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A report released by the European Union (EU) on Friday presented evidence which suggests that Russia is using disinformation to impede elections to the EU parliament. According to the report, the aim was to sway voters towards right-wing parties by using disinformation to spread polarizing views on topics such as religion and immigration. A secondary aim was to decrease voter turnout, perhaps with the intent of undermining the EU’s legitimacy as a representative institution. The tactics used by Russia and ‘other European sources’ include the use of misleading political advertisements, and fake and bot accounts to spread disinformation through online platforms. The Russian Security Council deputy secretary, Alexander Venediktov disputed the evidence on Sunday, claiming in the Rossiyskaya Gazeta that the assertions made by the EU were absurd. The EU is currently working with a number of online platforms to reduce the effectiveness of disinformation under the Code of Practice against disinformation.
Facebook along with other major online platforms frequently release statements detailing their commitment to the code. In April, a Facebook spokesperson told CNBC, “People want accurate information online and the work undertaken under the code shows how Governments, tech companies and trade bodies can work together to tackle online misinformation.” Despite this, the EU has frequently rebuked the efforts made by online platforms classifying reports in recent months as “opaque.”
Created by the EU mid-way through 2018, the code emphasizes the importance of working with major online platforms to weaken the impact of disinformation on the democratic process. In a press statement released on Friday last week, the EU stated, “With our active support, Facebook, Google and Twitter have made some progress under the Code of Practice on disinformation.” However, the EU also went on, “We now expect online platforms to maintain momentum and to step up their efforts and implement all commitments under the code.”
While Russian interference in the EU parliamentary elections is concerning, the code brings together four critical strands and weaves them into a cohesive and effective response. The strands are: improving the detection of disinformation; stronger cooperation among member states in responding to disinformation; working with online platforms; and increasing societal resistance to disinformation by being actively transparent. At this stage, the plan seems to be working, in that disinformation did not have a strong impact on the recent EU elections, despite being present. However, there are questions about the authenticity of online platforms in tackling disinformation. Despite their progress, issues remain over the identification of malicious actors and targeted states. Further, the EU is requesting more be done with regards to ad transparency. The sluggish pace of the implementation of the code raises questions about the integrity and interests of these companies.
The response by online platforms has been fairly lax. In January this year, Facebook and other online platforms released a report detailing the measures they would take to tackle political disinformation. In a number of instances, answers to specific questions were considered ‘opaque’ by the EU Commission – a trait the ‘tech giants’ have consistently exhibited. ‘Fake news’ has become an increasingly prevalent challenge to a number of states in recent years, and poses a significant threat to peace and security across the globe.
The EU response to disinformation shows signs of promise in the long-term, particularly if online platforms fully invest in tackling disinformation. Political disinformation has the potential to be one of the greatest threats to peace and stability countries will have to face in the coming years. The sluggish response by online platforms to this threat, even in the face of the Code of Practice against disinformation, and the insistence of the EU, is alarming. Given the influence such platforms have across the globe, it is time for these ‘tech giants’ to wholly commit to tackling disinformation.