Getting the facts right
The coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by a massive wave of false and misleading information, attempts by foreign actors to influence domestic debates in the EU, breeding on the fertile ground of people’s most basic anxieties and the rapidly changing news cycle. Misleading healthcare information, dangerous hoaxes with false claims conspiracy theories and consumer fraud endanger public health.
The European Union and its Member States are determined to counter efforts by actors who try to exploit the crisis and put citizens’ lives at risk, or who spread propaganda or hatred. Building on the 2018 action plan against disinformation, this calls for more coordinated action, in line with our democratic values.
In a Joint Communication, the European Commission and the High Representative propose concrete actions for a stronger and more resilient EU. They will feed into future EU work on disinformation, notably the European democracy action plan, as well as the Digital Services Act.
The crisis has become a test case showing how the EU and its democratic societies deal with the disinformation challenge. Several aspects are key for a stronger and more resilient EU.
False or misleading narratives come in different forms that require different responses.
- content may not be illegal as defined by law, but still harmful
- it can range from disinformation (defined as intentional) to misinformation
- it can include misleading healthcare information, consumer fraud, cyber-crime, illegal hate speech as well as targeted influence operations by foreign actors.
- the motivation behind it can range from economic gain (online scams) causing public harm, to political purposes
- foreign actors and certain third countries, in particular Russia and China, have engaged in targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns in the EU, its neighbourhood, and globally.
The Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) will keep monitoring false or misleading narratives and influence operations by foreign actors.
Examples of disinformation
False claims such as ‘drinking bleach or pure alcohol can cure the coronavirus infections’: on the contrary, drinking bleach or pure alcohol can be very harmful. Belgium’s Poison Control Centre has recorded an increase of 15% in the number of bleach-related incidents.
Conspiracy theories, such as the claim that coronavirus is 'an infection caused by the world’s elites for reducing population growth'. The scientific evidence is clear: the virus comes from a family of viruses originating in animals that include other viruses such as SARS and MERS.
Claims that '5G installations would be spreading the virus'. These theories had no specific substantiation and led to attacks on masts.
The Commission and the European External Action Service will further invest in their strategic communication capabilities.
The Commission has launched a dedicated coronavirus response website that provides real-time information on the virus and the EU’s response. A dedicated coronavirus disinformation section features regular rebuttals – in all EU languages – of the most prominent coronavirus myths.
The Commission promotes content from the World Health Organization, national health authorities and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control
The EEAS together with the Commission deployed – and will further strengthen – strategic communications and public diplomacy in the EU’s immediate neighbourhood and around the world.
The Commission Representations in Member States will continue to promote fact-based information tailored to the local situation.
By using established channels such as the Rapid Alert System. A special section will be created to facilitate the sharing of coronavirus-related communication materials between EU institutions and Member States. The Commission will further deepen the cooperation with the European Parliament.
Enhancing cooperation with international partners, including the WHO, the G7 Rapid Response Mechanism, or NATO.
The EU will also increase support and assistance to civil society actors and independent media in third countries, including in the neighbourhood.
Cooperation with platforms and the Consumer Protection Cooperation network by screening and taking down overpriced, ineffective or potentially dangerous products.
The Commission has closely monitored the actions of online platforms under the Code of Practice on Disinformation - the self-regulatory commitment of online platforms, leading social networks, advertisers and the advertising industry to address the spread of online disinformation and fake news.
On 16 June 2022, the Code of Practice on Disinformation was strengthened. The new Code sets out extensive and precise commitments by platforms and industry to fight disinformation and marks another important step for a more transparent, safe and trustworthy online environment. The Code aims to become recognised as a Code of Conduct under the Digital Services Act.
The 34 signatories include major online platforms, notably Meta, Google, Twitter, TikTok, and Microsoft, as well as a variety of other players like smaller or specialised platforms, the online ad industry, ad-tech companies, fact-checkers, civil society or that offer specific expertise and solutions to fight disinformation.
