EU auditors probe bloc’s disinformation fight amid COVID-19 concerns

The European Court of Auditors (ECA) has launched a probe into the resilience of the bloc’s attempts to stifle fake news that can ’cause public harm,’ the institution announced on Tuesday (17 March).

The investigation comes at a testing time for the EU’s media sector, amid concerns that the dissemination of fake news has risen in relation to the recent coronavirus outbreak.

The ECA’s review will cover a range of areas with regards to measures put forward by the EU over recent years to combat the spread of disinformation.

“Any attempt to maliciously and intentionally undermine and manipulate public opinion can represent a serious threat to the Union itself,” a statement from Baudilio Tomé Muguruza, the ECA Member leading the audit, read.

“EU citizens must know whether the EU Action Plan against disinformation is effective.”

The focus of the investigation

The investigation will focus on the robustness of the 2018 Action plan on disinformation, in addition to whether the EU’s code of practice against disinformation has brought ‘tangible improvements’ to the state of fake news on the bloc.

The code is a self-regulatory voluntary framework signed by platforms including Facebook, Google and Twitter, which obliges them to take measures to control the surge of disinformation online.

Having been put in place ahead of the 2019 European elections, the code received criticism from certain EU Commissioners, with the erstwhile Security Commissioner Julian King describing the initial compliance reports produced by the platforms as “patchy, opaque and self-selecting.”

The audit will also examine whether the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s diplomatic arm, has “adequately increased its capacity” to deal with the threats posed by disinformation.

The EEAS founded the East Stratcom Task Force in 2015 with a mandate to combat fake news emanating from Russia, which had been identified as one of the biggest proponents of information warfare against the EU.

The capacity of the EastStratCom Task Force to deal with fake news coming from Russia has previously been a concern highlighted by the European Commission, with the former Vice-President of the Commission, Andrus Ansip, saying that the budget for the body, currently at €5 million, is far from enough when compared to the resources the Russians have at their disposal.

In 2017, two additional Task Forces were established, focussing on Europe’s South and the Western Balkans.

The ECA’s review will further examine the performance of the EU’s Rapid Alert System, which facilitates data sharing and enables common situational awareness between member states amid fake news outbreaks. Since its 2019 establishment, an ‘alert,’ which requires the meeting of a number of high thresholds, has never been issued.

However, in the context of the recent coronavirus outbreak, the Rapid Alert System has been put into use for facilitating information sharing between EU and G7 members, with regards to potential coordinated disinformation campaigns on the issue.

Covid19 misinformation

Meanwhile, some of the world’s largest tech firms sat down with Commission Vice-President  Věra Jourová at the beginning of March to discuss ways to stem the flow of online fake news concerning the coronavirus outbreak. Present in the meeting were representatives from Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and the trade association EDiMA.

Misinformation has recently abounded online with respect to a series of COVID-19 matters, such as false claims about vaccines, and how the virus can be transmitted between people.

“All participants confirmed that they discovered different types 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, as well as 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.

However, reports have recently emerged about the susceptibility of messaging applications for the spread of fake news related to coronavirus, with WhatsApp specifically coming in for criticism.

Varadkar message

Amid these concerns, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar urged WhatsApp users to stop sharing unreliable health advice.

“I am urging everyone to please stop sharing unverified info on WhatsApp groups,” Varadkar said on Twitter. “These messages are scaring and confusing people and causing real damage. Please get your info from official, trusted sources.”

Elsewhere, recent research conducted by the East StratCom Force has uncovered a number of ‘creative’ disinformation campaigns surrounding COVID-19. Those include fake news about Jackie Chan contracting the virus, as well as rumours that the coronavirus is an American invention.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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