Response to disinformation around COVID-19: Remarks by Vice-President Věra Jourová at the Read-out of the College meeting
"Check against delivery"
The Coronavirus pandemic is also an infodemic. It is accompanied by a huge wave of disinformation and consumer hoaxes. It really showed that disinformation does not only harm the health of our democracies, it also harms the health of our citizens. It can negatively impact the economy and undermine the response of the public authorities (and therefore weaken the health measures).
And disinformation will continue. Vaccination seems to be the next battleground. For instance, one study showed that the willingness in Germany to take up vaccination decreased by almost 20 percentage points in less than 2 months.
We decided to do this communication for two reason:
- First, we wanted to have a comprehensive overview of all the measures taken and identify potential gaps;
- Second, it is a to-do list for all involved, especially platforms, to step up their work.
So what have we done so far? For example, we quickly agreed with the online platforms that they would promote links to WHO and health authorities and remove ads that offer fake medicine or inflate prices for normal products.
For example, Google has blocked or removed over 80 million coronavirus-related ads (globally).
On the authorities' side, we have seen that the health sector has really strengthened their ability to provide factual information on time.
These actions brought results and I choose to believe that we helped to make the information environment, especially online, better.
But we still have many things to do and this Communication outlines the European approach to disinformation.
It is comprehensive and balanced addressing mainly three things: the sources of disinformation, its channels or amplifiers and the targets.
Josep (Borrell) has talked about the foreign sources of disinformation.( See also Response to disinformation around COVID-19: Remarks by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the Read-out of the College meeting)
I am glad about this because I strongly believe that a geopolitical EU can only materialise if we are assertive and name the issues we face.
But we also have to put our own house in order. We need to beef up our strategic communication.
We want to get our story about Europe and EU support out during the coronavirus crisis. It's high time we step up on this and do not allow others to occupy the space.
Now to the second point, the channels of the communication namely the platforms.
I welcome strong measures taken by platforms to fight harmful content in this crisis. I support the approach that preserves the freedom of information and expression, while ensuring our citizens are not put in danger.
I believe that the fact that we worked with the platforms and we designed with them the Code of Practice on disinformation helped to roll out new policies quicker.
But again, platforms need to do more and our Code was just the first step. It has room for improvement.
For instance, we know only as much as platforms tell us. This is not good enough. They have to open up and offer more evidence that the measures they have taken are working well. They also have to enable the public to identify new threats independently. We invite them now to provide monthly reports with more granular information than ever before.
It is also crucial to remove the financial incentives for those who want to benefit from disinformation, therefore we are taking action to gain better understanding of the flow of advertising revenues linked to disinformation.
We need to ensure transparency and accountability. Citizens need to know how information is reaching them, and where it comes from.
I am also pleased to announce that TikTok confirmed to me they are joining the EU Code on Disinformation and will very soon conclude the formalities.
Finally, the targets, so us, the citizens. Lying is not new, nor that scary. What scares me is that we believe in those lies too easily. This is why we need to become more resilient and critical as a society. We need to support free and independent media, the fact checkers and researchers.
I really want to insist on this, because I believe this is a distinctive part of our policies. I don't want to create the ministry of truth. I used to live in a system, before 1989, with one truth, no pluralism of media, opinion or even thought.
This is why we will support the fact-checking and research activities through the recently established European Digital Media Observatory. In this context, later this month we will launch a call for EUR 9 mln for the research hubs in different Member States. I think our approach is essential in democracies, because it helps to provide a competition of free speech. I believe that like in the traditional competition policy the consumers benefit from fair competition and level playing field, the citizens benefit from the fair competition of free speech.
This is why I support the Twitter reaction to tweets of President Trump. They didn't delete it. We all can see it. They provided fact-checked information and promoted facts.
When it comes to the media, we are calling on Member States to ensure that journalists can work in the right conditions and to make the most of our recovery package to support the media.
To conclude, this communication is the first building block of this new Commission in the response to disinformation. We want to create a more resilient and democratic information space, based on fundamental rights and respect for freedom of expression, but also with clear expectations from the digital players. I strongly believe that this will ultimately show that democracy is a superior system to address such a crisis with benefits for its citizens. Truth matters.
This Communication will inform and help us to prepare better the flagship initiatives that will address online accountability and responsibility such as the Digital Services Act or resilience of democracies against disinformation such as the European Democracy Action Plan.