EU Commission hits out at Facebook’s disinformation report

European Commissioner for Security Union, Julian King (R) and The EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel give a press conference on the code of practice signed by online platforms to fight disinformation at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium, 29 January 2019. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

European Commission Security Chief Julian King criticised the “patchy, opaque and self-selecting” reporting provided by Facebook and other tech giants following their bids to comply with the EU’s code of practice against disinformation on Tuesday (29 January).

The criticism comes a day after Facebook revealed measures to clamp down on political ads ahead of the European elections.

The  code, launched in 2018 by the Commission, is a voluntary framework that aims to stamp out the spread of fake news online. The EU published the first compliance reports of the code on Tuesday (29 January). Signatories to the set of measures include Facebook, Google and Twitter.

“In the case of Facebook, unfortunately they have not included figures for Q4 of 2018 at all,” King said, referring to the compliance report issued by Facebook to the Commission.

“So, while we recognise, and welcome, the progress that has been made, the reporting is somewhat patchy, opaque and self-selecting in terms of its coverage.”

At the time of publishing, Facebook have not responded to EURACTIV’s request for comment.

Facebook doesn't have all the answers, says Clegg, as social media giant clamps down on political ads

Facebook users looking to run paid-for political advertisements will be required to abide by a set of new rules in the run-up to the European elections, the head of the social media giant’s global affairs Nick Clegg said on Monday (28 January).

More generally, the Commission renewed calls for platforms to  “intensify their efforts” in the fight against fake news, claiming that “additional action is needed” following efforts made by several tech giants to comply with the EU’s code of practice against disinformation.

“Signatories have taken action, for example giving people new ways to get more details about the source of a story or ad,” Vice-President for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip said in a statement on Tuesday. “Now they should make sure these tools are available to everyone across the EU…There is no time to waste.”

Facebook restricts ad monitoring

The first reports on compliance with the code come a day after former Deputy Prime Minister of the UK and now Head of Global Affairs at Facebook, Sir Nick Clegg, revealed that paid-for political advertisements will be required to abide by a set of new rules in the run-up to the European elections.

The new measures are to be rolled out in March and will see the social media giant establish an authorising department who will vet political ads for approval. In addition, each ad will feature a “paid for by” disclaimer.

However, this week Facebook has been under the spotlight with regards to the management of political ads on their site for other reasons.

Online ad monitoring organisation, WhoTargetsMe, has claimed that its capacity to look into targets advertisements on Facebook has been restricted by recent changes to Facebook’s algorithms.

The firm helps users understand why they have been targeted by specific advertisements online.

“Ten days ago, our software stopped working, and efforts to fix it have proved much harder than before,” WhoTargetsMe co-founder Sam Jeffers said, speaking to The Guardian. “This comes in a year when over a third of the world’s population has the opportunity to vote, with elections across the EU, India, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Israel and Ukraine to name a few.”

“They are actively trying to stop our project from gathering data about the ads they run, and the targeting of those ads.”

European Parliament MEP,  Marietje Schaake, an ALDE member, has since issued a written question to the European Commission, asking them to look into Facebook’s restriction of ad monitoring software.

Pressed by EURACTIV to respond to concerns over Facebook’s restriction of the programs on Tuesday, King said that “there is a case for external scrutiny” by third-party software developers such as WhoTargetsMe on Facebook’s political ads, and that the Commission would support such external scrutiny.

EU needs to 'double efforts' in the fight against disinformation, Gabriel says

The EU’s Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel has upped the ante in the fight against fake news, saying on Wednesday (23 January) that “new technologies are advancing extremely rapidly” and that as a result, the EU needs to “double its efforts.”

Future regulation

The Commission hasn’t shone  away from suggesting that regulation could be in store should the reports, which are due to be released on a monthly basis leading up the European elections, reveal that the platforms are not pulling their weight.

Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel told a EURACTIV audience last week that this could be a very real possibility. This has been a consistent narrative emanating from the European Commission since the inception of the code of practice.

However, legislating against fake news and essentially deciding what is clarified as ‘true’ or ‘false’ in the world of media could prove to be a politically perilous move.

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