BRUSSELS – The European Commission accused China and Russia on Wednesday of fueling a huge wave of COVID-19 disinformation and asked online platforms to provide monthly evidence of their efforts to fight the issue.
“Foreign actors and certain third countries, in particular Russia and China, have engaged in targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns in the EU, its neighbourhood, and globally,” the EC said in a statement.
According to a report by a special European unit, Russia and China are behind many online hoaxes, disinformation and other forms of news manipulation and distortions that have been spreading during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I believe if we have evidence, we should not shy away from naming and shaming,” the EC’s vice-president for values and transparency Věra Jourova said of pinpointing Russia and China for orchestrating the avalanche of misinformation.
The EC said some national actors participated in the dissemination of false information, such as extremist groups, nationalist political forces and groups intent on feeding distortion and violence.
Brussels called for greater cooperation with NATO and the G7 to tackle the spread of false information.
“Disinformation in times of the coronavirus can kill. We have a duty to protect our citizens by making them aware of false information, and expose the actors responsible for engaging in such practices,” the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said at a press conference.
The EC said that to tackle disinformation online platforms, like Facebook, Google and Twitter and public authorities had to mobilize to support independent fact-checking.
“While online platforms have taken positive steps during the pandemic, they need to step up their efforts,” Jourova said.
As well as asking online platforms to send monthly reports with detailed data on the actions taken to promote content from authorized sources, companies also must increase user awareness and limit disinformation about the coronavirus and all associated advertising, the EC added.
“Many consumers were misled to buy overpriced, ineffective or potentially dangerous products, and platforms have removed millions of misleading advertisements,” the EC added.
Cooperation with national consumer protection authorities in EU member states will be stepped up to fight these illegal practices.
The aim is to continue with the current way of working, based on the self-regulation of social networks, but to increase transparency.
The EC said it welcomed changes that had been implemented to date such as Twitter’s new alert service which shows accurate and authorized COVID-19 information first. Or Facebook, owner of both Instagram and WhatsApp, which suggests World Health Organization content in searches.
But despite the progress, “much remains to be done,” according to Jourova.
Brussels wants the monthly reports to include data on the nature of the disinformation, its size and its target audience among other details, the commissioner said.
The document published Wednesday reviews the measures taken to date in the fight against disinformation and the lessons learned from the coronavirus crisis.
The proposed actions are part of the EU’s future work on disinformation, in particular the European Democracy Action Plan and the Digital Services Act which Brussels will present this year.
In October 2018, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Mozilla penned a Code of Practice tool to tackle disinformation.
In 2019, Microsoft joined the code and TikTok is expected to do so soon. The EC is in negotiations with WhatsApp to also be included.
“Our actions are strongly embedded in fundamental rights, in particular freedom of expression and information,” Jourova concluded.