EU warns of online political disinformation ahead of UK general election

Commission says ‘large-scale automated propaganda and disinformation persist’ 

Jon Stone
Brussels
@joncstone
Wednesday 30 October 2019 17:32
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There are calls for greater transparency at Facebook, Google and Twitter
There are calls for greater transparency at Facebook, Google and Twitter

Political disinformation is still rife on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter and more needs to be done to tackle it, the EU has warned.

With the UK’s general election looming, the European Commission said tech giants need to take “serious further steps” to address the issue or be prepared to face regulation.

The EU’s executive praised networks’ initiatives to tackle the problem so far, but said they need to be more transparent about how they are going about it.

“Still, large-scale automated propaganda and disinformation persist and there is more work to be done under all areas of the code. We cannot accept this as a new normal,” the EU commissioners for justice, security and digital economy said in a joint statement.

“While the efforts of online platforms and fact-checkers can reduce harmful virality through platforms’ services, there is still an urgent need for online platforms to establish a meaningful cooperation with a wider range of trusted and independent organisations. Access to data provided so far still does not correspond to the needs of independent researchers.”

NGOs also echoed Brussels’ concerns, with some calling for EU institutions to impose regulations.

Facebook, Google and Twitter must act on the growing demands for greater transparency,” said Catherine Stihler, chief executive of the Open Knowledge Foundation.

“The social media giants have been at the centre of a series of rows about disinformation, particularly in connection with the Brexit referendum, and that simply cannot be allowed to happen once again in the run-up to December’s UK general election. Urgent action is required, and if the platforms don’t act, then they need to be forced to.”

She added: “The institutions of the EU must use their influence to require online platforms to provide more detailed information allowing the identification of malign actors, put pressure on Facebook, Google and Twitter to increase transparency, and encourage closer working with fact-checkers to prevent the spread of disinformation.

“The best way to tackle disinformation is to make information open, allowing journalists, developers and the research community to carry out analysis of disinformation operations.”

Last week in Washington DC, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was barracked by US lawmakers for being unable to tell them whether blatant political disinformation would be removed from his platform. Following the incident, more than 250 Facebook employees signed an open letter calling for Mr Zuckerberg to change his stance.

It comes as the European Commission published the first set of annual self-assessment reports by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, Twitter and seven European trade associations under the bloc’s new Code of Practice on Disinformation.

The EU’s executive said transparency had improved since 2018, and that the scope of actions by different companies “vary significantly”.

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