New report says tech platforms ‘blackmailed’ EU policy experts

In January 2018, alarmed by the spread of misinformation around Britain’s “Brexit” referendum and the aftermath of Russian trolling on Facebook during the 2016 US election, the European Union convened a “high-level” working group filled with experts from media and academia—as well as representatives from Google, Facebook, and Twitter—to look at the scope of the problem and recommend solutions. This past fall, that group came out with an agreed upon “code of practice,” including a commitment to make political advertising more transparent. But, according to a new report from Investigate Europe, the proposals were watered down after both Facebook and Google put pressure on participants behind the scenes (neither company had responded to a request for comment from CJR by press time).

“We were blackmailed,” said Monique Goyens, director-general of the European Consumer Association, according to the report, which was published by Open Democracy. In her account, Goyens and other members of the group suggested that an EU commissioner should look into whether Facebook’s business model played a role in spreading misinformation, but Richard Allan—the company’s director for public policy for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa—warned her that doing so would be very controversial. An anonymous source told Investigate Europe that Allan later made an explicit threat, saying, “If we did not stop talking about competition tools [ways of enabling competition through policy], Facebook would stop its support for journalistic and academic projects,” according to the source. In other words, the EU working group was allegedly pressured not to criticize Facebook with threats to funding.

There was also more subtle pressure to agree with the interests of Facebook and Google, according to Goyens and others who were unnamed. That pressure came from journalistic entities funded by the tech companies, some of whom allegedly didn’t disclose their conflicts. “The Google people did not have to fight too hard for their position,” one group member told Investigate Europe, because “they had some allies at the table.” The Investigate Europe report mentioned that the Oxford-based Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism gets Google funding for its annual digital news report, and both Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network and the First Draft fact-checking project get funding through Google’s Digital News Initiative. (All three get funding from other sources as well, and disclose their Google funding. The ones who allegedly didn’t disclose aren’t named.)

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As reported by CJR in May 2018, Facebook and Google either provided or promised a combined $600 million in funding for journalistic startups, fellowships, training, and other purposes between 2017 and early 2018. Google started the Digital News Initiative, while Facebook has the Journalism Project, the Local Journalism Accelerator program, and a number of other efforts that fund things like the News Integrity Initiative at CUNY. One of the fears expressed by a number of journalism observers was that all of this funding largesse from the technology giants would create a conflict of interest—or at least the perception of one—should those entities ever want to criticize the platforms.

Alexios Mantzarlis, who used to run the International Fact-Checking Network and was one of the members of the EU working group, says he feels the reports of shady backroom pressure from the tech companies are overdone. “The reality was less House of Cards and more Veep,” he said on Twitter, referring to a popular drama about Machiavellian maneuvering in Washington vs. a popular comedy about the White House. The tech giants lobbied for their positions, he says, but so did media companies who participated in the working group. That said, however, a number of the EU critics who spoke to Investigate Europe said they believe the resulting report from the fall was rendered toothless in part because of lobbying from the tech companies—and the support they got from some of the media entities they fund.

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More on the EU’s effort to fight misinformation:

  • A Flood: According to a new report from the online activist group Avaaz, there has been a flood of far-right disinformation leading up to the European Union elections, which start today. The group found 500 suspicious pages and groups, which it reported to Facebook, and 200 of those have since been removed. Together, these fake accounts got more than 500 million views—several times more than the legitimate pages and accounts that were set up by politicians and parties involved in the vote.
  • Anti-Muslim: While the disinformation leading up to the UK’s Brexit vote focused on the dangers of either remaining in or leaving the EU, the kind of propaganda that has been seen leading up to the EU vote is focused on hot-button issues like immigration, according to the market research firm Alto Data Analytics. Its research showed a number of sites created specifically to push an anti-Muslim agenda.
  • Junk News: Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project says its research found that less than 4 percent of the sources on Twitter before the EU elections consisted of “junk news” (outright fakes or sensationalized news), with the exception of Poland, where junk news made up 21 percent of traffic. And while the proportion of fake news was also small on Facebook, individual fakes “can still hugely outperform even the best, most important professionally produced stories” on the platform, the group said.
  • Stratcom: The European Union has a special unit aimed at fighting disinformation that specifically comes from Russia, a program it set up in 2015. It is run by the European External Action Service East Stratcom Task Force, and says its work is designed “to better forecast, address and respond to pro-Kremlin disinformation.” The unit also publishes an email newsletter called The Disinformation Review.

Other notable stories:

  • Maitreyi Anantharaman writes for CJR about how coverage of the Women’s National Basketball Association suffered at many media outlets during the early 2000s, due to diminishing resources, but the beat has become much more popular as interest in the league has risen steadily and newsrooms have decided they need more unique coverage as a way of making their content stand out online. In some cases, sponsors help support the reporting.
  • Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri who sits on the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights, writes in an opinion piece for USA Today that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are “parasites” on productive investment, on meaningful relationships, and on a healthy society, and suggests that we might be better off if Facebook disappeared from the information landscape.
  • Twitter co-founder and former CEO Evan Williams, who is now running the publishing platform Medium, told CNN that when it comes to using Twitter, Donald Trump is “a master of the platform” with few equals. “What he has done is pretty genius, actually,” Williams said. But the Medium founder said that the negative effects of the president’s tweets pale in comparison to the “destructive power” of mainstream media outlets like Fox News.
  • A senior correspondent for Le Monde, a leading newspaper in France, was summoned for questioning by the national security division of the French police after reporting extensively on a corruption scandal involving French president Emmanuel Macron. What is being called the “Benalla affair” began as a story about misconduct by a former aide to the president, but has led to allegations of a cover-up by the French government.
  • The Boston Globe now has more subscribers paying for its digital product than it does for its print product, a landmark that only a few major newspapers have reached, Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton says. In part that’s because print subscriptions to the paper has declined sharply, but Benton argues that crossing that mark “clarifies that you’re now a digital news organization with a print product, not the other way around. It means your default audience is now online, and future resource allocation can reflect that.”
  • Two respected Russian journalists were forced to quit their jobs at Kommersant, the country’s leading political and business newspaper, after they refused to identify the sources they used for a story on a political shakeup in Moscow. After they were forced to leave, 13 of their colleagues announced they were quitting the paper in solidarity, including all the reporters working for the Kommersant‘s political desk.
  • The Brexit Party in the UK agreed to lift a ban on Channel 4 that it imposed earlier this week, which blocked the channel from party events. The broadcaster initially said the six-week ban appeared to be retaliation for an investigative report that it aired into party leader Nigel Farage’s finances. The party, however, said the ban—which was implemented before the Farage report—was a result of misbehavior by the network, which the party accused of lying in order to get access to a campaign rally. Channel 4 denied the accusations.
  • An independent review of Radio and Television Martí, the government-owned sister network to Voice of America that broadcasts to Spanish-language audiences in Cuba, found that the network failed to meet basic standards of journalistic fairness. Last month, an anchor for the network described Trump administration officials as the “dream team” for Cuba policy, according to the independent review board, and Martí has also been criticized for airing anti-Semitic segments about financier George Soros.
  • Nan Winton, the first woman to read the news on the BBC, has passed away. Winton, whose real name was Nancy Wigginton, became the first TV newsreader at the British broadcaster in 1960. She was an experienced journalist who had worked on Panorama and Town and Around before she joined the BBC, but her appearance on the network was criticized by those who felt women were “too frivolous” to read the news.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.