Self-assessment disinformation reports provides little insight

Online platforms submit review of the self-regulatory measures taken over the past year

The Commission published last Tuesday the first annual self-assessment reports by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, Twitter and 7 European trade associations under the Code of Practice on Disinformation. The reports by the Code signatories set out the progress made over the past year in the fight against online disinformation, the EU press service reported. The self-regulatory code was launched in October 2018 and is an important pillar of the Action Plan against Disinformation.

We welcome the publication of these self-assessments by the signatories to the Code of Practice on the implementation of their commitments. In particular, we commend the commitment of the online platforms to become more transparent about their policies and to establish closer cooperation with researchers, fact-checkers and Member States. However, progress varies a lot between signatories and the reports provide little insight on the actual impact of the self-regulatory measures taken over the past year, Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova said.

According to the reports findings, there is improved transparency during the last year compared to the period before October 2018. Furthermore, there is a closer dialogue with platforms as regards their policies against disinformation.

While progress has been reported on the commitments monitored by the Commission from January to May ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections, less is reported on the implementation of the commitments to empower consumers and the research community. The provision of data and search tools is still episodic and arbitrary and does not respond to the needs of researchers for independent scrutiny.

The scope of actions undertaken by each platform to implement their commitments vary significantly. Similarly, differences in implementation of platform policy, cooperation with stakeholders and sensitivity to electoral contexts persist across Member States. The reports provide information on policies implementing the Code, including EU-specific metrics. The consistency and level of detail varies. The metrics provided are mainly output indicators, e.g. number of accounts taken down. 

While the 2019 European Parliament elections in May were clearly not free from disinformation, the actions and the monthly reporting ahead of the elections contributed to limiting the space for interference and improving the integrity of services, to disrupting economic incentives for disinformation, and to ensuring greater transparency of political and issue-based advertising. Still, large-scale automated propaganda and disinformation persist and there is more work to be done under all areas of the Code. 

While the efforts of online platforms and fact-checkers can reduce harmful virality through platforms' services, there is still an urgent need for online platforms to establish a meaningful cooperation with a wider range of trusted and independent organisations. Access to data provided so far still does not correspond to the needs of independent researchers. Despite the important commitments made by all signatories, no additional platforms or corporate actors from the advertising sector have subscribed to the Code so far.

The Commission's overall assessment of the effectiveness of the Code of Practice is ongoing. In addition to the self-assessments by the signatories, the Commission will take into account input from the European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Services (ERGA) as foreseen in the Action Plan against Disinformation ; an evaluation from a third party organisation selected by the signatories, as foreseen under the Code of Practice; an assessment from an independent consultant engaged by the Commission and expected for early 2020. 

The Commission will also present a report on the 2019 elections to the European Parliament in the coming months. On this basis, the Commission will present its comprehensive assessment in early 2020. Should the results under the Code prove unsatisfactory, the Commission may propose further measures, including of a regulatory nature. 

The European Union has been actively tackling disinformation since 2015. Following a decision of the European Council in March 2015, in order to challenge Russia's ongoing disinformation campaigns, the East StratCom Task Force in the European External Action Service (EEAS) was set up. In 2016, the Joint Framework on countering hybrid threats was adopted, followed by the Joint Communication on increasing resilience and bolstering capabilities to address hybrid threats in 2018.

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