Online platforms are failing to make sufficient progress in the fight against disinformation, the European Commission warned on Thursday (28 December). Meanwhile, as the European elections draw closer, the EU cybersecurity agency ENISA has called for national legislation in the fight against fake news.
“We need to see more progress on the commitments made by online platforms to fight disinformation,” according to a statement from the European Commission released on Thursday (28 February).
“Platforms have not provided enough details showing that new policies and tools are being deployed in a timely manner and with sufficient resources across all EU Member States,” reads the statement by the EU Commissioners in charge of justice (Věra Jourová), security (Julian King), digital economy (Mariya Gabriel), and digital single market (Andrus Ansip).
The words echo those already expressed by the EU’s executive arm in January when Facebook and other social media issued their first report under the voluntary code of practice against disinformation agreed with EU regulators.
The reports are supposed to detail the platforms’ compliance with the Commission’s code of practice, 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. At the time, Security Commissioner King described the first reports as “patchy, opaque and self-selecting.”
Thursday’s statement from the Commission struck a similar tone, with Facebook being criticised for not reporting “on results of the activities undertaken in January with respect to the scrutiny of ad placements,” as well as its failure to disclose “the number of fake accounts removed due to malicious activities targeting specifically the European Union.”
In response, Facebook came out on the defensive.
“We are in the process of developing performance indicators around political advertising, but these will only become available when the ads archive launches outside the US,” A Facebook spokesperson told EURACTIV in emailed comments.
“With regards to the number of fake accounts we remove from Facebook, we provide updates on this in our twice-yearly Transparency Report. We remain committed to submitting reports to the European Commission to highlight the progress we’re making in each area outlined in the code.”
In January, 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 set to be rolled out by Facebook in March.
Meanwhile, Twitter came under fire for a lack of data demonstrating its commitment to improving the scrutiny of ad placements, in addition to postponing the disclosure of efforts to make political ads more transparent.
The social media network struck a more conciliatory tone on Thursday.
“Our reports will continue to highlight our efforts to ensure security, integrity, and transparency in the lead-up to the EU elections in May,” a Twitter spokesperson told EURACTIV.
“We look forward to detailing in our next report new rules on political campaign ads transparency for the elections.”
The metrics provided to the Commission by Google are “not specific enough and do not clarify the extent to which the actions were taken to address disinformation.” At the time of writing, Google has not responded to EURACTIV’s request for comment.
To regulate or not?
Following two unsatisfactory returns on the compliance report, there are some who are now starting to talk more earnestly about the possibility of regulation.
Also on Thursday, the EU’s cybersecurity agency, ENISA, published an opinion paper on EU-wide election cybersecurity.
In the paper, ENISA recommends that EU member states consider “introducing national legislation to tackle the challenges associated with online disinformation”. Combined with EU efforts to regulate social media and online platforms, this would “ensure a harmonised approach across the EU to tackling online disinformation aimed at undermining the democratic process,” the agency said.
Udo Helmbrecht, the executive director of ENISA, spoke of the motives behind those who seek to disrupt the democratic process, saying they “can be manifold, for example for financial gain, fame and reputation, or to provoke chaos and anarchy, undermine trust in democracy, and subvert political opposition.”
And in the European Parliament, there is no shortage of lawmakers who are pushing for regulation in the field of fake news.
Following the Commission’s statement on Thursday, the President of the liberal group in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, came out with some strong words.
“The integrity of upcoming European Elections and our democracies is at risk,” he tweeted. “We can’t carry on like this. The case for regulation is overwhelming.”
The EU's "voluntary code of practice" on disinformation for Facebook and other tech companies is not enough. The integrity of upcoming European Elections and our democracies is at risk. We can't carry on like this. The case for regulation is overwhelming. #EP2019 https://t.co/WVOelOmZWn
— Guy Verhofstadt (@guyverhofstadt) February 28, 2019
On the sidelines of a recent cybersecurity conference in Brussels, EURACTIV caught up with Security Commissioner Julian King.
He said that regulation would no doubt be on the cards should the platforms fail to step up their efforts in the fight against disinformation.
However, pressed to elaborate on whether future regulation would be “inevitable”, King said he would “want to give the platforms the chance to prove themselves.”
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]