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10th Dec 2023

EU warns of Russian 'mass manipulation' as elections loom

  • Russia has found in Slovakia 'fertile soil' to advance with its Kremlin pro-war narratives, warned EU commission vice president Vera Jourová (Photo: European Union)
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The EU is urging Big Tech platforms to act against the Kremlin's "war of ideas" ahead of the upcoming 2024 European Parliament elections, as Russia's disinformation is flowering on Elon Musk's X (formerly Twitter) platform.

"Russian war against Ukraine, and the upcoming EU elections next year, are particularly relevant because the risk of disinformation is particularly serious," EU commission vice president Vera Jourová warned on Tuesday (26 September).

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"This is a multi-million euro weapon of mass manipulation," she also said, pointing out that she expected platforms to address the risks of this "war in the information space". "Upcoming national elections and the EU elections will be an important test."

With key elections in Slovakia and Poland in the next few weeks, she said Russia has found in Slovakia "fertile soil" to advance its Kremlin pro-war narratives.

Her comments follow growing concerns about pro-Kremlin disinformation permeating the country — especially with the pro-Russian Robert Fico, the country's former primer minister, potentially regaining his premiership after Saturday's snap election.

EU commission officials have been in talks with Facebook and Google to increase fact-checking in the country. Earlier this year, Jourová had a discussion in Bratislava with the Silicon Valley platforms.

She said she was surprised to notice there was only one fact-checker for Facebook in the country, but that the situation has changed. "There are now more fact-checkers."

Meta, Facebook's parent company, said it has now extended its fact-checking partnerships to cover 22 languages in the EU, including Czech and Slovak.

When talking about Poland, Jourová said that Russian propaganda does not exert a comparable influence on society. However, she hinted at concerns over how the government deals with media freedom, pointing out the importance of allowing traditional media to work without obstacles.

Long-running disinformation campaigns led by the Kremlin prompted the EU last year to announce bans on its key TV and online outlets (Sputnik and Russia Today).

Russia, meanwhile, has partially restricted access to Facebook, Instagram and X/Twitter.

'We will be watching you'

Since the invasion of Crimea in 2014, disinformation campaigns have been mainly focussed on Russia's war in Ukraine, but migration, the Green Deal, and issues regarding minorities such as LGTBIQ+ have also been targetted topics, Jourová said.

Google, Meta, Microsoft and TikTok, together with other 38 companies, are signatories of the EU's non-binding Code of Practice on Disinformation. This means they need to report to the commission on their activities to fight disinformation on a regular basis.

But the combination of generative AI and disinformation has become a "nightmare," Jourová also said. And signatories have also been asked to report on how they tackle risks emerging from this new technology.

Under the commission's report, Google said it deleted more than 400 channels on YouTube linked to the Russian-state-sponsored Internet Research Agency (IRA) and ads from almost 300 sites linked to Kremlin propaganda, between January and April 2023.

Meta's Facebook indicated that the vast majority of users (95 percent) who encountered content with a warning label decided not to click on it. Over a third of users on Facebook and Instagram decided not to share such type of content when receiving the warning.

But the commission has found that Elon Musk's X (formerly Twitter) has the largest ratio of mis- and disinformation posts, compared to other platforms.

In May, X decided to withdraw from the code. However, the platform is still subject to obligations under the Digital Service Act (DSA).

"There are obligations given by the hard law, so my message for Twitter is you have to comply with the hard law. We will be watching [how] you are doing things," Jourová told reporters in Brussels.

Mitigating factor

The DSA, she said, recognises the role of the code as a "mitigation factor" so all companies under the scope of the law should be in. "It's not anymore [a] matter of social responsibility".

Since August, internet giants (those with more than 45 million active users in the EU) have to comply with the law. But from mid-February, rules will apply to a wider list of platforms, regardless of their size.

The list of large platforms includes: Alibaba AliExpress, Amazon Store, Apple AppStore, Bing, Booking.com, Facebook, Google Play, Google Maps, Google Search, Google Shopping, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Snapchat, TikTok, Wikipedia, X, YouTube, and Zalando.

Amazon and Zalando have both challenged their status as large platforms, arguing that they do not meet the criteria.

The EU has positioned itself as a global pioneer in tech regulation with the DSA and its twin, the Digital Markets Act, but the implementation of the law remains to be seen.

"We have been waiting for a long time for this legislation to come into force, so we expect that the enforcement will be efficient, fast and objective," Jourová said.

When asked about when the EU executive will set its first penalties, the commission vice president said: "I cannot tell you when and who will be the first one. I have some favourites".

Earlier this year, NGO Global Witness revealed that Facebook, TikTok and Google's YouTube all had approved ads containing anti-LGBTQ+ hate on their platforms.

MEPs have previously called on the EU executive to impose sanctions on disinformation actors. But so far the EU has launched an Information Sharing and Analysis Centre to track Russian and Chinese disinformation.

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