Social media platforms should become more responsible and stick to strict rules. The Committee agrees with the European Commission that this would represent a great leap forward in tackling disinformation. However, the Commission proposal lacks practical steps to achieve these objectives. In the opinion put together by Martin Siecker and adopted at the EESC plenary session on 19 September 2018, the EESC urges the Commission to approve compulsory measures and stresses that many issues remain pending.
The growth in organised disinformation from various state and non-state actors poses a real threat to democracy, as the proper functioning of a democratic system is built on well-informed citizens who make choices on the basis of reliable facts and trusted opinions.
- The issue of online identification
One of the major problems with disinformation is that it is virtually impossible to check the identity of the sources throughout the web. On top of that, people and organisations who operate in cyberspace with malicious intent use a fake identity. "Technology is not good or bad, but it can be used in a good or a bad way, it depends on who is behind it," said Mr Siecker. "This is why we have to fight against disinformation on the same basis and tap into the potential of new technologies to safely and correctly inform people," he continued. "The EU should play a more active role in organising public debates on a number of topics related to disinformation and, in that way, help to raise public awareness of the threats to our democracy and increase resilience to them".
- Compulsory rules on online platforms
The Commission presented several proposals in the document on "Tackling online disinformation: a European Approach", but none of them contains mandatory measures. Disinformation can only be countered if stricter measures are adopted and implemented regarding identification of entities operating on the web.
- The legal liability regime
The EESC therefore invites the Commission to finalise its work on the legal liability regime and adopt specifics regulations, so that online platforms and social networks are obliged to increase their transparency and encouraged to improve the visibility of reliable and trustworthy information.
Fact-checking undertaken by professionals plays a key role, as it is a first step towards understanding, exposing and analysing disinformation. The EESC agrees with the Commission that the fact-checking community should work closely together, cooperating in networks that already exist, and include the network under the umbrella of the East StratCom Task Force.
The Commission set up the East StratCom Task Force in 2015 to counter internal and external disinformation threats. The EESC encourages the Commission to be more proactive in communicating the results of the work of the StratCom Task Force to the general public (for example, by promoting its website) and to increase its budget.
- Key outstanding issues
However, a number of important issues remain unaddressed, as the Commission document does not mention possible actions to ensure the fundamental right of citizens to qualitative and reliable information, for example:
- support schemes for traditional media;
- establishing public-private partnerships willing to create paid but safe online platforms;
- creating more transparency around and possibly monitoring the algorithms behind the online systems;
- breaking apart online monopolies to restore a level playing field for fair competition.
The EU should therefore continue to assess the impact of disinformation in Europe and monitor Europeans' resilience to disinformation in future Eurobarometer surveys.