EU takes courageous lead to fight social media disinformation

The FBI is now combing through the thousands of images and hundreds of videos that were posted.

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Wed 27 Jan 2021, 8:37 PM

Though many have been warning it could happen, even predicting it, people across the world were shocked: fuelled by years of disinformation over social media, a mob stormed a center of democracy in a misguided attempt to “protect” their country.

The unruly crowd that broke into the US Capitol building on January 6 included members who were such social media aficionados that they made sure to take selfies and videos – foolishly – to share and prove to their digital world compatriots that they had done it. The FBI is now combing through the thousands of images and hundreds of videos that were posted.

The European Union also certainly took note. For years it has been at the forefront of efforts to rein in Big Tech, but now the task has a new urgency. Leaders of the bloc think strong regulations governing and enforcing both truthfulness and fair business practices by internet giants are absolute necessities.

New European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen planned to make the battle against climate change her signature initiative. A global pandemic that hit Europe particularly hard and a brewing crisis in social media have overtaken that concern for the time being.

So-called “technological sovereignty”, or efforts to bolster the EU’s role in digital markets, is now at the center of her legislative agenda.

On the day of Joe Biden’s inaugural as the 46th US president, Von der Leyen told a US television network that the new administration and the EU are “on the same page” when it comes to regulating tech giants.

“If there’s hate out there, if there’s polarisation, fake news, all of these are things are threats to our democracies,” von der Leyen said. “I am sure that we will have an ally to work on that.”

She is calling for a crackdown on “the untrammeled and uncontrolled political power of internet giants”, offering the new US administration “a digital economy rulebook” that could be made valid worldwide.

The EU Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act plan to cover not only hate speech but also harmful content such as disinformation that is often legal in free societies. It also seeks to define who will moderate content. Google, Twitter, Amazon and Facebook would face new limits on how they can expand their online empires and be liable for fines of up to 10 percent of their global revenue for unfairly damaging smaller rivals.

The laws would also allow hefty fines on Big Tech companies if they fail to keep material ranging from false statements to counterfeit products from spreading across their networks.

The proposals are still far from becoming law as the European Parliament and member countries now consider the implications. Final rules are not expected before 2023 at the earliest.

Experts and political leaders are concerned that social media companies are regulating themselves and even with the best of intentions, efforts can be too little or too late. Former president Donald Trump is the most glaring example. Twitter allowed him to continue to spread misinformation and inflammatory assertions to the point it helped fuel attempts to violently overturn a legitimate election.

When Twitter finally banned Trump, removing him and thousands of alt-right conspiracy accounts, the temperature of unrest dropped noticeably after his so-called “deplatforming”.

“A large part of Trump’s power came from how easy he was to hear,” Emerson Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told the MIT Technology Review. “Many of his supporters heard him directly on Twitter.” And that also included mainstream news outlets that slavishly carried his tweets, becoming large amplifiers of disinformation. His attempts at more traditional media and conventional televised press conferences were often ineffective or even disastrous, particularly if he had to answer questions.

And he knew it. Following his 2016 victory he said he probably wouldn’t have been elected without the “tremendous platform” that social media provided.

Incredibly, by the time he was banned, Trump had tweeted more than 34,000 times since the beginning of his candidacy in 2015, mounting attacks on a long list of journalists, politicians and various others, according to a recent count documented by the New York Times.

But the problem isn’t only one man. Social media itself is tailor-made for potentially spreading misinformation and widening divisions. Věra Jourová, an EU commissioner with the brief on values and transparency, said “Trump is mainly a symptom. Once he is gone, the underlying causes of division, mistrust and frustration will not go away.”

And deep problems stretch beyond misleading comments and fake news. Informed observers are also concerned about the very business model at social media companies. Dominant platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter can decide what ads users get to see or not. As was shown in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a sophisticated ad campaign in the echo chamber of social media can influence the outcome of an election even when real facts could indicate the opposite.

Policing is also an issue. Big Tech companies have so far avoided the legal oversight placed on TV and publishing by claiming they are purely technology companies and not media giants, allowing them to skirt even existing laws on libel. They also avoid complying with fairness doctrines that have long been standard in broadcast media. Today it is they themselves who decide what content is harmful.

Regulators want more accountability and rules that have some teeth. With the incredible concentration of wealth internet giants have amassed, they can pay even stiff fines, so fines might not be enough to clean up bad practices.

A final remedy could be breaking Big Tech companies apart, though many see that as a solution fraught with business, ethical and practical problems.

If a new day of greater awareness has dawned, the EU will need to continue to push legislation that helps ensure truth and fairness prevail. They have taken the lead in a fight that should also be taken up globally. Ironically intellectual darkness is a growing danger in the information age.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are journalists based in Milan

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