EU Rapid Alert System used amid coronavirus disinformation campaign

People stand in line to buy face masks outside a pharmacy in Bangkok, Thailand, 04 March 2020. [EPA-EFE/RUNGROJ YONGRIT]

This article was updated to state that the Rapid Alert System wasn’t ‘triggered’ but ‘used.’

The EU’s Rapid Alert System for monitoring serious cases of disinformation has been put into use following a series of online campaigns surrounding the deadly coronavirus outbreak, the European Commission has confirmed.

The tool, in the case of flagging online coronavirus fake news, has been used to share knowledge between member states as well as G7 partners on disinformation “coming from external sources,” EU Commission Vice-President  Věra Jourová said on Tuesday (3 March).

Some of the world’s largest tech firms sat down with Jourová yesterday to discuss ways of stemming the flow of online disinformation concerning the coronavirus.

Present in the meeting were representatives from Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and the trade association EDiMA.

“All participants confirmed that they discovered different type of disinformation or false information online and took a range of measures to address those,” a statement from Jourová read after the meeting.

“The examples of disinformation include fake remedies that purport to address the threat but may put health at risk (e.g. drinking bleach to kill the virus or putting vinegar in your nostrils to avoid contagion) or hoaxes about the origin of the virus and the way and speed at which it is spreading.”

All attendees to the EU meeting agreed to “promote authoritative sources” of news, “remove forbidden or harmful content” and protect consumers from “misleading ads,” Jourová added.

Rapid Alert System

The tool is a key element of the EU’s 2018 Action Plan Against Disinformation and is meant to facilitate exchange of information in the wake of fake news campaigns.

All EU member states have designated a national contact point for the monitoring of fake news and have also agreed on a specific threshold for the system to be activated.

Since its launch in March 2019, the Rapid Alert System hasn’t been triggered, the Commission said in October last year.

Platform actions

Facebook, meanwhile, was keen to highlight the measures it had put in place to stifle the spread of coronavirus-related disinformation online.

A Facebook spokesperson told EURACTIV that such measures includes removing content “debunked by the World Health Organisation or other credible health experts,” as well as the banning of ads “related to coronavirus promoting products that create a sense of urgency to sell things or guarantee a cure.”

Facebook said it was also sharing “aggregated and anonymised mobility data and high resolution density maps” with researchers at Harvard University’s School of Public Health and National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan in order to assist forecasting models for the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, in early February, Twitter launched a series of country-specific partnerships which resulted in the establishment of on-service prompt that the company says is designed to bring users “credible health information” when they make searches related to the coronavirus outbreak. The move was welcomed at the time by Belgian Public Health Minister, Maggie De Block.

Google didn’t respond to EURACTIV request for comment on their measures to combat coronavirus disinformation.

Code Of Practice Against Disinformation

Last year, the European Commission introduced a code of practice against disinformation, a voluntary framework aiming to stamp out the spread of fake news online, with signatories including Facebook, Google and Twitter.

An evaluation of the code was expected in early 2020, with the results likely to feed into an EU Democracy Action Plan, set to be released in Q4, which will establish measures in the “fight against disinformation” while attempting to “ensure free and fair elections,” as well as addressing media sustainability.

On Monday, the EU executive launched the “coronavirus response team,” featuring five  EU Commissioners working across the fields related to the medical, mobility and economic aspects of the outbreak.

The risk of infection has been escalated from “moderate” to “high” by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control at the start of the week, following news that the virus had spread to 18 member states.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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