From Fake News to Real Solutions: The House Democracy Partnership in Warsaw

  • Alison Schafer
A group stands in Poland to smile for a picture in front of some Christmas trees

One was a longtime investigative journalist in Ukraine. Another ran an IT company in Moldova. Another served as Georgia’s deputy minister for environmental protection and agriculture. Some are established lawmakers with years of experience, and more than a few have recently been swept into power on reformist votes.

Legislators from varied political parties in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Poland met in Warsaw in early December under the auspices of the House Democracy Partnership (HDP), a bipartisan commission of the U.S House of Representatives that supports and strengthens democratic parliaments around the world.

HDP casts a wide net; legislators from all democratic political parties and ideologies are invited, with the goal of furthering effective and responsive legislatures. HDP focuses on different topics during each program, at each meeting, and this gathering centered on communications outreach and countering disinformation, a concern for legislators and their constituents in all four countries.

The legislators were most worried about a lack of enforcement against purveyors of fake news and false information, whether those purveyors are individuals, groups, or nations. They can identify fake news and disinformation, they say, but they can’t do much to stop it or take it down, and that is a source of extreme frustration.

“What we are trying to find here is a global solution to disinformation and fake news,” said Victor Spinu, a member of parliament from Moldova and the founder of a group called Trolless, which works to expose the promoters of fake news. “We, as politicians, need to put pressure on social media platforms to take action against fake news, to say ‘you guys are really the ones who need to do something about this.’”

Volodymyr Ariev, a legislator from Ukraine, agreed.  “Our goal is to conduct the business of our country without Russian interference. So, we’re creating a list of organizations so we can meet with them and to convince them to work for this.”

Many of the members of parliament were supportive but skeptical about the efficacy of laws to reign in mis- and disinformation. “Laws are always complicated, and that is the system and how it should be,” said Eka Sepashvilli, a legislator in Georgia and a professor of economics at Tbilisi State University.  “We need to talk to stakeholders and those who are affected and take the time to reach them and explain to them.”

The European legislators were joined in Warsaw by two former members of the U.S. Congress, Representatives Mike Conaway of Texas and Mimi Walters from California. Walters said that laws, while important, can be cumbersome. “That’s the challenge we have, two sides are not going to agree on what the intent is in the written language, and it winds up in court. It takes time.”

In addition to much discussion about fake news and disinformation, the lawmakers and their American counterparts spent several hours sharing information and ideas for best practices in areas as diverse as constituent outreach, social media strategies, and handling the news media.

Social media’s uses and abuses were one of the themes of the gathering. Some countries’ media landscapes rely heavily on Facebook, others use Twitter, but all of the European legislators were focused on the power of using social media to connect directly with their constituents. Several lawmakers jumped on Facebook live feeds during breaks in the discussion to talk with constituents. Still others lamented the low bar for accurate information on social media, but all of them were acutely aware of its ability to reach voters with both solid information and malign mis- and disinformation.

As internet penetration and engagement on social media platforms continue their speedy rise in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Poland, legislators agree that the spread of false information is only going to get worse, and the remedies are failing to keep up.

Up ArrowTop