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25th Jul 2021

Future EU platform seeks to 'stay clean' of hate speech

  • EU commission vice-president Dubravka Šuica (l), Portugese EU affairs minister Ana Paula Zacarias and MEP Guy Verhofstadt at a previous meeting of the main body of the conference (Photo: European Parliament)

Citizens who want to participate in the digital platform of the conference on the future of Europe will need to sign up to a charter of EU values and principles in an effort to avoid hate speech and disinformation on the site.

MEPs in the constitutional affairs committee on Tuesday (13 April) discussed where the organisation of the conference stands, which is due to kick off on 9 May with a "hybrid" - online and offline - event in Strasbourg.

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The digital platform aiming to allow European citizens to share and debate ideas will start next Monday (19 April).

Participants will need to subscribe to a "Conference Charter", which is designed to keep hate speech and disinformation at bay.

"The charter of the conference guides citizen engagement," EU Commission vice-president for democracy and demography Dubravka Šuica told MEPs, adding that it "reflects European values and fundamental rights", such as on human dignity, rule of law, and respect for human rights.

Šuica, who is part of the "executive board" of the conference, said that "those who sign up to it agree to make a constructive contribution to the conference while respecting the opinion of others".

She said hate speech and false or misleading information, or disinformation, "will not be tolerated on the platform".

"We will put in place a team of moderators that will not censor the input but make sure that the dignity of each participant is fully respected," the commissioner said, adding that "any input deemed as not abiding by the principles of the charter will be removed from the platform."

Šuica said there will be a quota-system team for users to avoid bots, or trolls, which will prevent the uploading of a large amount of content automatically. The moderators will be native speakers from EU countries, she added.

The moderation process will have three levels, the commissioner said. The first level will focus on errors, publishing personal information, obvious hate speech, spamming.

The second level concerns content that is politically more sensitive, or is an attempt to manipulate discussion or spread disinformation - in these cases, the EU official in charge will turn to the conference's secretariat for advice.

The third level will concern highly political and delicate content that required a decision on a case-by-case basis, Šuica said.

Citizens will also have the chance to signal abusive content if they see it.

Belgian liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt, who is also part of the board of the conference that is the main body in charge of the organisation, said any citizen can open an account on the multilingual platform that subscribes to the charter.

"The charter is simply referring values and principles of the EU ... [and] asks not to go into the direction of hate speech and conspiracy theories and so on, we want [that] this platform stays clean," he said.

"I am not sure we will succeed a hundred percent, there is a system behind of moderation to keep it clean that we will don't fall into the problems of Mr Zuckerberg," Verhofstadt said, referring to the CEO of Facebook.

Verhofstadt said the site hopes to become the social media platform of the conference, which will also see panels of citizens meet in person in the second half of the year to discuss ideas.

In the beginning, 10 issues will be listed on which citizens can share ideas, and they will also be able start new topics. The discussion will feed into citizens' panels and plenaries whose composition is yet to be decided.

Engagement

Polish centre-right MEP Danuta Hubner warned that anti-European, populist politicians - some of them in power - "will take advantage of any communication means to hijack the agenda" and put forward an anti-European message.

"We underestimate the risk," she said.

Spanish MEP Jorge Buxadé Villalba from the far-right VOX party raised questions on who will be the moderators that will define what hate speech is on the platform.

"Will there be a 'cordon sanitaire' around millions of Europeans, like around the European Parliament?," he said

The commissioner said it was vital to reach those "who not usually engage with us especially those who are sceptical or critical of the EU".

German Green MEP Daniel Freund also warned that if the platform was not engaging enough, "then the platform will not be able to deliver, to really gather ideas, which of these ideas find broad support".

Austrian centre-right Othmar Karas criticised the scheduled Monday-start to the platform and conference.

"We don't even know the details! How are we to communicate, to talk about this platform and bring it closer to the citizens?," he said.

The conference is planned to last for a year and is aimed at generating debate among European citizens on how the integration project should evolve, but the exercise will not lead to treaty change.

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