The European Commission has threatened to introduce legislation on so-called fake news by the end of the year as part of its strategy to clamp down on online disinformation before the 2019 EU elections.
The Commission has given online platforms until July to draft a non-binding code of conduct aimed at reducing false information on social media. But if that strategy does not limit the spread of disinformation campaigns and the amount of fake accounts on the platforms, the EU executive said it will announce by December whether it will propose a hard law.
Mariya Gabriel, the EU digital Commissioner who has overseen the bloc’s strategy on fake news, told reporters on Thursday (26 April), “There’s no time to lose looking ahead to the 2019 European election.
“We need to be particularly vigilant and fight disinformation tactics, in particular targeting electoral processes.”
Gabriel and Julian King, the Commissioner in charge of the EU security union, told a news conference in Brussels that they want to prevent developments in Europe that might be similar to the spread of fake information on social media ahead of the 2016 US presidential election.
Facebook revealed last autumn that a Kremlin-linked agency paid for political advertising on the platform before the US election.
The Commission wants online platforms to come up with proposals that will make it clearer to social media users when they are seeing political ads and sponsored content. They should also make more information public about how their algorithms single out specific information to show users.
The Commission’s new strategy on false information uses some strong language to criticise online platforms—but it does not suggest any specific actions that it might include in future legislation. According to the EU document, false news “relies on a lack of transparency and traceability in the existing platform ecosystem and on the impact of algorithms and online advertising models”.
Gabriel has said she wants to stick to a voluntary agreement with platforms because they might remove false information more quickly without pressure from regulation.
Facebook already uses artificial intelligence to detect posts that spread incorrect claims, and the firm hired fact checkers in Italy ahead of this year’s election. After a strict new German law that regulates online hate speech went into effect in January, the social media giant also hired hundreds of new staff members there to monitor users’ posts.
The Commission announced that it will organise a conference with EU countries in late 2018 that will focus on “cyber-enabled threats to elections”.
One Commission official said that the new strategy focuses on legal “gray areas”, while Germany’s law targets posts with hate speech, which is illegal in the EU.
But the official described the Commission plan as an attempt to prevent fragmentation before other countries introduce their own national laws. France is also currently drafting its own legislation on fake news.
“It’s very clear that it’s a European problem,” the source said.
Commission officials cited a recent EU survey showing that 83% of respondents see “fake news” as a threat to democracy.
Earlier this year, the European Parliament also created a dedicated unit that will focus on preventing and responding to false information before the next EU election.
Consumer watchdog organisation BEUC criticised the Commission for taking a “half-hearted” position by failing to start a formal investigation into political advertising.
“Online platforms make money from advertisements displayed alongside fake news articles, videos and posts,” said Monique Goyens, BEUC’s director general.
Facebook and other social media firms have come under increased pressure for their advertising-based business models, and for allowing companies to access users’ personal data in order to target them with specific ads chosen for their interests and profile. This month, news broke that consultancy Cambridge Analytica had collected 87 million Facebook users’ data and analysed it without their consent for political campaign work.
Last year’s revelations about political advertising before the US election have already prompted a tougher approach from American lawmakers.
King referred during Thursday’s news conference to a draft bill regulating political advertising that the US Congress is currently discussing. It would require online platforms and media outlets to reveal how their ads target specific audiences and how much companies pay for ads.
The US honest ads act “has to grapple with some of these same issues” as the EU’s strategy, King said.
But he defended the Commission’s voluntary approach.
“I think we’re going in the right direction. I am reassured that the platforms as means of communication of much of this material understand the importance of making progress, will work with us and indeed already are taking steps in the right direction,” King said.