Facebook and Google pressured and “arm-wrestled” a group of experts to soften European guidelines on online disinformation and fake news, according to new testimony from insiders released to journalists at Investigate Europe and published today by openDemocracy, the London-based global news website.
Extracts from these testimonies allege that Facebook and Google undermined efforts to make the tech giants more accountable and transparent in their dealings, and applied exertive pressure on representatives of the EU’s ‘high level’ working group.
In the wake of numerous reports of huge disinformation campaigns the European elections, EU politicians and transparency campaigners have called these fresh allegations about the tech platforms’ behaviour a “scandal”.
In particular, the testimonies reveal:
- Questionable process in appointing representatives to the group;
- Heavy “arm-wrestling” from Facebook and Google to conditionalize experts;
- “Troubling” financial and organisational relationships between the tech giants and representatives of the working group.
The group which comprised leading European researchers, media entrepreneurs and activists, as well as employees from the two tech giants, was convened by the European Commission in May 2018 to explore ways of preventing the spread of disinformation – particularly during election campaign periods.
Its workings, and report findings, subsequently informed the ‘EU Code of Practice on Disinformation’, which was agreed in October 2018.
The EU code of practice was euphorically announced last September as a world first: the first time that the platforms had agreed to self-regulate following common standards. The code of practice was drawn up in response to expert groups’ report , which had been published in March 2018. Announcing it, the EU digital affairs commissioner, Mariya Gabriel, said: “I am very happy that the report reflects all our principles, transparency, diversity, credibility and inclusion.”
That wasn’t how some of the experts themselves saw it. In March 2018, during the group’s third meeting, “there was heavy arm-wrestling in the corridors from the platforms to conditionalise the other experts”, says a member of the group, one of two who spoke with Investigate Europe under the condition of anonymity, referring to a confidentiality clause signed by all group members.
Another member, Monique Goyens – director-general of BEUC, which is also known as The European Consumer Association – is blunter. “We were blackmailed,” she says.