Big tech’s approach to COVID-19 disinformation is flawed, campaign group says

Bratislava is stepping up its effort to fight disinformation, which many consider one of the main reasons for the country’s low vaccination rate.

Global advocacy organisation Avaaz is calling for a “Paris Agreement for Disinformation”, after research it conducted found significant failings in the efforts of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram to tackle COVID-19 disinformation since the pandemic began.

The preliminary research names Facebook as the greatest “emitter” of COVID disinformation and YouTube as the platform that fails to act in the greatest proportion of cases.

The European Commission recently released its guidance on strengthening the 2018 Code of Practice on Disinformation and in May, EURACTIV reported that the Commission was pitching measures to tackle disinformation as part of the proposed Digital Services Act (DSA).

Luca Nicotra, campaign director at Avaaz, told EURACTIV that, together, these policies present a “once in a decade opportunity to table an approach that can have the ambition to actually address the problem.”

LEAK Commission pitching disinformation measures in Digital Services Act

The European Commission is defending its plans to tackle online disinformation from criticism from national governments, according to a working paper leaked to EURACTIV.

The findings

The research, presented at an event on Thursday (24 June), found that Facebook was responsible for 68% of the total interactions on fact-checked COVID disinformation documented across the platforms.

EURACTIV has contacted Facebook, which also owns Instagram, and YouTube’s parent company, Google, for comment but no reply was received by the time of the publication.

In response to Avaaz’s report, a Twitter spokesperson told EURACTIV that the platform had expanded efforts to combat disinformation since the start of the pandemic.

“Making certain that reliable, authoritative health information is easily accessible on Twitter has been a priority long before we were in the midst of a global pandemic”, they said.

The research also found that the platforms took no action on 37% of the COVID disinformation content sampled. In this respect, YouTube was found to be the biggest culprit, with 92% of the pandemic-related disinformation sampled on the platform left unactioned.

There are also major discrepancies between languages, with 84% of disinformation content in Italian receiving no action, compared to 29% of such content that appeared in English and 20% in Spanish.

Measures in progress

The agreement on disinformation that Avaaz is calling for would see big tech companies agree to strengthen commitments to combat disinformation.

“We’re fundamentally facing a huge threat to our information environment,” Nicotra told EURACTIV. “That’s why we’re saying we need the highest ambition on this.”

He said that some of the points included in the guidance on the Code of Practice on Disinformation are encouraging, but noted that compliance monitoring and penalties for violations remain key gaps. At the very least, he suggested, there should be brand image consequences for platforms that fail to adhere to the code.

Avaaz is, however, supportive of the Code’s connection with the Digital Services Act, a major legislative proposal by the European Commission.

While the guidance on the Code is not legally binding, the DSA will be, and platforms that proactively implement the measures outlined in the Code now could avoid the penalties for non-compliance that would kick in once the DSA becomes law.

Commission sets the bar for anti-disinformation measures

The freshly published Guidance on Strengthening the Code of Practice on Disinformation illustrates the European Commission’s expectations on the anti-disinformation measures for online platforms. While the Code is non-binding, the measures are likely to become mandatory following the adoption of the Digital Services Act (DSA).

Technology vs business model

The DSA’s provisions on disinformation are part of a much wider focus on transparency, particularly in online advertising, which some in the industry see as being directly responsible for the levels of online disinformation.

Sebastiano Toffaletti, secretary-general of the European DIGITAL SME Alliance, an association of small and medium-sized ICT businesses, told EURACTIV that the issue of disinformation is more to do with the heavily ad-reliant business model of large online platforms than the technology itself.

“Polarised or even fake content attracts more users and keeps them longer on the platform”, he said. “Therefore, there is no strong incentive for large platforms to substantially change their business conduct as it would run counter to their ad-reliant business model.”

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi]/Zoran Radosavljevic

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