Analysis: “Misinformation about COVID-19: Is the European Union well equipped to fight the ‘Infodemic’?” by Enza Cirone
One aspect that makes the COVID-19 outbreak different from previous epidemics is the major role that social media plays in everyday life. The possibility to effectively convey information (for instance, on suggested behaviours or on restrictions) to millions of persons, in a short space of time, can be an asset in fighting the new coronavirus emergency. Unfortunately, however, social media can also contribute enormously to the dissemination of incorrect information and veritable fake news.
On February 2020, addressing his remarks on the novel coronavirus outbreak at the media briefing, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that ‘we are not just fighting an epidemic, we are fighting an infodemic’.* This neologism has been coined to launch a warning: disinformation and fake news can cause confusion and be as dangerous as the virus itself.
Therefore, the question arises of which measures should be deployed to limit misinformation within the so called information society. Ensuring that information is accurate, intelligible and that it spreads from credible sources seems the key factor for a successful outcome. In other words, users must be provided with easy-to-understand but, at the same time, evidence-based answers able to debunk fear and doubts. In this respect, a big challenge stems from the so-called microtargeting, a practice that, using algorithms to profile users, leads to the creation of polariszed groups which tend to acquire information adhering to their worldviews ignoring dissenting information.
Any strategy aimed at counteracting the spread of misinformation on COVID-19 should therefore focus on the development and promotion of ‘“digital resilience’”.
The WHO has tried to build cooperation with social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Tencent and TikTok, launching a Google SOS alert to push WHO information to the top of people’s search results for queries related to COVID-19. On the WHO’s website there is a dedicated ‘myths buster’ section aimed to counter false rumours. Moreover, thanks to the huge amount of data circulating on the web (big data) and the use of profiling techniques, the WHO is also working with Facebook to target specific segments of the population with ads providing tailored health information. One cannot hide that these initiatives raise several concerns from the perspective of the protection of personal data. They appear, nonetheless, of outmost importance, given that a significant percentage of the population use social media as the main source of information.
But what about the role of the European Union? According to the WHO, Europe is the epicentre of the coronavirus and there is little doubt that the current global crisis risks jeopardising European values.
EU Institutions have outlined a broad set of actions based on a multi-stakeholders approach to counteract this phenomenon. All relevant actors, from public institutions to social platforms, from news media to single users, must work together in order to ensure freedom and transparency in searching for and spreading news, and in detecting false or inaccurate information.
Notably, the European Commission has taken the lead – commencing long before the COVID-19 outbreak – in the public debate about online disinformation, laying out the need to protect European values and democratic systems.
Following public consultation in January 2018, the European Commission set up a High-level Expert Group on fake news and online disinformation, comprising the largest technology companies, fact-checkers, journalists, academics and representatives from civil society. On March 2018, the Group of Experts released the final report entitled ‘A Multi-Dimensional Approach to Disinformation’ which suggests a definition of the phenomenon and formulates recommendations, such as the promotion of information literacy and the improvement of online transparency. Importantly, the experts pointed out that the deﬁnition of ‘fake news’ may be inadequate since political debate often resorts to defining news with contrary content as unreliable or fake.
In light of this report and various other various initiatives, the European Commission launched a self-regulatory Code of Practice on disinformation, which representatives of online platforms, leading social networks, advertisers and advertising industry have voluntarily signed. The Code sets a wide range of commitments and identifies best practices, including actions to improve the scrutiny of ads placements, tackle fake accounts and malicious use of bots (automated programmes that run through the internet), and guarantee transparency in issue-based advertising.
In addition, endorsing the European Council’s call for measures to ‘protect the Union’s democratic systems and combat disinformation’, the European Commission elaborated an Action Plan against disinformation, putting in place a robust framework for coordinated actions (notably, by supporting independent fact-checkers and researchers and promoting media literacy). One of the key elements of this plan is represented by the EU’s rapid alert system, a tool to monitor fake news campaigns and facilitate the exchange of information.
Furthermore, the European External Action Service (EEAS) reinforced the East StratCom Task force, by integrating experts in data mining and analysis in order to better address Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaign (also called hybrid threat).
More recently, initiatives specifically targeting the spread of online disinformation concerning COVID-19 have been implemented. Social media platforms and other stakeholders have engaged in efforts of their own, removing misleading video, scrubbing posts with unclear health advice and empowering the fact-checking platform to select coronavirus rumours circulating online.
They have also been working with third-party fact-checkers to review false contents and, as proof of their work, all major social media companies have issued a joint statement inviting other companies to work closely together. These actions may be further improved by asking companies to provide more details about the time of response to the flagging of a content as false.
Recently, the EU Commissioner for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, held a meeting with the most important tech firms in the world to discuss measures to counteract the flow of online disinformation concerning the new coronavirus. As she stated, the rapid alert system has been enabled in order to ‘share information on ongoing foreign disinformation campaigns with one another, and coordinate responses’. Notably, the EEAS has intensified its monitoring of disinformation tide because, according to an internal EU report, Russian pro-Kremlin media have mounted a ‘significant disinformation campaign’ to aggravate the infodemic and undermine the national healthcare system.
In addition, the European Court of Auditors has recently launched an audit to assess the EU’s action against the spreading of misleading information; the reason for this assessment is that the rise of social media and new technologies brings about increasing challenges and, givening that, ‘EU citizens must know whether the EU action plan against disinformation is effective’.
The use of advertisements on Facebook, despite the concern for data protection, is proving useful to guide users towards reliable sources of information. Yet, the misuse of ads through the malicious practice of clickbait** still represents one of the main problems affecting European Union initiatives.
In order to promote trustful knowledge, and limit the disruptive effect of manipulated information, all relevant actors need to cooperate to improve digital education providing users with adequate tools to filter information and, consequently, make informed decisions.
In conclusion, whilst the virus and misinformation are running fast, the EU has a long road ahead to foster digital resilience against the ongoing ‘infodemic’. A change of pace is more than urgent.
*As defined by the WHO, an infodemic is ‘an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it’.
**Clickbait is web content with a sensationalist title aimed at attracting users by encouraging them to click on a link to complete the reading.
Enza Cirone is a researcher on European and Transnational Legal Studies at the University of Florence, Department of Legal Sciences (joint Ph.D with the University of Maastricht). Her research interests are focused on the emerging legal issues raised by new technologies. Her publications include: ‘Le iniziative europee contro le “fake news” e il microtargeting nell’ottica della salvaguardia del principio di democrazia’ , I Post di AISDUE, 2019.