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 information around coronavirus can damage societal cohesion, but above all, it is a threat to public health.|
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.|
|Europeans need to have access to verifiable authoritative health information.
The EU shares information from official and other verifiable sources with citizens and cooperates with international partners.
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.
|The European Commission is working with its partners across the globe and within the EU|
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.
Code of Practice on Disinformation
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. The signatories of the code are encouraged to report monthly on their actions to fight coronavirus-related disinformation.
On 10 September, the Commission presented the assessment of the implementation and effectiveness of the Code of Practice on Disinformation and the first baseline reports on the actions taken by the Code signatories to fight false and misleading coronavirus-related information. The assessment shows that the Code of Practice has proven to be a valuable instrument. However, it also highlights shortcomings, mainly in terms of appropriate monitoring, clearer procedures, and more precise and comprehensive commitments.
On 10 June, the Commission also highlighted important actions to tackle COVID-19 disinformation and set up a Monitoring Programme on the actions that platforms signatories of the Code are taking to limit the spread of COVID-19 disinformation.
The first set of baseline reports showed that the platforms signatories have stepped up their efforts in combating disinformation, in terms of promoting authoritative sources of information, deploying new tools and services to facilitate access to reliable content, and actions against false and misleading content.
The second set of baseline reports published on 7 October showed that platforms kept increasing the visibility of authoritative information sources. According to the third round of baseline reports, platforms signatories continue to demote and remove content violating their updated terms of services and block or remove advertising that exploits the crisis. Still, more complete, targeted and detailed quantitative data must be provided.
The third set of reports published on 6 November gives a good overview of actions taken by the online platforms during the month of September, and demonstrates their willingness to provide increased transparency around their policies on coronavirus-related disinformation. However, the reporting still lacks appropriate granularity in data, including on the impact of their policies, to ensure sufficient transparency and public accountability and enable consistent monitoring.
The Commission will continue to deliver on its comprehensive approach towards tackling mis- and disinformation through the European Democracy Action Plan and the Digital Services Act package which will be out forward before the end of 2020.
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.
Results of working with platforms
- Facebook re-launched a pop-up on Facebook’s News Feed to direct users to the Facts about COVID-19 section of the COVID-19 Information Center - the section debunks common myths that have been identified by the World Health Organization. More than 15 million people in the EU visited the COVID-19 Information Center during December 2020.
- Twitter will remove the most harmful misleading information, and will label Tweets that contain potentially misleading information about vaccines. Moreover, a vaccine prompt, in partnership with national or federal public health agencies or the WHO, is currently available in Belgium, France Germany, Ireland, and Spain.
- TikTok has provided quantitative data on the new vaccine tag rolled out in December for all videos with words or hashtags related to COVID-19 vaccines. The tag has been applied to 5087 videos in the EU, of which 996 in Italy, 1179 in France, 119 in Spain and 273 in Germany.
- Google expanded its Google Search feature that provides information and a list of authorised vaccines in response to related searches in 23 EU countries. On 12 January 2021, Google announced the launch of a new $3 million COVID-19 Vaccine Counter-Misinformation Open Fund which will focus on projects that aim to broaden the audience of fact checks.
- Microsoft co-sponsored the #VaxFacts campaign launched by NewsGuard on 3 February to counter hoaxes about COVID-19 vaccines and other healthcare misinformation.
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.