Facebook and Twitter told us they would tackle ‘fake news’. They failed | Julian King and Mariya Gabriel


As a society, we are increasingly using the internet as our prime source of information – a recent survey showed that 57% of Europeans get their news mainly from online platforms.

That gives those platforms a privileged role in our daily lives – a role with significant responsibilities, all the more so as the spread of disinformation is facilitated by some of their business models. Unfortunately, they do not always live up to these responsibilities.

One such duty is to fight the threat of disinformation, especially in view of the forthcoming European parliament elections in May.

As commissioners, we have been leading the European Union’s work to counter this threat over the past year. We have been working with platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, all of which signed up to a voluntary code of practice – the first of its kind – in September.

They need to live up to their commitments under the code by improving their efforts in areas such as how adverts are placed online; transparency around sponsored content; the rapid and effective identification and deletion of fake accounts; clearer rules around bots; the more effective promotion of alternative narratives and greater clarity around algorithms.

This is not a task that can be put off until tomorrow – with the European elections weeks away, every second counts, and the time for action is now.

We have committed to ensure regular monitoring of compliance with the commitments stemming from the code. Last month we assessed the progress the platforms had made in its implementation until the end of 2018. Now we are shifting to a cycle of monthly reports from Facebook, Google and Twitter, with the results from January being published today.

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The results last time fell short of expectations – so we called on the platforms to go further and faster in their efforts to tackle disinformation. Sadly, despite some progress, they have fallen further behind. The lack of hard numbers is particularly worrying.

Facebook has again failed to provide all necessary information, including any data on its actions in January on scrutiny of ad placements or efforts to disrupt advertising and monetisation incentives for those behind disinformation. Twitter, too, failed to report on any additional efforts in January to improve ad placement, or information on the implementation of its Ads Transparency Center in the EU.

Google has fared slightly better, reporting on scrutiny of ad placement, its new policy for election ads and its dedicated teams to prevent election-related abuse of its services; but other information, such as data on enforcement of its policies, is still lacking.

Some progress has been made – in recent weeks Facebook has announced it will share more information about political advertising on its platform with so-called “good faith” researchers and organisations working on increasing transparency for the public.

But they still need to live up to the standards we are asking of them – and that they signed up to. It is vital that the platforms treat EU member states equally and ensure any relevant tools to carry out this process are available across the Union. Facebook, for example, has fact-checking partners in only eight EU countries covering seven languages.

All these tools need to made available in good time – the sooner they can be rolled out the better. Google’s January reporting shows that country-by-country analyses are powerful indicators of where action is most needed.

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So we call on the platforms to redouble their efforts. It’s in their own interests, not least because the next generation of Europeans, increasingly aware of disinformation, might not take too kindly to a perceived lack of input.

We will look again at their progress next month, when we expect to see significant improvement. But this is not an issue that will disappear after May – in the EU, there is an election every week. So we will return to this later this year, and if we do not see sufficient long-term progress, we reserve the right to reconsider our policy options – including possible regulation.

It’s not a path we want to take at this stage. But we are determined to do what it takes to protect our democratic processes and to safeguard our common values.

Sir Julian King is commissioner for the security union, and Mariya Gabriel is commissioner for digital economy and society



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