EU elections: Can EU citizens’ awareness eradicate fake news more efficiently than Facebook, Twitter and Google?

Press conference of Andrus Ansip, Vice-President of the EC, Vĕra Jourová, Julian King and Mariya Gabriel, Members of the EC, on disinformation
Date: 05/12/2018 Location: Belgium,Brussels – EC/Berlaymont
© European Union , 2019
Photo: Jennifer Jacquemart

Last Thursday, the European Commission published the reports of Facebook, Google and Twitter regarding the progress made in January in their voluntary pledges to tackle disinformation. Disinformation is a major challenge globally and for Europe and all stakeholders have to be actively involved in order to address citizens’ exposure to it.

However, the US tech companies didn’t provide enough details of the actual results according to the EU executive body, while there is always a need to be fully prepared ahead of the EU elections in May.

Background

Since March 2015, the EU has been creating an action plan and policies in order to tackle fake news. Back then the European Council established the East StratCom Task Force in the European External Action Service (EEAS)  to “challenge Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns”. A year after, the Joint Framework on countering hybrid threats was adopted leading to the Joint Communication on increasing resilience and bolstering capabilities to address hybrid threats in 2018.

In April 2018, the EC pointed out the tools, Code of Practice and action plan to tackle disinformation online. Last October, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Mozilla were among the companies to sign on a voluntary basis the Code of Practice which since December 2018 is being monitored by the EC. The aim of the measures is to increase transparency in online political advertisements, close fake accounts and detect disinformation campaigns through fact-checkers in order for the EU elections to be organised in a democratic way.

EC’s stance against disinformation

The Commission stated last week that the US tech giants were not delivering to their pledges regarding the reporting of the implemented actions for the blazing issue of fake news and online disinformation. Hence, the EC is now pressing further the online firms to comply and deliver the Code of Practice measures before the EU elections in order to avoid any possible influence and meddling in the outcome as it recently happened in the 2016 US elections.

More specifically, Commission’s Vice-President for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip, Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Věra Jourová, Commissioner for the Security Union Julian King, and Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel jointly stated on February 28: “The online platforms, which signed the Code of Practice, are rolling out their policies in Europe to support the integrity of elections. However, we need to see more progress on the commitments made by online platforms to fight disinformation. Platforms have not provided enough details showing that new policies and tools are being deployed in a timely manner and with sufficient resources across all EU Member States. The reports provide too little information on the actual results of the measures already taken. Finally, the platforms have failed to identify specific benchmarks that would enable the tracking and measurement of progress in the EU. The quality of the information provided varies from one signatory of the Code to another depending on the commitment areas covered by each report. This clearly shows that there is room for improvement for all signatories.”

Will the US tech giants comply or not?

According to the EC, Facebook didn’t report the results of the actions taken regarding the control of ad placements whereas Google’s measurement methods are not specific enough to address fake news. What is more, Twitter didn’t send any methods to enhance the ad placement scrutiny.

EU’s security Commissioner, Julian King, and digital economy Commissioner, Mariya Gabriel expressed their concerns last week regarding the topic. In detail, they mentioned that: “The results last time fell short of expectations – so we called on the platforms to go further and faster in their efforts to tackle disinformation. Sadly, despite some progress, rather than improve, they have fallen further behind. The lack of hard numbers is particularly worrying. Facebook has again failed to provide all necessary information, including any data on its actions in January on scrutiny of ad placements or efforts to disrupt advertising and monetisation incentives for those behind disinformation.”

On the other hand, social media companies had outlined that it is not their task to verify that everything people are saying on their platforms is true and accurate. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg had mentioned on this issue in 2017 that: “We definitely don’t want to be the arbiter of the truth.” Furthermore, Twitter had raised its concern about the action to be done on a world leaders’ tweet which is not true. Should it be removed? In particular, the US company had said: “Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions”.

EU elections: with or without disinformation?

Europe is struggling to address the major challenge of disinformation and protect its citizens from misleading false information ahead of the EU elections. The failure of online platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to comply with their fake news commitments has started worrying officials at the EC, which could impose regulatory rules in case US firms don’t seem to comply with the already agreed actions in the long-run.

All in all, democratic systems and EU values should be above any opportunistic views which can alter the outcome of elections as done in the past with Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal. The adverse effects of disinformation on society demand for joint actions with citizens trained to comprehend what is and is not false news.

Subsequently, the next monthly report from the online platforms is anticipated in March and will showcase to the EC whether effective policies can ensure the validity and independence of the May elections. A 12-month period assessment will be carried by the EU executive arm at the end of 2019 in order to evaluate and decide on the regulatory framework.

Another critical point that should be pointed out is whether or not the media sector will be influenced by policies about online disinformation. Would these policy changes tackle fake news in exchange for increased costs and market obstacles to decent media startups? Then the trade-off wouldn’t be win-win neither for the society nor the media.

It naturally remains to be seen how the EC can rightfully protect the upcoming EU elections from disinformation while taking extra care not to create impediments to the media market and its decent players, small or big, who daily strive for a better and stronger European Union with independent journalism.

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  1. […] europeansting.com, 6 marca 2019 r. Komisja Europejska opublikowała raporty Facebooka, Google i Twittera dotyczące postępów poczynionych w ich dobrowolnych zobowiązaniach do walki z dezinformacją. Firmy nie dostarczyły jednak wystarczająco szczegółowych informacji na temat faktycznych wyników jakie udało im się osiągnąć. Czytaj więcej… […]

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