The European Union has long criticized Russia for spreading online misinformation. Now, it’s named China as well.
In new plans announced Wednesday aimed at tackling online falsehoods connected to the COVID-19 public health crisis, the European Commission mentions Beijing for the first time as a source of online disinformation linked to the coronavirus aimed at undermining Western democracies, sowing internal divisions and projecting a distorted view of China’s response to the global pandemic.
The Commission also blamed Russia for similar tactics, and called on social media companies like Facebook, Google’s YouTube and Twitter to publish monthly reports into how they were tackling COVID-19 misinformation. The nonbinding demands on tech giants are part of Brussels’ effort to revamp rules for these online platforms that will be published by the end of the year.
“If we have evidence, we should not shy away from naming and shaming,” Věra Jourová, the Commission’s vice president for values and transparency, told reporters in reference to Beijing’s alleged disinformation connected to COVID-19. “We have witnessed a lot of accusations that the coronavirus has been developed in U.S. laboratories, and also the overselling of the support from China in the EU.”
Jourová declined to comment on whether EU officials had seen coordinated inauthentic online activity from the Chinese that mimicked Russian activity from the past few years.
Yet since the start of the global public health crisis in early 2020, Beijing has pushed a pro-Chinese narrative aggressively on Western social media platforms according to which Europe and the United States have failed in their response to the coronavirus; that China has weathered the storm better than most; and that the U.S. created the virus as a bioweapon — a debunked claim.
The reach of such claims among Western audiences is limited, according to a POLITICO review of social media activity from Chinese officials and state-backed media outlets. But the recent push onto Western social media — Chinese accounts have also addressed protests against police violence in the U.S. — represents a change of tactics from Beijing. Many Western social media platforms are off limits for people in China.
“There’s a growing awareness that something is happening here,” said Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank. “During the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen a lot more aggressive types of communication from Chinese actors, often copying Russian-style tactics.”
A spokesperson for the Chinese Mission to the European Union said: “China is always opposed to the fabrication and dissemination of disinformation by any individual or organization. China is a victim of disinformation, not an initiator.”
The spokesperson added that “spreading disinformation and trading accusations will do nothing to help the global fight against the pandemic. The international community should jointly reject disinformation, and work together in good faith, with a view to overcoming the pandemic at an early date, and jointly safeguarding global public health security.”
Accusing China as a peddler of disinformation is likely to ruffle feathers, both in Brussels and Beijing.
When the bloc’s diplomatic service prepared to name Beijing earlier this year as a source of misinformation along with Russia, Chinese officials put pressure on the EU to water down those criticisms, according to three people with knowledge of the matter. Some European governments also fear political friction will hurt their close trading relationships with China.
The EU and China have clashed over a number of issues in recent years, including the involvement of Chinese telecommunications firms like Huawei in the development of the region’s next generation mobile network and the ability of Chinese companies to scoop up EU rivals hard hit by the pandemic.
“Given there are actors in Brussels who don’t want to mention China, maintaining a reference to China [in the latest report] is a good thing,” said Jakub Kalenský, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which tracks online misinformation. “Russia and China are by far the biggest part of the problem.”
COVID-19 misinformation response
Along with rebukes to both China and Russia, the Commission on Wednesday also called on Facebook, Youtube and Twitter to publish regular updates on how they were combatting online misinformation. TikTok, the video-streaming app that is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company, is also expected to participate in the monthly reporting.
The companies will be asked to outline the types of falsities and levels of coordination of inauthentic activity on their networks. They will also have to provide data to EU officials on how they are limiting the use of online advertising or third-party websites that promote misinformation.
Social media firms have ramped up the fight against false information in past years, including under the EU’s “code of practice on disinformation” that was launched in the run-up to the European Parliament election last year.
“We’re committed to the code of practice and to our work together to find new and creative ways to continue the fight against disinformation,” Matt Brittin, Google’s president of business and operations for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said in a statement.
A spokesperson for messaging platform WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, said the company “has taken a number of steps to tackle misinformation,” some of which had “led to a 70 percent reduction in the number of highly-forwarded messages sent on WhatsApp globally.”
Robin Koch, a spokesman for Facebook, said in a statement “we share the European Commission’s goal of reducing misinformation about COVID-19.”
Misinformation experts have repeatedly called for greater access to platforms’ data to track and monitor online disinformation campaigns.
The Commission now asks platforms to include in their monthly reporting how they are promoting authoritative content at EU and member country level; tools to inform users when they interact with disinformation; information on efforts to manipulate the platform; and data on flows of advertising linked to COVID-19.
The EU also wants platforms to cooperate more closely with researchers and fact-checkers, as well as agree with the newly established European Digital Media Observatory on a framework to provide researchers with privacy-protected access to data.
The Commission is also eager to promote greater cooperation on misinformation between EU institutions and the likes of NATO and the G7 group of the world’s richest countries. That includes building on existing structures to share information about potential disinformation campaigns between national agencies — a system that remains unwieldy, often because individual governments have taken different approaches to combatting online falsehoods.
“We’re not allowed to make mistakes because those mistakes will be exploited” by foreign actors, said Sebastian Bay, a misinformation expert at the Swedish Defense Research Agency.
For Jourová, the ongoing public health crisis has shown the need to clamp down on all harmful content that can pose a direct threat to people’s lives.
Recently, she backed Twitter’s decision to add warning labels to a series of posts from Donald Trump, the U.S. president, that were viewed as potentially glorifying violence. When asked if Facebook, which has so far refused to add similar labels, was wrong for not following Twitter’s lead, the Czech politician said that all social media users should be held to the same standard if they post potentially illegal or harmful content.
“I don’t differentiate whether it’s President Trump or whoever, especially for the people who have a huge influence on public opinion,” she said. “They should count on somebody coming and checking their information.”
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