Google and Facebook 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 today.
The EU’s expert group met last year as a response to the wildfire spread of fake news and disinformation seen in the Brexit referendum and in the US election of President Donald Trump. Their task was to help prevent the spread of disinformation, particularly at pivotal moments such as this week’s hotly contested European parliamentary elections.
However, some of these experts say that representatives of Facebook and Google undermined the work of the group, which was convened by the European Commission and comprised leading European researchers, media entrepreneurs and activists.
In particular, the platforms opposed proposals that would have forced them to be more transparent about their business models. And a number of insiders have raised concerns about how the tech platforms’ funding relationships with experts on the panel may have helped to water down the recommendations.
In the wake of numerous reports of massive disinformation campaigns targeting the European elections, many linked to Russia and to far-right groups, EU politicians and transparency campaigners have called these fresh allegations about the tech platforms’ behaviour a “scandal”.
One of those politicians, German MEP Ska Keller, has demanded that Facebook, in particular, “puts its cards on the table”.
“Disinformation threatens democracy,” she said. “The commission should not have given in [to the platforms] but instead should have insisted on further discussing competition tools to limit the power of the platforms and the disinformation spread through them.”
“We were blackmailed”
It had all sounded too good to be true: a set of rules that would guide the EU to take effective action against online disinformation and ensure the giant tech platforms that spread it were kept accountable. The research by Investigate Europe has found that ‘too good to be true’ is exactly what it was.
The EU Code of Practice on Disinformation 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 the expert group’s 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.
The group of 39 met for the first time in January 2018. Among them were representatives of major media houses such as Bertelsmann and Sky, important non-governmental organisations such as Reporters Without Borders and Wikimedia, scientists, as well as Facebook and Google employees.
Matters came to a head when Goyens and other members of the group suggested looking into whether European policy on commercial competition could have a role in limiting fake news. Such a move would have allowed the EU competition commissioner to examine the platforms’ business models to see whether they helped misinformation to spread. “We wanted to know whether the platforms were abusing their market power,” says Goyens.
She recalls that in a subsequent break Facebook’s chief lobbyist, Richard Allan – another member of the expert group – said to her: “We are happy to make our contribution, but if you go in that direction, we will be controversial.”
Allan spelled out more clearly what this meant to another group member: “He threatened that if we did not stop talking about competition tools, Facebook would stop its support for journalistic and academic projects.”
Facebook declined to comment on these incidents. In the end, the proposed vote on competition policy tools never took place.
Update, 22 May 2019: In a statement issued to Buzzfeed News, Facebook says: “This is a deliberate misrepresentation of a technical discussion about the best way to bring a cross-industry group together to address the issues around false news. We believe real progress has been made through the code of conduct process and we are looking forward to working with the European institutions to implement it.”
Conflicts of interest?
The platforms had influence over the group’s decisions in other ways, too. “It was not made transparent [to some members of the group] that some members had a conflict of interest. Because they worked for organisations that received money from the platforms,” says Goyens.
“The Google people did not have to fight too hard for their position,” says another group member, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It quickly became clear that they had some allies at the table.”
At least 10 organisations with representatives in the expert group received money from Google. One of them is the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, at the University of Oxford. By 2020, the institute will have received almost €10m from Google to pay for its annual Digital News Report. Google is one of 14 funders of this major project, which began in 2015. The institute declared this funding relationship to the European Commission in its application to be part of the expert group.
A number of other organisations represented on the group have also received funding from the Google Digital News Initiative, including the Poynter Institute and First Draft News.
When asked about the selection process and potential conflicts of interests within the group, Commissioner Gabriel’s cabinet insisted they had carefully examined applications from organisations that said they had received funding from Google. This was done in order “to exclude situations where applicants would have an interest that could compromise or be reasonably perceived to compromise their capacity to act independently”, a cabinet member states.
Divina Frau-Meigs, who teaches media sociology at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris and was also a member of the expert group, stresses the integrity of the academics in the group, who she believes were working honestly and diligently.
However, she still found the financial relationship between the platforms and some other group members troublesome: “It’s a very subtle dependency relationship: it is difficult to focus on the platform that supports you, even without strings attached. Having a financial relationship lays you suspect to some kind of bias of self-censorship.”
