During the EACD Rome Debate in March this year, Aura Salla, adviser for communication and outreach at the European Political Strategy Centre of the European Commission, spoke of the damaging effects of the misinformation prevalent in media coverage of the EU. She talked to Communication Director about countering this misinformation, building trust in the EU and the responsibility of political leaders to communicate with their citizens.
The European Political Strategy Centre advises the president of the European Commission. How are you advising him to win or hold onto the trust of the electorate in what are trying times for the Commission and the EU in general?
First of all, the day before the EACD’s Rome Debate, the European Commission came out with its White Paper on the Future of Europe, which presents five scenarios on which direction the European Union should go next. Of course, the European Commission is not telling the Member States what to do, but I think it’s a really honest paper in the sense that now is the time to decide what we want to do in the next 10 to 15 years. The Commission also wants to highlight that we are building a future for the young generation. And so we have a huge responsibility here, and that's why what we want to do now and what the Commission wants to do is to put a little bit more pressure, on capitals, political leaders, political parties in the European Union, that now in this era we need to build new trust, political trust, and also trust in our system and in our common integration. We have come so far, it's not time to give up, it's time to give more to new generations.
Fake news and alternative facts are nothing new to Brussels. As a professional working there, how do you navigate that kind of landscape?
For me this is a very interesting time because my duty is to provide real information and try to tackle not only fake news but misinformation, which for the European Union is even a bigger problem at the moment. We are working in close cooperation with our Representations and Member States so that they can tackle misinformation and misleading news in their own language. Because it's super important for us that what we are doing in Brussels for the citizens of Europe actually receives accurate coverage. It’s a different story when it comes to actual fake news. We have a service that corrects this for us and highlights for us that there has been fake news in this or that story, and we get this information quickly and on a daily basis. But as a communications professional you actually follow certain newspapers, certain news channels and you trust them. But then a huge amount of people in the European Union are also following different types of news channels, which are maybe not written by professional journalists but instead spreading rumours, which has a domino effect. Here the Commission is trying to highlight these news channels that are not the professional ones and which are providing fake news. But how to get this information to citizens? That's the question. And here we need the help from the Member States.
How would you define the difference between fake news and misinformation?
One example of misinformation is when the European Union came out with a regulation on industrial gloves. In my country, Finland, this was translated by the media into a ban on household kitchen mittens, which was absolutely not the case. We wanted to make certain that whether you are working in Bulgaria or in Slovakia or in Malta, you will have the same kind of professional gloves with heated systems and so on. So citizens saw this totally misleading news as further examples of “stupid regulations”, and this affects the image of the European Union.
So in misinformation there’s an element of truth that gets twisted?
When a story like that emerges, it's easy to see that the popular press turned it into a stupid story. What measures should be taken in cases like this – should papers be fined for example?
The point is that how they write their headlines is not wrong, but we should have responsible media sources who spread accurate news and accurate headlines. I know that those will not sell papers, that’s the problem, but in our in social media we always ask for corrections and try to use the language that people will actually want to read. But the problem is that not so many people are following our social media sites. More opinion leaders and politicians could call out false news – for example, Emmanuel Macron in France does this and people listen to him.
To be more effective, should the fight against fake news come from high-profile leaders of Member States, rather than the press office of the European Union?
I wouldn’t say "rather" because the Institutions are doing it all the time, it's just not effective. So that’s why I remind these political leaders that it's also their responsibility. Misinformation and fake news is not a Brussels problem, it's a European Union problem.
The rise of populist politicians across Europe is partially attributed to that fact that they were able to establish a major presence on social media to spread their message, and they were able to do this because mainstream political parties haven’t successfully ‘claimed’ that social media space, effectively leaving the stage free for extremists to take it over. Do you agree with this analysis, and what is the European Commission doing to fight back against populist misinformation on the social media stage?
I was really pleased to see that Angela Merkel has joined Instagram, because no matter what we think about Instagram or Snapchat, those are the channels where the people are, and we finally have to realise that. It’s important that our politicians write high-level blogs and articles in newspapers, but if they would post a picture of their morning coffee and then say something meaningful alongside it, that’s an easy way to catch people's interest. Once you have people’s interest they will likely also read your blog, but you have to be a human being first. In America, this is something they realised a long time ago, and in Europe some politicians are beginning to realise that. I used to advise the vice-president of the European Commission, and every time he posted a picture of his morning coffee it was a huge success. He's a famous politician but people want to also see ‘backstage’. And of course, with Twitter it's such a short message, but it can still engage interest and then you can lead your followers to the full story behind your tweet. The problem with Trump is he’s just tweeting, and so he's jumping from topic to topic and not concentrating. But responsible politicians in Europe could use this both ways.
For more opinions and insights from of the EACD Rome Debate, read the review here.
Aura Salla is adviser for communication and outreach at the European Political Strategy Centre of the European Commission. She previously worked as a member of cabinet and communications adviser of Jyrki Katainen, European Commission Vice President responsible for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness. Before joining the Commission she worked in a consultancy firm Recommended Finland as a Project Manager specialising in EU affairs and communications and before that as a speechwriter in the Finnish Parliament. Aura has been visiting lecturer in Harvard University.