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15th Aug 2020

EU: China, Russia responsible for Covid-19 disinformation

  • 'I strongly believe that a geopolitically-strong EU can only materialise if we are assertive and name the issues we face,' said commission vice-president Vera Jurová (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission has publicly identified Russia and China as the main perpetrators of the spread of online misinformation about Covid-19 in the EU and globally - the first time the EU executive has explicitly accused Beijing of a role in the dissemination of fake news.

"I strongly believe that a geopolitically-strong EU can only materialise if we are assertive and name the issues we face," said the commission vice-president for values and transparency Vera Jurová on Wednesday (10 June) when the EU's new plans to tackle disinformation were presented.

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"If we have evidence we should not shy away from naming and shaming," she told reporters.

Top coronavirus fake news stories were mostly related to Western and Chinese plots, but other examples include false and misleading public health advice such as 'drinking bleach or pure alcohol can cure the coronavirus' or conspiracy theories such as myths about 5G installations spreading the virus.

According to Jurová, "disinformation will continue and vaccination will be the next battlefield" since fake news around a possible coronavirus vaccine continue and are likely to make the deployment of vaccines - once available - more difficult.

"Disinformation in times of coronavirus can kill," said EU's chief for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, who implied that the EU's hands are tied.

"The Russian and Chinese authorities have always denied the fact that fake news or disinformation have something to do with [their] governments, they say that these entities are private bodies that have nothing to do with the government," Borrell said.

"[This is why] it is difficult to know what to do - I am not sure if we have enough power to intervene in what they are doing," he added.

The spokesperson of the Chinese Mission to the EU said that "China is a victim of disinformation, not an initiator".

"Under the current circumstances, spreading disinformation and trading accusations will do nothing to help the global fight against the pandemic," he also said, adding that the EU refers to China "selectively" without mentioning who fabricated disinformation.

"We hope that the EU could address the relevant issues in a fact-based, unbiased and rational manner," he told EUobserver.

The naming of China as a source of disinformation follows recent reports that accuse the European External Action Service of toning down allegations made against Beijing.

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter

Meanwhile, the commission called on platforms like Facebook, Google's YouTube or Twitter to publish monthly reports about their strategies to tackle Covid-19 misinformation.

Online platforms were asked in 2018 to implement the self-regulatory code of practice on disinformation.

However, the European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services warned that its implementation reveals "significant weaknesses" linked to the lack of transparency and voluntary approach and proposed shifting from the current flexible self-regulatory to co-regulatory approach.

Some civil society organisations believe that the commission should require platforms to issue independently fact-checked corrections to misinformation since "the 'infodemic curve' won't be flattened just by asking social media platforms to be more transparent," Luis Morago from NGO Avaaz said.

The commission's assessment on the efficacy of this measure will be published soon, Jurová said, adding that the lessons learned from this two-years approach will feed into the upcoming Digital Service Act and Democracy Action Plan.

Twitter approach to Trump?

The Digital Service Act will look at how to regulate platforms and the online ecosystem, while the Democracy Action Plan aims to protect foreign interference in elections taking place in the EU - as it previously was reported to occur in the 2016 US elections and Brexit referendum.

However, Jurová clarified on Wednesday that none of the measures will include 'hard regulation' - with the EU saying it wants a balanced solution that favours freedom of expression.

As an example good practice, Jurová mentioned the latest Twitter's approach - the company decided this month to mark some US president Trump's tweets as "potentially misleading" and add a link with the facts.

"This is what I called plurality and competition of free speech. The same consumers benefit from fair competition and level playing field, citizens benefit from the fair competition of free speech," Jurová said.

"We don't want platforms to delete information unless it is harmful to the people," she added.

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