“It’s been known for some time that Google, Facebook and other tech companies give money to academics and journalists,” said Ska Keller, the German MEP. “There is a problem because they can use the threat of stopping this funding if these academics or journalists criticise them in any reporting they do.”
According to Frau-Meigs, independent funding for academics as well as journalists is extremely important. “Google and Facebook are paying these partnerships from their direct marketing arm, not through more neutral foundations,” she says.
The fact that platforms support both academics and journalists is in itself not a problem for Frau-Meigs as long as it is transparent, but the lack of clear criteria and a separate funding entity is. This can lead to a complicated and opaque situation, as the expert group’s example demonstrates. Frau-Meigs concludes: “The platforms should not exert influence the way they do now.”
A hobbled code
When the ‘high-level group’ on fake news and online disinformation was created it had grand ambitions. Commissioner Gabriel – alarmed by the Brexit vote and Trump’s election – announced in autumn 2017: “The fake news phenomenon is not new, but the reach and speed with which disinformation has spread online is unprecedented.” She said she had decided to call together a group of experts “in order to find a common solution to this growing phenomenon”.
The code of practice that the European Commission adopted last September certainly included some valuable guidelines. It acknowledged the need to improve the scrutiny of advertisement placements; to ensure the transparency of political and issue-based advertising; to establish clear labelling and rules for bots so that they would not be confused with human interaction; and to reduce the visibility of disinformation by making trustworthy content easier to find and by ensuring users have access to different news sources with a range of viewpoints.
A significant omission, however, was the mechanisms proposed by Goyens and others that would have forced the platforms to be more transparent about their business models and, in turn, would have helped policymakers assess whether these models might enable or promote disinformation. This was something the platforms tried hard to prevent, according to group members who spoke to Investigate Europe.
A year later, the consequences of this obstruction are clear. The code of conduct with the platforms is no more than voluntary. There were no laws created. Aside from strong words, there is no way to pressure the platforms to fulfil their obligations. The platforms agreed to take stronger action against fake accounts, to give preference to trustworthy sources and to make it transparent to their users why they see political advertising and who pays for it – but progress has been limited.
Damning criticism of the code of practice came from a ‘Sounding Board’ that was convened by the European Commission to track the proposals drawn up in response to the expert group’s report. The Sounding Board, which included representatives from media, civil society and academia, said that the code of practice “contains no common approach, no clear and meaningful commitments, no measurable objectives or KPIs, hence no possibility to monitor process, and no compliance or enforcement tool.
“It is by no means self-regulation, and therefore the platforms, despite their efforts, have not delivered a code of practice”.
The European Commission itself, meanwhile, signalled its dissatisfaction with the results of its long-running engagement with the big tech companies. “More systematic information is needed for the Commission to assess the efforts deployed by the online platforms to scrutinise the placement of ads and to better understand the effectiveness of the actions taken against bots and fake accounts,” four commissioners said in a statement issued in March.
As Investigate Europe revealed this spring, the EU’s instruments against disinformation remain largely ineffective. In March, when campaigns for the European parliamentary elections had already started, both Facebook and Google were struggling to get their ad transparency initiatives running.
Money no object
Facebook and Google have been robustly defending their interests in Brussels for years. According to the EU lobby register, Facebook spent at least €3.5 million on its employees there in 2018, while Google spent more than €6 million.
When it comes to certain topics, the companies reach even deeper into their pockets. Last year, for example, the British music industry association UK Music calculated that Google had spent almost €31 million to lobby against a stricter copyright law.
Goyens sums up: “The code of conduct was total crap. It was just a fig leaf. The whole thing was a rotten exercise. It was just taking more time, extending more time.”
In the expert group’s final report, which would lead to the code of practice, there was barely any mention of the competition tools that were so widely discussed during the group’s meetings. The possibility of a relationship between the platforms’ business models and the unprecedented reach and speed of disinformation campaigns is mentioned in the 44-page report – but only within an 80-word footnote.
We asked Google to comment on this article as well, but it declined to do so.