August 26, 2019  |  Updated August 26, 2019

In Belgium, the Sleeping Beauty Awakes, but Slowly

By Tim Pauwels
Mont des Arts/Kunstberg, Brussels. Source: FreePik

It might come as a surprise, but the land that hosts the European capital is still very much a blind spot when it comes to counteraction against disinformation or manipulation in the public debate. There is no structural factchecking initiative with International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) recognition. There is no dialogue with the internet platforms, nor any structural scientific research into the phenomenon.

Belgians themselves seem quite at ease about it. In the Flash Eurobarometer 464 poll from March 2018, Belgians answered least of all Europeans that disinformation was a problem in their country. Still, 43 percent answered that it was a problem “to some extent” and 28 percent answered that it was “definitely” a problem. These are still, as everywhere in Europe, high figures. In the same survey 31 percent of Belgians said that they meet “false news” at least once a week.

In several articles in 2018 the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, and its Flemish counterpart De Standaard, pointed out that Russian trolls were targeting the Dutch-language public debate, for instance at the time of the 2016 bomb attacks in Brussels, including Belgium’s large Dutch-speaking population. Via fake accounts, about 900 posts were published blaming Islam, and Muslims in general, for the Brussels attacks.

Politico pointed out that the political crisis that led to the 2019 fall of the Belgian federal government coincided with a strong and international disinformation campaign on social media against the migration compact. Political conflict over this compact eventually engineered the demise of the Belgian federal government.

Previously, federal vice-prime-minister Alexander De Croo had organized a public consultation on disinformation and fake news. At his request, a group of experts also published a report with a proposal to turn a disadvantage into an asset. Given its small scale and the fact that everything needed to start from scratch, Belgium could be an ideal “testing ground” for a constructive dialogue with internet platforms. Federal prime minister Charles Michel, who has been appointed the president of the European Council, stated in his last state of the union address that “factchecking was essential to a society of values and freedom.” Plans to give financial support to factchecking initiatives were drafted, but the fall of the federal government halted any operational plans on that level.

In Flanders, the “Vlaams fonds voor de Journalistiek” gave project subsidies to two initiatives: “Factcheck.Vlaanderen” and “fact rank.” Both try to develop artificial intelligence tools as an instrument to find verifiable messages and political statements on the internet or in other sources. It is the first time that such tools have been developed for the Dutch language.

Flemish print media De Standaard and Knack have a long-standing tradition of factcheck columns. They do not, however, focus on social media or alternative news outlets, both of which have surged in Belgium in recent years.

The Dutch site “Nieuwscheckers,” organized by Leidse Universiteit in the Netherlands, was the only factcheck initiative that documented disinformation on social media or from non-traditional sources in the Dutch language.

In 2019, High School Artevelde in Ghent, AP in Antwerp, and Thomas More in Mechelen participated in a European project to factcheck disinformation about the European Union during the European elections.

And in April 2019, Factcheck.Vlaanderen became the first Flemish factcheck website. But funding remains a serious problem in the foreseeable future. Since its inception, Factcheck.Vlaanderen has published 54 factchecks, debunking disinformation on issues such as election campaigns, the Notre Dame fire, and climate change. Factcheck.Vlaanderen also shares its factchecks on social media.

The situation differs slightly in the francophone part of the country because there are many well-established factchecking initiatives available to French speakers. Yet these rarely focus on a Belgian French-speaking audience. In response, the French-speaking public broadcaster RTBF has planned a project (“Faky”)  to bring together those factchecks that are relevant to the Belgian public debate. Faky will also use tools to search for disinformation in the French language.

Slowly, Belgium appears to be waking up to the issue of disinformation. The country’s particular position does not make counteraction against disinformation easy and the lack of a single national language means that Belgians are often confronted with disinformation in English, French, and Dutch coming from sources all over the world. The small and highly competitive media landscapes in Belgium find it hard to provide journalism that debunks disinformation on social media.

After the 2019 elections, Belgium is now in the process of getting its no less than six governments up and running. Especially on the federal level, this seems to be, once again, a tedious exercise. While many themes compete for attention in the Belgian public, it is high time that politicians and stakeholders shrug off their sleep and develop a clear view on Belgium’s response to disinformation.

Tim Pauwels is ombudsman of Belgian public broadcaster VRT.

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