The European Commission and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy have issued a joint communication Tackling COVID-19 disinformation – Getting the facts right. The communication highlights the complexity of the situation experienced during the coronavirus crisis, including disinformation campaigns by domestic and foreign actors, in particular China and Russia. It has also called on platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Google to publish monthly reports on how they are tackling disinformation and promoting verified information. Importantly, the communication calls on the platforms to disclose their policies aimed at limiting ad placements related to coronavirus disinformation, both on their own sites and on third-party websites.
Barbora Bukovska, Senior Director of Law and Policy at ARTICLE 19 said:
“We welcome calls for more transparency from tech companies, particularly as they have removed more content than usual during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s vital that companies are open about this and have effective means for redress for users whose content is removed by mistake.
“Thanks to their business model, the dominant social media platforms have contributed to the spread of coronavirus disinformation by amplifying sensational and false news stories on their sites. We know that the financial revenue generated by online advertising is one of the key drivers of disinformation since users tend to engage with content that is popular or shocking, leading to more clicks and shares for junk, conspiratorial and highly politicised sites.”
“A lot of disinformation about coronavirus is shared by ordinary users, often unwittingly, rather than through state-backed disinformation campaigns. Europeans are searching for advice about how to deal with coronavirus and may rely upon untrustworthy sources of information. We believe that the best way to counter this is through positive measures.”
While the Commission does not want “to create the ministry of truth,” ARTICLE 19 is concerned that their communication places increasing pressure on tech companies to monitor and remove content on their platforms. During the pandemic, the platforms have stated that they will rely more on automated content takedowns, with a reduced and remote workforce.
As the EU drafts its new rules governing online platforms, ARTICLE 19 reiterates that the overarching principles of any regulatory framework must be transparency, accountability and the protection of human rights, in particular the protection of freedom of expression. This should be paired with enhanced support for independent media and journalism to ensure that Europeans are exposed to sufficiently diverse content and balanced coverage of issues of public interest.