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Fringe platforms sidestep Europe’s disinformation playbook

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Alternative social network platforms like Telegram that have become central to how disinformation spreads will not be part of a revamped online rule book to be published by the European Commission on Thursday, according to three EU officials and another individual directly involved in the upcoming announcement.

The so-called code of practice on disinformation, a voluntary set of principles the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter signed up to in 2018, has been rewritten to compel these social media giants to make more data available to outsiders, commit themselves to stop online falsehoods from making money via advertising, and pledge to enact a litany of other measures that Brussels will oversee.

But the new rule book, which will come into force in early 2023, will not apply to scores of relatively new and unregulated social media platforms that have garnered millions of new users in recent years, after these companies did not sign up.

Such growth is driven by the promise of offering people an online space unfettered by content moderation and with a focus on free speech. While these fringe networks do not have the high user volume of more mainstream social media giants, they have become ground zero in the spread of disinformation, hate speech and other extremist and violent content.

Telegram, in particular, has become a bastion of Russian disinformation about the war in Ukraine, as well as a venue where everyone from white supremacists to Taliban fighters have gathered to share often violent social media posts. Others, including the video-streaming sites Bitchute and Odysee, have also become repositories for state-backed propaganda and extremist content that has similarly gone unchecked. Both of those sites are also not signatories to the Commission’s new code of conduct.

Still, EU officials hope that by updating the existing voluntary rulebook to include greater onus on the biggest social media platforms to take action against disinformation, these companies be held more to account for often viral material that continues to spread online despite repeated efforts to scrubs such material from these global networks.

“Disinformation is a form of invasion of our digital space, with tangible impact on our daily lives,” said Thierry Breton, the internal market commissioner. “From Brexit to the Russian war on Ukraine: over the past years, well-known social networks have allowed disinformation and destabilization strategies to spread without restraint — even making money out of it. Disinformation cannot remain a source of revenue.”

In particular, firms like Meta and Alphabet, the parent companies of Facebook and Youtube, respectively, will be required to publish reports twice a year detailing how they are both demonetizing disinformation across their networks and reducing the virility of such posts, according to the upcoming announcement. That will include examples of how disinformation, which has been fact-checked by independent groups, has spread via social media and whether the companies’ content algorithms have continued to promote such propaganda.

These publications will then be reviewed by the Commission to ensure the companies are upholding their voluntary commitments to tackle disinformation. The efforts will feed into separate legally required obligations under the EU’s Digital Services Act to carry out risk assessments of potential harm across social media.

Until Brussels creates a dedicated unit to oversee and enforce these interlinked content and disinformation rules, it remains unclear who within the Commission will be in charge of their enforcement, though Europe’s national media regulators are expected to participate.

The upcoming code was written with social media platforms, EU officials, civil society groups and advertisers — the first time such a grouping has joined forces to create a so-called co-regulatory model in which all those affected by disinformation helped write the new playbook. The participating companies, which include TikTok and Meta’s WhatsApp, will have six months to implement the code.

The new voluntary rules will also give European social media users greater insight into how they are targeted with online advertising, as well as requiring social media companies to label — and fact-check — political advertising that contains disinformation. Meta has so far refused to fact-check social media ads and posts from politicians.

“To deal with disinformation, we need more than legislation. We need societal resilience,” said Věra Jourová, the Commission’s vice-president for values and transparency. “Disinformation actors are constantly changing tactics in the digital world.” 

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