Fake news is a disease that European society needs to be “vaccinated” against, the EU’s Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel said as she opened a call for public comments on how the EU should respond to the spread of false information on internet platforms.
“It is vital that we vaccinate our society against this disease so as to maintain our democratic values and strengthen them,” Gabriel told a Brussels conference on Monday (13 November).
The Commission opened a questionnaire on Monday that will collect public responses until February and feed into a strategy paper that the EU executive will publish in early 2018. The document will not be legally binding but will likely recommend ways that online platforms like Facebook and Youtube should clamp down on limiting so-called fake news.
Gabriel also said on Monday that she will start collecting applications for an expert group that will advise her on the issue. The digital chief announced in August that she will choose participants in such a group, but will only now begin accepting applications for it.
She referred to reports that social media companies have accepted thousands of euros to promote political campaigns and to boost the number of users following online accounts.
“Another novelty, of course, is the fact that this phenomenon makes it possible for external actors to influence opinion in our democracies to an extent that was never before possible,” Gabriel said.
Politicians from around the EU have increasingly put pressure on social media companies to amp up measures to detect and remove false information.
Heads of state from EU countries agreed last month that the bloc should do more to fight fake news. They also said that EU countries should safeguard their elections from damaging online campaigns, in a nod to reports that Russia-funded false information was spread on social media in deliberate attempts to influence elections in the United States and France.
“We need to shore up the integrity of our free and democratic societies in the digital age, by protecting citizens’ constitutional rights, freedoms and security online as well as the integrity and legitimacy of democratic processes, in our elections in particular,” read conclusions published after a summit last month, when 27 EU leaders—Spanish Premier Minister Mariano Rajoy missed the meeting—gathered in Estonia to discuss issues relating to cybersecurity and technology.
Gabriel has indicated that she will lead the EU executive’s discussions on fake news. She took office this summer, half-way through the current Commission’s term. In her appointment letter, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker instructed Gabriel to focus partly on leading the new fake news initiative.
On Monday, she said that the Commission will take a “holistic approach” to addressing online misinformation that will “cover all sectors” because so-called fake news is shared online in written and audiovisual formats.
“This misinformation evolves continually as technology evolves,” she said.
Gabriel slammed “those who want to damage us” as opponents to transparency and indicated that the Commission will likely pressure social media firms to be more transparent about what their users share.
“We’re talking here about sources of information, financial flows, the means for making and disseminating information,” she said.
One question in the Commission’s public consultation asks if online platforms should introduce, or potentially increase their use of, a range of measures, including informing users if a post was created by a robot instead of a human, or explaining to users about algorithms the platforms use to determine how they display selected content.
One option asks if firms should “provide greater remuneration to media organisations that produce reliable information online”.
The Commission is under pressure to step up its action against fake news and illegal content that circulate on online platforms. A new law recently went into effect in Germany that will open social media firms up to €50 million fines if they fail to remove illegal content like hate speech. Other EU leaders have indicated they would also favour a tougher approach.
Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter have already signed off on Commission-brokered, non-binding guidelines on removing posts that contain hate speech, which is illegal in the EU. The companies are part of the Commission’s EU internet forum, where they discuss measures to monitor terrorist propaganda and hate speech.
So far, there is no EU-level legislation requiring internet companies to remove such material. But the Commission indicated last month that it might introduce binding rules in 2018 if firms do not start to remove more illegal content at a faster pace.
Spokespeople for Facebook and Google declined to comment on the Commission’s fake news initiative.
The Commission wants its new expert group on fake news to identify how the EU executive could improve the non-binding measures it agreed on with tech companies.
Experts who are chosen to advise the Commission will be asked to define what responsibilities online platforms should have in controlling the spread of fake news, and how journalism outlets are affected by misinformation.
The Commission published a description of the new group on Monday, saying experts will distinguish between illegal false information such as incitement to hatred, violence or terrorism, defamation and other false information that is not illegal.