The European Commission has launched a public consultation on the EU Democracy Action Plan. With the EU Democracy Action Plan, expected at the end of 2020, the European Commission has a key opportunity to steer platforms to a more effective path to tackle disinformation. One of the elements feeding into the Action Plan will be the Commission’s own assessment of the Industry Code of Practice on Disinformation, which is to be published soon.
The weaknesses of the Code of Practice can already be identified and lead to a clear conclusion: relying solely on voluntary action by the platform industry itself to tackle disinformation is no longer tenable. The European Commission must introduce a robust framework to prevent and reduce the spread, visibility and monetization of disinformation and to protect quality journalism.
Since 2018, online platforms, leading social networks, advertisers and the advertising industry have been signing up to the Code of Practice. While self-regulatory measures are to be encouraged, independent studies published earlier this year concluded that more transparency and data are needed from signatories about how they implement practices to combat disinformation, and also concluded that self-regulation on its own is not enough. The studies recommend a move towards co-regulation with enforcement measures and non-compliance sanctions.
There is much at stake. Long since a scourge of democratic elections, disinformation has found a fertile breeding ground during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC and President of EBU, recently said “Disinformation is one of today’s great harms. It can undermine democracy, create division and distort public debate. Tackling it is a pressing priority.”
The best approach for the European Democracy Action Plan will be a combination of incentives, supporting actions and specific regulatory actions. Given that European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová has stated that the objective of the European Democracy Action Plan is to “strengthen media freedom and pluralism”, the right balance must be struck - any EU action on disinformation must ensure that free speech and media pluralism are protected. With journalists facing threats and intimidation, the European Democracy Action Plan must create a favourable environment for responsible, independent, quality and investigative journalism – a cornerstone of any well -functioning democracy, in which independent and well-funded Public Service Media play a vital role.
We will contribute to the European Commission’s public consultations on the European Democracy Action Plan and on the upcoming Digital Services Act. We will point out that disinformation can be mitigated if platforms make stronger commitments to promote - and not to meddle with - content from authentic media sources, and if they clearly attribute that content. Modern rules on prominence of general interest content on major platforms would also ensure people to easily find and access high-quality, reliable information and programming.