EU’s Approach against Disinformation and Data Protection

By Lale Naz Kılıç

General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR)

The concepts of post truth and disinformation are strongly related with democracy and individual rights. The legitimacy and leak of information in US presidential elections in 2016 and the great effects of the manipulations of the media on the “Brexit referendum” caused concerns in the European Parliament. The EU Parliament underlines that in recent years “it has become more difficult to identify the disinformation actions and manipulative propaganda as they “are spread by individuals with high levels of political authority, who enjoy the trust and attention of citizens.”

For the first time, on 25th May 2018, the European Parliament brought the General Data Protection Regulations into force. “The main aim of the rules has been to empower people and help them to gain more control over their personal data”.

GDPR increase the number of rights of individuals and put them in a stronger position to demand that the firms reveal or eliminate the personal data of the individual. GDPR have a broad perspective which addresses not only the unlawful use of personal data, but also manipulations and data leaking in the political and electoral context. The regulations are binding for the member states and the rights of data protection is strongly related with the right to freedom of expression, however there might be local adjustments since article 85 of GDPR regarding “journalistic purposes or the purpose of academic artistic or literary expression”.

The regulations are considered to be revolutionary, not only because “regulators will be able to work in concert across the EU for the first time, rather than having to launch separate actions in each jurisdiction”, but also because worldwide tech companies, such as Facebook, Google, and Apple, need to “update their sites to comply with the GDPR.”  “Facebook launched a range of tools to ‘put people in more control over their privacy’, by unifying its privacy options and building an ‘access your information’ tool to let users find, download and delete specific data on the site”.

Infodemic: the spread of disinformation throughout the COVID-19 pandemic

After March 2020, with the spread all over Europe of Covid-19 pandemic, the fight against disinformation became even more crucial. Disinformation reached such a degree that the EU and its member states had to respond. According to the European Comission, “social confinement has obliged millions of people to stay in their homes, increasing the use of social media as means of access to information, while online platforms, fact-checkers and social media users are reporting millions of false or misleading posts.”

The European Commission has described the circulating disinformation as “infodemic”, that is, “a flood of information about the virus, often false or inaccurate spreading quickly over social media ”. The Commission has stated that the infodemic “feeds on people’s anxieties”, and that “disinformation can have severe consequences: it can lead people to ignore official health advice and engage in risky behaviour”.

The Commission demanded the online platforms who had signed the Code of Practice on Disinformation, such as Facebook and Google, to fight against disinformation by “ removing illegal or false contents”, and reporting their actions regularly. The high tech companies started to sweep the contents that consisted in “a high-level screening of online platforms, and an in-depth analysis of specific advertisements and websites linked to products in high demand because of the coronavirus.”

As a result of this content seep, “Google globally blocked or removed over 80 million harmful coronavirus-related ads from March 2020 to May 2020”. Facebook established the Facebook Coronavirus Information center in order to provide a healthier information flow, and removed the ads that ‘imply a product guarantees a cure or prevents people from contracting COVID-19’

Recent concerns: Twitter and Digital Services Act

As Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla,  has declared that he has a deal to buy Twitter platform, new discussions and concerns about the possibility of an increase of hate speech have arisen on the social media platform. The EU officials have transmitted a message to Musk, that is, that he should comply with the Digital Services Act.

The European Commission launched two legislative initiatives, the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA) on 23 April 2022. The main goals of the acts are “creating a safer digital space in which the fundamental rights of all users of digital services are protected” and “establishing a level playing field to foster innovation, growth, and competitiveness, both in the European Single Market and globally”.

Thierry Breton, the European Union commissioner for the internal market, “reminded Elon Musk that he has to comply with the Digital Services Act”. The DSA “requires online platforms to tackle illegal content such as hate speech”.

UK government spokesperson has also stated on CNBC that “Twitter and all social media platforms must protect their users from harm on their sites. We are introducing new online safety laws to safeguard children, prevent abusive behavior and protect free speech. All tech firms with users in the UK will need to comply with the new laws or face hefty fines and having their sites blocked”.

Thierry Breton has tweeted that “Be it cars or social media, any company operating in Europe needs to comply with our rules – regardless of their shareholding”, and Musk’s, in response, has tweeted that “the extreme antibody reaction from those who fear free speech says it all”.

However, Breton and Musk have gathered to discuss the regulations, and Musk has showed signs of willingness. Musk has said that “he’s ‘very much of the same mind’ and exactly aligned’ and he’s ‘against censorship that goes far beyond the law with new EU rules tackling illegal online content”.