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EC calls on online platforms to develop common code of practice to tackle ‘disinformation’

The European Commission says online platforms such as social media and video sites, have not done enough to tackle unethical use, and calls on them “to decisively step up their efforts to tackle online disinformation”

Online platforms have not done enough to tackle disinformation, the European Commission (EC) has said, as it calls for the creation of a code of practice to deal with fake news, misinformation, and illegal content online

The EC has proposed a series of measures on how to tackle disinformation online, such establishing an independent European network of fact checkers, and a secure online platform to support them, with cross-border data collection and analysis.  

It said that although disinformation is nothing new, the advent of modern technologies and social media sites has made it easier to “to disseminate disinformation on a scale and with speed and precision of targeting that is unprecedented”. 

It added that the recent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, where London-based data mining firm Cambridge Analytica was sold uncontrolled access to user data that was used to influence US and UK voting, has shown “more is needed to secure resilient democratic processes”.

The EC said disinformation not only erodes trust, but “harms our democracies by hampering the ability of citizens to take informed decisions”.  

“Mass online disinformation campaigns are being widely used by a range of domestic and foreign actors to sow distrust and create societal tensions, with serious potential consequences for our security. The spread of disinformation also affects policy-making processes by skewing public opinion,” the EC said.

“Domestic and foreign actors can use disinformation to manipulate policy, societal debates and behaviour in areas such as climate change, migration, public security, health and finance. Disinformation can also diminish trust in science and empirical evidence.”

It added that online platforms, specially social media sites and search engines, “play a key role in the spread and amplification of online disinformation”.

The European commissioner for the security union, Julian King, said the “weaponisation of online fake news and disinformation poses a serious security threat to our societies”.

“The subversion of trusted channels to peddle pernicious and divisive content requires a clear-eyed response based on increased transparency, traceability and accountability. Internet platforms have a vital role to play in countering the abuse of their infrastructure by hostile actors and in keeping their users, and society, safe,” he added.

Establishing a code of practice

The EC’s paper on the issue said social media platforms have “failed to act proportionately” and have fallen short of “the challenge posed by disinformation and the manipulative use of platforms' infrastructures”.

“The commission calls on platforms to decisively step up their efforts to tackle online disinformation. It considers that self-regulation can contribute to these efforts, provided it is effectively implemented and monitored,” it said.

This will be done through a code of practice, which the EC said should be published by July 2018. The code will be created through a multi-stakeholder forum on disinformation, which will act as a framework to cooperation between the stakeholders, including online platforms, advertising, media and members of society. 

The code of practice will cover various issues, including ensuring transparency around sponsored content, providing clarity on algorithms and third-party verification, and introduce measures to close face accounts and tackle bots.

European commissioner for digital economy and society, Mariya Gabriel, said the commission is “calling on all actors, in particular platforms and social networks who have a clear responsibility, to act on the basis of an action plan aiming at a common European approach so that citizens are empowered and effectively protected against disinformation”.

She added that the EC will closely monitor the progress made, and “may propose further actions by December, including measures of regulatory nature, should the results prove unsatisfactory”.

The EC added that emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain also have a potential role to play in tackling disinformation.

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