The European Union and the Spread of Misinformation Online

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a well-documented onslaught of misinformation and disinformation across all major social media platforms. It is seen in the minds of many as a predominately American issue, being most highlighted in relation to far-right groups maliciously spreading false information about the Black Lives Matter movement to further heighten tensions last Summer. It was also present throughout  the US election race which saw then President Donald Trump, his family, and his supporters continually make unfounded accusations against the now president, Joe Biden, as well as the election process, which lead to the insurrection that took place on the sixth of January this year.

However, there have also been many instances of the malicious spreading of false information across the European Union. In Ireland, high profile members of minority groups have been targeted by far-right activists propagating such information. Most notably, Hazel Chu, the Lord Mayor of Dublin who is of Asian descent, was verbally abused in a racist attack outside her home. She has also been subjected to bogus accusations on social media that she is inciting a race war. Her Green Party colleague, the Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman, has also been targeted by a homophobic conspiracy theory which caused many unsuspecting members of the public to falsely believe he was a paedophile. This conspiracy inspired a protest outside Leinister House which was addressed by far-right leaders. It included protesters carrying banners with nooses on them.

In the Netherlands, researchers have found that 10 percent of Dutch people believed in some form of conspiracy theory relating to the coronavirus. The country has seen consistent resistance to restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus. Regular protests now take place outside the country’s parliament, with demonstrators espousing conspiracy theories about vaccines and rhetoric pushed by Qanon, the American conspiracy theory which first appeared on the message board 4chan and is now omnipresent in much of American right-wing politics.

 A widely debunked documentary which peddled conspiracy theories about the pandemic went viral in France at the end of last year. It was initially shared online by celebrities and fringe politicians alike and received millions of hits. It did very little to ease fears about the Covid vaccine in the country, which was already highly sceptical. France has some of highest levels of anti-vaccination sentiment in Europe. 56 percent of French people and only 47 percent of doctors recently surveyed, said they would definitely get inoculated.

Poland is possibly the EU country closest to the United States in terms of the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories by political leaders. The country’s deputy prime minister and leader of the Law and Justice Party, Jarosław Kaczyński, has actively promoted the conspiracy that the Smolensk air disaster, which killed much of Poland’s political elite, including his brother, was deliberate and not a tragic accident. The conspiracy theories around this tragedy have polarised the country. The Polish government has also done little to reassure those who are sceptical of the Covid vaccine, with one government minster announcing he has no intention of getting inoculated .

How are the EU fighting back against the spread of misinformation?

The European Union has released a strategy to deal with the spread of misinformation within the 27-nation bloc. In December 2020, the Digital Services Act  was introduced to replace  the  E-Commerce Directive in order to regulate social media platforms and other tech companies.  The E-Commerce Directive had been in place since 2000, long before social media as we know it entered the public sphere.

 European Movement Ireland, a pro-European Union NGO, states that this new act allows for the harmonisation of standards which tackle illegalities on these platforms. It ensures that social media platforms, internet providers and online marketplaces are liable for illegal content posted by users if they are aware of its presence and refuse to remove it. It also allows for a greater awareness of algorithms and how they distribute content, and gives researchers access to a minor amount of data on how these bigger platforms, such as Facebook and YouTube, operate.

But have they done enough?

Ciarán O’Connor, a research analyst at The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, whose work focuses on technology and extremism online, believes it is still unclear how the Digital Services Act will look like in practise.

“Often, the most effective misinformation is not illegal content, but something that contains a grain of truth and then exaggerates a claim or piece of news in order to stoke fear or anger in a recipient. It’s a worry that this act will not adequately help tackle this issue. Where this act might prove to be most helpful is in increasing transparency among platform decisions regarding political content, content moderation and recommendation algorithms.”

 Ultimately, O’Connor sees the Act as a positive step that will hopefully guide tech companies into effectively managing the most dangerous aspects of their platforms. But policy and legislation cannot be the only solution to prevent the spread of false information.

“Disinformation is a threat to democracy so dealing with it successfully will require many organisations. This ultimately represents a good first step.”

Social media platforms will have to work together with political institutions and educators who work in the field of media literacy if the spread of misinformation is ever to be prevented. 

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