The spread of disinformation from inside and outside the EU poses a growing threat to Europe and beyond, but there is no quick fix, according to stakeholders.
Russian-linked interference in the Baltics, anti-vaccine misinformation in France, and the rise in state capture of media in Europe’s east were among key areas of concern discussed by anti-disinformation stakeholders at this week’s EU DisinfoLab’s 2021 conference.
Under increasing scrutiny for their online conduct, large platforms’ involvement calls for a response beyond just regulation or bolstering the media sector, speakers said.
However, when it comes to addressing the issue at a cross-border legislative level, MEP Bart Groothuis told listeners, the complexity of the task means that “inaction is the biggest problem we have right now.”
Several EU initiatives related to media and disinformation are currently underway, including launching an expert group on disinformation and media literacy on 12 October. However, concerns remain within the Commission over the scope and impact that some of these measures could have, particularly when taken alongside the proposed Digital Services Act (DSA).
While many aspects of the DSA have been welcome, its potential efficacy has also been questioned on specific points.
Several stakeholders emphasised the need for high levels of transparency and access to data to ensure oversight. While the proposal includes scope for independent auditors and “vetted researchers” to access the data, concerns were voiced that the definition of who would qualify for this role was too narrow and should be expanded.
Chloe Colliver, head of digital policy and strategy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, also noted that researchers needed insight into decision-making and the human side of platforms, not just quantitative data.
Similarly the application of existing tools at the EU’s disposal was considered too restrictive. Groothuis told listeners that the NIS2 directive on cybersecurity, for which he is the rapporteur, had key parallels with the issue of disinformation, mainly in terms of the need to look not just at possible responses but at who was driving the problem.
To react to the issue, he said, the EU’s cybersecurity toolbox, a set of measures designed to improve cyber resilience across Europe, should be expanded and applied to the disinformation community.
One of the most notable issues voiced repeatedly by attendees was a potential amendment restricting the ability of online platforms to remove or moderate editorial content uploaded by news publishers.
The publishing industry sees it as a measure to prevent tech companies from exerting undue power over news content that has already been through an editorial process. But those working in the field of anti-disinformation argue it could accelerate the spread of disinformation by preventing platforms from reviewing and acting upon certain material.
At the conference, Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová echoed concerns over the measure, which was not included in the Commission’s original text.
“For me”, she said, “this is in the box of good intentions leading to hell.”
Instead, she said, there should be a greater effort from the media to increase their trustworthiness, and governments must do more to ensure the basic safety of journalists and outlet independence.
She also said that governments should not be mainly responsible for regulating online spaces. This, she said, risks dangers posed by centralising public knowledge.
A Recommendation on the Safety of Journalists and an ongoing update to the currently self-regulatory Code of Practice on Disinformation is another EC initiative to support the media. However, concerns remain within the Commission and stakeholders over its voluntary nature the likelihood of enforcement.
The Commission is also set to launch an initiative on political advertising by the end of the year, and in 2022 will propose a Media Freedom Act focused on ensuring outlets’ independence.
In a week that has seen yet more unfavourable publicity land at Facebook’s door, big tech also received significant scrutiny for its role in spreading and amplifying disinformation.
Speaking at the conference, Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang said that these problems were not specific to Facebook but instead were endemic throughout the tech sector. She left the company in September 2020 over concerns her former employee had failed to act on reports of political manipulation by governments on the platform,
Key among the issues, she said, was the centring of profit as platforms’ primary motivation, meaning that harms were left unaddressed. The asymmetry between the amount of attention paid to an issue and the severity of the problem was another.
Zhang’s comments followed a slew of recent bad press for the online giant. Earlier this week, a series of articles were published by media outlets given access to files initially handed to the Wall Street Journal by Frances Haugen, another Facebook whistleblower.
Both the WSJ’s original “Facebook Files” series and the following publications made similarly damaging allegations about the choices made by the company when it comes to deciding between profit and the protection of users.
Haugen, who is due to appear before the European Parliament next month, told UK lawmakers on Monday that Facebook was “unquestionably” making online hate worse. The divisive impacts it has had around the world, she added, “are just the opening chapters of a novel that is going to be horrific to read…we have to care about societal harm.”
[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/ Alice Tayor]