EU disinformation observatory has links with platforms

Credit: Alexia Barakou

Out of 25 people in the observatory’s governance, 11 are connected to tech giants. Most of them are academics and journalists who are not individually tied to platforms, but whose employers are funded or paid by some of the code’s signatories, such as Google and Facebook. More revealing, two have been personally lobbying on behalf of corporations.

First is Richard Allan, a member of EDMO’s executive board and Facebook’s former chief lobbyist in Europe between 2009 and 2019. He allegedly pressured EU experts in that role, as IE previously reported. A close political ally of Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, Allan is also a lawmaker in the UK Parliament’s House of Lords.

Second is Madeleine de Cock Buning, the chair of EDMO’s advisory board and current vice president of public policy at Netflix. The global streaming service has been mostly spared by misinformation accusations and it did not sign the EU’s code of practice.

Their involvement is at odds with good governance rules, in the words of civil society actors who shared their concerns with IE.

“This is a lack of independence, the watchdog should not include people with links to those who have to be watched,” comments Monique Goyens, head of BEUC, a union of 46 European consumer associations. “Richard Allan’s move from Facebook to EDMO was so fast, it’s a typical case of revolving doors.”

“Experts with links to industry cannot be considered independent,” adds Vicky Cann of the Corporate Europe Observatory, a transparency NGO. “Those working for tech or with funding from tech should not be on a body like EDMO, there are real issues of conflicts of interest here.”

Some of these connections are no secret to ERGA, the European group of national regulators. 

“We know about these links and we know the people, of course,” says Lubos Kuklis, ERGA’s lead on disinformation.

The Commission consults both ERGA and EDMO to assess the code’s parties. But as opposed to EDMO, ERGA is composed of publicly funded institutions.

“Funding from platforms needs to be transparent to know that there might be some connections,” explains Kuklis in an interview with IE. “I haven’t seen anything that I would deem an improper interference, but if something happens, which we can’t exclude, I will highlight it.”

From a different perspective, Sally Reynolds, an unpaid member of EDMO’s advisory board, believes that such profiles should be expected.

“You don’t want people who have experience in fisheries to talk about disinformation,” Raynolds, an expert in media literacy, tells IE. “They may not have explicit conflicts of interest, but they may have opinions, and that’s what is expected of them.”

In a statement sent to IE, EDMO writes that its boards represent the diversity of stakeholders and that Allan was invited for his track record of working with the EU. The observatory adds that its governance charter sets provisions for potential conflicts of interest.

Contacted separately, Allan and de Cock Buning did not wish to comment further. 

On paper, EDMO’s budget is provided by the EU: €2.5 million for the observatory and €11 million for its eight regional hubs across the continent. 

But in essence, the whole project is a partnership between universities and fact-checkers with their own finances. 

The observatory sits within a consortium led by the European University Institute (EUI) and consisting of three other organisations that receive money from platforms.

The Athens Technology Center took Google grants in 2016 and 2019, Aarhus University confirmed to IE that it runs nine projects with funding from Google and Facebook, and the Italian fack-checker Pagella Politica has Facebook as its main client.

Tellingly, this trend is true among the rest of EDMO’s partners. The observatory and its hubs work with a least eight universities or institutes accepting donations from signatories of the code of practice. And its network of fact-checkers counts 18 outlets also getting money from platforms, mainly through the Google digital news initiative.

The majority are respected and credible media, but the far-reaching arm of Google’s sponsorship has been described as a political tool in a report by the Otto Brenner Foundation and the German Trade Union Confederation.

Besides, EDMO now holds a key role in distributing grants directly from Google’s pockets. The observatory will help select the recipients of the 25 million European Media and Information Fund (EMIF), whose sole donor is the multinational. 

The pot was open to all contributors, but no one else chipped in. Some of the cash has already been put aside to pay the European University Institute (EUI), EDMO’s main institution, which is part of EMIF’s coordination. The EUI told IE that it received just over 260,000 for its activities connected to the fund. 

In the meantime, applications have opened for fact-checking and media literacy initiatives across Europe. 

“Beneficiaries probably won’t be the most critical towards the platforms,” fears Goyens. “These grants put projects in a situation of dependence, it’s becoming so difficult to find academics that are not funded by platforms.”

Reynolds agrees that matching donations would be beneficial, but platforms’ funding does not necessarily have strings attached, she insists. “Provided the management of the money is as careful as it can be, I think it’s a good way to go,” she says. “By donating to projects tackling disinformation, there is at least a dialogue going on.”

When asked about Google’s contributions to EDMO’s partners and the fund, a company’s spokesperson told IE: “Strengthening media literacy skills, fighting disinformation and supporting fact-checking is an integral part of our mission.”

The Commission also promotes a public–private approach in this area. In remarks shared with IE, it said: “The fight against disinformation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it requires a multi-stakeholder effort. [Platforms] cooperate in this regard with fact-checkers and researchers, supporting their work.”

In fact, the code itself states that platforms should encourage various projects, and their grip on rules and funding is symptomatic of the text’s nature. Partly devised by firms themselves, it’s still a voluntary and self-regulatory instrument, to the great displeasure of its critics. 

“Given the huge influence that platforms have had, it’s unsurprising, but of course disappointing, to hear that a body designed to supervise the code should also have links to the platforms,” regrets Tiemo Wölken, a German MEP of the Social Democratic Party.

Wölken and Kuklis, among others, are calling for a more stringent code, independent assessors and penalties in case of breaches. The Commission is taking a step in that direction. It issued proposals for a new version of the text, expected to be adopted in March. 

This strengthened code could mean a stronger EDMO too. 

Official guidelines suggest it will be part of the code’s taskforce and assist the executive in monitoring the impact of future rules. It could also be further engaged in allocating signatories’ grants to projects.

EDMO universities and fact-checkers that receive funding or money from platforms:

Universities and institutes (either an EDMO partner, the main employer of a board member, or both): Athens Technology Center, Aarhus University, University of Amsterdam, George Washington University, University of Sheffield, London School of Economics and Political Science, Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Science Po, UCLouvain.

Fact-checkers: Pagella Politica, DW, AFP, the Journal, VRT, Knack Mag (Roularta), Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau, Bellingcat, Maldita, Agência Lusa, (Amedia AS, Dagbladet AS), GEDI Gruppo Editoriale, Correctiv, Delfi, DPA, Ellinika Hoaxes, Science Feedback, Verificat.

With contributions from Nico Schmidt.

A version of this article was published in Germany by our media partner, Netzpolitik.