections in May 2019."We are [a] facing digital arms race and Europe should not stay idle," wrote EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova on Twitter.

Concerns as elections approach

Both the commission and the European Union's diplomatic service have launched initiatives in recent years to fight online disinformation. But the upcoming European elections have given fresh impetus amid worries that Russia and other actors could interfere.

One underlying concern is that populist parties could harness eurosceptic, anti-migration sentiments in the run-up to the polls, with the help of misleading social media campaigns.

The action plan unveiled on Wednesday would more than double the EU diplomatic service's budget for debunking and publicizing fake news, from 1.9 million euros (2.2 million dollars) to 5 million euros. In addition, a new "rapid alert" system would bolster real-time cooperation between member states and EU institutions.

Coordination is essential, said Jourova, one of the four commissioners who presented the action plan.

The strategy "cannot leave any weak entry points," she said. "Failure in one state is failure for the whole [EU]."

New data protection rules

The commission would also monitor a new EU "code of practice" that calls for more scrutiny of political ads, fake online accounts, and "bot" activity, as well as stepped-up fact-checking initiatives.

These proposals are meant to target weaknesses made apparent in the wake of scandals. In one of the best-known cases, Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data in 2016 to support the campaigns for Brexit and US President Donald Trump's election.

Most recently, a New York Times report in November suggested Facebook attempted to ignore and conceal Russian interference.

Commission Vice President Andrus Ansip acknowledged that the EU budget in question is a tiny fraction of what Russia allegedly spends on disinformation campaigns, which he said totalled over one billion euros a year.

"But our aim is not to create something like what they have in Russia - our goal is not to create an EU propaganda machine," he said. "We want to detect disinformation, and then we have to understand where those threats are coming from."

The action plan comes on the heels of commission proposals in September for new rules and fines to crack down on election meddling.

The commission has also issued guidance on the European Union's new data protection rules, which came into effect in May. These include sanctions for European political parties that breach those rules.