Tech giants including Facebook, Google, Twitter and Mozilla have submitted plans to the European Commission outlining how they will abide by a code of practice against fake news, amid opposition on the proposals from a multistakeholder forum.
EU digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel announced on Tuesday (16 October) that the firms have agreed to follow a set of commitments in order to counter disinformation across their platforms, as well as to publish a roadmap clearly indicating how they will reach their objectives.
The Commission is rallying online companies to stamp out the threat of fake news in the run-up to next year’s European elections.
“This is the first time, on a voluntary basis, that the industry has agreed to implement a set of self-regulated measures,” Gabriel said on Tuesday.
“The signatories have also included a set of specific actions for the upcoming European elections…We [the Commission] are here to follow very closely the efficiency of this code, and we will do a first assessment towards the end of the year.”
The Commission’s plans, first announced in April, cover five elements in the moderation of fake news online:
- Disrupting advertising revenues from companies that spread disinformation;
- Tackling fake accounts and online bots;
- Making political advertising more transparent;
- Allow users to report instances of disinformation more easily;
- Providing better frameworks to monitor the spread of disinformation.
The move comes amid criticism of the plans, with stakeholders saying that the proposal fails to appropriately address the real threat of fake news.
A spokesperson from the sounding board on disinformation featuring representatives of the media, civil society, fact checkers and academia, said on Tuesday:
“Our opinion has been that there is no common approach, there are no clear and meaningful commitments, and the KPIs and objectives are not measurable. Therefore, based on the code as it is presented, we are constructively critical in its current shape and form.”
The sounding board added that they recognise the threat of disinformation and are anticipating the results of the first assessment report of the efficiency of the code of practice, which will come around December time.
Meanwhile, Director General Noel Curran of the European Broadcasting Union also said in a separate statement:
“The online platforms and social networks have a responsibility for the content that they circulate and they must act decisively against all types of fake news and disinformation.
“We would urge the European Commission to realise the scale of the threat and take this issue seriously.”
Curran also drew attention to the ambiguous way in which “algorithms are currently controlling the content delivered to audiences” and called for more transparency in this field in particular.
In light of the tangible concerns that stakeholders have, EURACTIV pressed Gabriel on whether the Commission would consider escalating the code from a voluntary mechanism to a regulation if the results of the December review were not satisfactory.
“Any [future] proposal of legislation will be presented while fully taking into account the facts, so we will need this prior assessment, and if we do make a proposal, we will make it at a European level,” she said in response.
“But we do not want to anticipate things. We want to take things step by step.”
Tuesday’s announcement comes during a week in which the subject of electoral integrity has been a priority on the commission’s agenda, with a high-level conference on the subject having taken place this week.
Security Commissioner Julian King delivered a statement on Monday (15 October) in which he directly referred to the code. Whilst recognising that is it a “good start,” he also said that it “needs to go much further, much faster” in countering the threat of fake news.
King’s more proactive tone against the risks of disinformation on Monday has been further amplified by the reasoning of other stakeholders in the field.
Ricken Patel, founding president of Avaaz, the world’s largest activist network, sat down with EURACTIV on Monday morning. He condemned the far-reaching negative implications of fake news on society.
“Disinformation targets democracy’s immune system,” he said.
“Social media has been weaponised and used by a range of actors in society. Fake news threatens the fundamentals of our civilization.”
In addition to the highly publicised revelations of Russian interference during the US 2016 presidential election and the Brexit campaign, disinformation initiatives have also been levelled at more niche global political events, such as the recent Macedonia name-change referendum and allegedly during the European Parliament’s recent vote on the copyright directive.
Moreover, earlier this week, EURACTIV gained access to a Russian investigative journalist, Lyudmila Savchuk, who had gone undercover in 2015 to work at the St Petersburg ‘Internet Research Agency’, more commonly referred to as the ‘troll factory’.
Savchuk delivered a stark warning: “I don’t have any doubt that there will be threats to next year’s European elections,” referring to Russia’s interest in developing a disinformation campaign targeting the EU.