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The problem at the heart of Brussels’ disinformation playbook

The European Union’s revamped strategy for tackling disinformation has a flaw: It relies on social media giants checking their own homework.

In a voluntary rulebook announced Thursday, Brussels unveiled its long-awaited (and overdue) code of practice on disinformation, or a set of dos and don’ts when it comes to the likes of Facebook, TikTok and YouTube combating online falsehoods that can quickly spread to the wider world.

Yet at its core is a major compromise — one that could prove fatal to the 27-country bloc’s ongoing efforts to thwart Russian propaganda, stop online trolls from making money via online advertising, and curb the spread of COVID-19 misinformation that continues unabated.

The new code still relies on companies — and companies alone — deciding whether to comply with a slate of new requirements. That includes giving greater data access to outside researchers, providing detailed country-by-country breakdowns of how disinformation circulates and cutting the purse strings of fake news merchants who peddle such material online to make a quick buck.

This voluntary — or, in the parlance of the European Commission, co-regulatory — approach stems from the difficulty in policing a stream of digital falsehoods that, while nasty, brutish and cruel, often do not break any of the bloc’s existing rules.

That’s the conundrum of the EU’s disinformation strategy: Pass binding rules for online falsehoods that risk platforms removing too much content, or rely on a voluntary mechanism intended to nudge social media giants to tackle the problem on their own that could result in not enough harmful content being removed.

Commission vice president on values and transparency Věra Jourová | Francois Walschaerts/AFP via Getty Images

Confronted with those options, Brussels went for a nonbinding playbook that relies on the tech companies’ goodwill — and potential reputational damage if they don’t act — to avoid being accused of clamping down too hard on people’s legitimate right to free speech. In Brussels, no one wants to be seen as creating a Ministry of Truth.

“We didn’t want to set in stone and to put into the Digital Services Act the stricter rules against disinformation because it might easily get to the slippery slope leading to some kind of censorship,” Věra Jourová, the Commission vice president on values and transparency, told reporters in reference to the bloc’s new online content rules.

EU officials know there’s a trade-off.

As part of Thursday’s rules, which will come into force by early 2023, a group of organizations that have signed up to the code — which includes social media companies, advertisers, fact-checkers and civil society groups — will meet regularly to ensure everyone is playing by the rules. The Commission will oversee that body, though there are few, if any, checks other than public naming-and-shaming if any company decides to pull out or not be fully transparent.

Brussels, too, has tried to wing-clip the biggest companies like Alphabet and Meta, the parent companies of YouTube and Facebook, respectively, by linking the voluntary rulebook to the separate overhaul of the bloc’s online content rules, or the Digital Services Act. Those proposals, which come into force by 2024, focus primarily on policing illegal speech like online child sexual exploitation. But it also includes a series of wonky measures like mandatory risk assessments and outside audits aimed at shining a light on the inner workings of social media platforms.

And that’s the rub. Participation in the voluntary disinformation code can be used as part of companies’ risk-assessment measures, providing a necessary carrot for upholding the voluntary rulebook compared with the stick of a potentially hefty fine of 6 percent of a company’s global revenue that is baked into the legally binding content rules. If you want to stay on the right side of the new online content rules, the theory goes, then sign up to the code and demonstrate you’re a good corporate citizen.

Yet the fundamental friction remains. All the companies signed up to the playbook say they are eager to participate and welcome the new rules, which arguably go further than any other jurisdiction in trying to solve the complexity of the disinformation problem. But, in the end, the code is voluntary — and relies on everyone who’s signed up to play by the rules.

“Having a code is just the beginning, but implementation and oversight is key,” said Carlos Hernández-Echevarría, head of public policy Spanish fact-checker Maldita, which signed up to the new rules. “I need to see if those commitments result in real, meaningful actions by the platforms and that is obviously to be seen.”

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