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Fight against disinformation: Brussels puts pressure on Facebook and Instagram as the European elections approach

Less than forty days before the European elections (June 6 to 9, 2024), Facebook and Meta are receiving a dunce cap.

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Fight against disinformation: Brussels puts pressure on Facebook and Instagram as the European elections approach

Less than forty days before the European elections (June 6 to 9, 2024), Facebook and Meta are receiving a dunce cap. Brussels is opening an investigation against their parent company, Meta, the world's number one social network, for violation of the European regulation on digital services (Digital Services Act or DSA).

Facebook and Instagram are suspected of not respecting their obligations to combat disinformation. “This Commission has created means to protect European citizens from disinformation and manipulation by foreign states,” responded Ursula Von Der Leyen, President of the European Commission. If we suspect a violation of the rules, we take action. This is true in general but particularly during elections. Large digital platforms must meet their obligations by putting sufficient resources in place for this purpose and today's decision shows that we do not take these obligations lightly.

The American group now has five days to respond. Brussels underlines the “urgency” of the situation five weeks before the European vote and invites Meta to “react very quickly”. “Opening an investigation for breach of the DSA is a serious risk which can lead to a fine equivalent to 6% of turnover,” recalls a representative of the Commission.

This is the fifth formal investigation opened by Brussels since the entry into force last year of the DSA, intended to combat illegal content online. Last week, the Commission required TikTok - in the name of respecting this text - to suspend in the EU the functionality of its new TikTok Lite application which rewards users for time spent in front of screens. A procedure was launched at the beginning of March against the Chinese online commerce giant AliExpress, a subsidiary of Alibaba, suspected of not sufficiently combating the sale of dangerous products. In December, the Commission also opened an investigation targeting social network X for alleged breaches of content moderation obligations.

This time, Brussels has retained four grievances against Meta in the run-up to the European elections. The first concerns “insufficient” moderation of advertisements by the Californian group. The Commission highlights the dissemination of a large number of advertisements “which present a risk for the electoral processes”, evoking “advertising campaigns linked to the manipulation of information from abroad”, some of which use artificial intelligence . Russia is officially designated. “We are talking about advertisements exploited by Russian manipulation. It is not fair to make money from this manipulation,” commented a European official.

Brussels also criticizes the fact that Meta reduces the visibility of political content in the recommendation systems of Instagram and Facebook, a practice contrary to the transparency obligations of the DSA. The Commission also suspects that the mechanism put in place by Meta to allow users to report illegal content does not comply with the regulations. It would not be easy enough to access and use, “hidden in the menu bar”.

Finally, Brussels criticizes Meta for its plan to remove a tool considered essential for identifying and analyzing disinformation on Facebook and Instagram (“CrowdTangle”), without an adequate replacement solution. Many researchers and journalists use it, in fact, to monitor in real time the spread of conspiracy theories, incitements to violence or manipulation campaigns led from abroad.

Behind the scenes, the European Commission cites in particular the NGO AI Forensics which has just published a report on the moderation of political content by Meta ahead of the European elections and which had called on Brussels to act. In this report, the NGO accused the American group of letting pro-Russian propaganda invade Europe because of flaws in its moderation system. In total, the organization has identified 30 million political advertisements broadcast in 16 European countries, of which 66% are not identified as such. And less than 5% of these are spotted by Meta.

Faced with the scale of threats, is DSA a sufficiently powerful tool? “The objective of the DSA is not to prevent malicious actors from spreading false information,” replied a Commission official. It's not realistic. The challenge is to ensure that systems are put in place that allow us to react quickly in order to protect our democracy.” The opening of this investigation “shows that the EU is gaining strength to manage this information crisis,” reacted Marc Faddoul, director of the NGO AI Forensics. On the eve of the European elections, this is the first real test of the effectiveness of the DSA, particularly against foreign manipulation operations.”

To drive the point home, the European Commission also unveiled two whistleblowing tools on Tuesday: one under the DSA and the other under the Digital Markets Act (DMA). These tools will allow interested parties to provide, without fear of reprisal, information to identify and expose harmful practices of very large online platforms or search engines.

Questioned by AFP, Meta did not directly comment on the opening of an investigation. “We have a well-established process for identifying and mitigating risks on our platforms. We look forward to continuing our cooperation with the European Commission and providing them with further details on this work,” responded a spokesperson for the Californian group. “We are not saying that Meta is doing nothing in the face of these threats but that there are failings to preserve the integrity of these elections,” nuanced a European official who evokes a “constructive” exchange with Meta.

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