The signatories of the code are encouraged to report monthly on their actions to fight coronavirus-related disinformation. Read the most recent reports.
- In March and April, Twitter has suspended 527 accounts in violation of its COVID-19 Misleading Information Policy.
- TikTok reported that the trend already seen in February is still visible in the March-April data, namely a decrease across the metrics in conjunction with the lifting of restrictions in many countries in the EU.
- On 4 May, Google published the 2021 Ads Safety Report, the annual report on the efforts to prevent malicious use of Google’s ads platforms, which includes global take down numbers for COVID-19 related ads. Regarding March and April, they report that 33,882,679 (+267,048) coronavirus-related ads have been blocked.
- Meta reports that the COVID-19 Information Centre on Facebook had 3.1 million visitors in March and over 2 million in April, which means a fall of nearly 21.8 million visitors compared to January and February.
- Microsoft reports a significant decrease in the number of visitors of the Bing COVID-19 experience, namely 1,795,676 visits, which means 1,220,020 less in March and April compared to the previous reporting period. Microsoft Advertising continue to enforce policies, preventing a total of 9,022,800 (+8,200,933) advertisers' submissions directed to European markets, including vaccine-related content.
The EU has stepped up its efforts to support European fact-checkers and researchers on disinformation. The newly established European Digital Media Observatory will contribute to a deeper understanding of disinformation- relevant actors, vectors, tools, methods, dissemination dynamics, prioritised targets and the impact on the society. The European Digital Media Observatory aims to become the European hub to fight online disinformation. Other examples of EU-funded projects addressing disinformation are PROVENANCE, SocialTruth, EUNOMIA and WeVerify.
Tackling online consumer scams
The Commission works with online platforms participating in the structured dialogue on tackling online consumer scams related to the coronavirus pandemic, together with consumer protection authorities. The Commission and the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network are in regularly contact with the 11 major online platforms: Allegro, Amazon, Alibaba/AliExpress, CDiscount, Ebay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft/Bing, Rakuten, Verizon Media/Yahoo and Wish to discuss new trends and business practices linked to the pandemic. As a result, the online platforms have reported the removal of hundreds of millions of illegal offers and advertisements and confirmed a steady decline in new coronavirus-related listings.
On 2 March 2021, the Commission published its annual report on the Safety Gate, the EU rapid alert system for dangerous consumer products helping remove dangerous non-food products from the market. The findings of the report show a record number of 5,377 actions taken by authorities in 2020, compared to 4,477 in 2019. 9% of all 2020 findings concern products related to COVID-19 products such as inefficient face masks, toxic disinfectants and UV lamps as sanitizers.
Ensuring freedom of expression and pluralistic democratic debate
The EU’s approach to fight disinformation is based on respect for fundamental rights. The coronavirus cannot be used as a pretext to undermine freedom of expression, reduce the accountability of public authorities or unduly limit access to information and transparency. The crisis has demonstrated the essential role of journalists who provide citizens with reliable, fact-checked information, that contributing to saving lives.
The Commission has been closely monitoring the impact of emergency measures taken by Member States on EU law and values and will continue to do so until all measures are phased out.
The Commission calls on Member States to intensity efforts to ensure that journalists can work safely, in the right conditions, and make the most of the EU’s coronavirus economic response and recovery package to support media while respecting their independence.
The EU will further enhance support to civil society, independent media and journalists around the world and step up actions to increase protection of freedom of expression and a safer media environment.
Empowering citizens, raising citizens awareness and increasing societal resilience
The EU needs to empower citizens, raise awareness and increase societal resilience.
The EU will share best practices on resilience-building measures in the coronavirus context.
The Commission will support and promote media literacy projects, critical thinking and digital skills, as well as civil society organisations. It will strengthen coordination among institutions, networks and Member States to share awareness-raising material and best practices. The Commission will pay particular attention to vulnerable groups, in particular children and young people, who face a higher risk of being misled.
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