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24th Jan 2021

No large-scale disinformation detected in EU this year

  • Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg is facing an internal backlash over 'fake news' political ads (Photo: European Commission)

Authorities across the EU have yet to detect any large-scale disinformation campaign since the launch of a so-called Rapid Alert System earlier this year.

"It does not mean necessarily that they are totally absent," a European Commission official told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday (29 October), however.

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The system was set up as a platform in March to link all 28 member states and different authorities in order to exchange information on disinformation.

Around 140 people are working with the platform, sharing everything from reports, analysis, and incidents.

But it also includes a built-in alert feature in case a wide-scale disinformation campaign is detected on par to Russian-led efforts during the 2016 US presidential elections.

"It is true that we have not triggered this alert so far but this is of course is due to the threshold that we define, so 'transnational significant impact'," said the official, who was speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Asked to define that threshold, he said it cannot be measured.

Instead he described it as a cross-border disinformation campaign: coordinated, intentional, with a political aim, and with a large reach.

Viktors Makaroves, a security official from Latvia's ministry of foreign affairs, praised the tool.

"We support the rapid alert system but I think it is going to evolve into a very useful system of information exchange for people who are in charge for monitoring disinformation," he said in September.

Similar comments were made by Finland' ministry of foreign affairs.

"Finland has not issued any alerts and it is because [...] we haven't seen any bigger phenomenon, or any campaigns against Finland during the months that we have had the system in place," Vesa Hakkinen, a current affairs director inside the Finnish ministry, also said last month.

Finland had been targeted by Russian-led disinformation in the past, from the spread of false stories in the media to the disruption of Nato military exercises.

But the nordic country appears increasingly resilient in fending off hybrid threats after having set up a national group in 2014, that includes specialists from all its ministries and agencies. The police also launched a counter-disinformation operation that runs 24 hours a day and seven days week.

Facebook and Google

The whole is part of a wider attempt at the EU-level to fight disinformation by getting big companies like Facebook and Google to help in the crackdown.

This includes a so-called code of practice signed last October by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Mozilla, among others.

The code requires each to draw up a self-evaulation report, which the European Commission published on Tuesday.

Their results are mixed.

Facebook is under fire after its own employees rebelled over the network's decision to let politicians post any claims they wanted in ads, even if they are fake.

The companies are also not sharing the data with independent researchers.

It means that while there are figures on how many fake accounts have been pulled, there is no real understanding on the overall impact.

"Progress varies a lot between signatories and the reports provide little insight on the actual impact of the self-regulatory measures taken over the past year as well as the mechanisms for independent scrutiny," Julian King, the European commissioner for security, said in a statement.

The commission says the reports will feed into its own evaluation due early next year, which then could lead to regulation.

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