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Disinfo Update 18/02/2019

Westminster final report, still waiting for final answers from Facebook

Today, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons will release its final report on disinformation and “fake news”, concluding an 18 months inquiry. The report will call on the government to launch an independent investigation into foreign interference in British elections since 2014, amid documents showing data mishandling in the context of Brexit referendum. MPs require more transparency in the digital sphere, especially from big tech companies, naming Facebook and its data-sharing business model. The report envisages a new compulsory code of ethics enforced by an independent regulator with statutory powers to launch legal action against Facebook, Google and other social media giants.

The aforementioned Committee has been leading a coalition of elected representatives of 8 countries as an “International Grand Committee”, to promote further cross-border co-operation in tackling the spread of disinformation.

Only the truth, nothing but the truth

Ten European and American personalities (among them former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Dutch ALDE MEP Marietje Schaake and former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen) have released a pledge aimed at countering foreign interference in the next European Elections. The document urges those running for office to promise not to use stolen or falsified data, not to spread doctored audio or video material, to disclose the use of bots in campaigns, to train staff in cybersecurity, and to make campaign financing public. Politico reported that the Spitzenkandidaten of five European party groups have already signed the pledge.

On the same topic, former Facebook public policy Alexander Mäkelä released a guide on tools and best practices for civic engagement on social media, directed to candidates.

To be consumed with moderation

France plans to release a law on hate speech moderation and online harassment. A law strengthening the obligations of social networks in this area will be presented before the end of the first semester. The government is still drafting its copy, but it is already possible to discern the contours of this future text: they are reflected in the action plan of the government against hate in online content, published on Thursday by digital Minister Mounir Mahjoubi. This law would facilitate the reporting of “explicitly illicit content”, that might be put under quarantine. The law might as well introduce a mandatory delay for removal of illicit content as well as an appeal mechanism. A new regulator over online content might also be created. A task force involving several regulators and ministerial experts is currently conducting a collaborative mission with Facebook that might be expanded with other platforms. Even if the project only concerns hate speech, let’s figure out if this law might also be considered as an appropriate regulation to tackle disinformation online content.

Moldova fake story 

Earlier last week, Facebook took down 168 Facebook accounts, 28 Pages and eight Instagram accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour targeting people in Moldova. The pages posted about local news and political issues such as required Russian or English language education and reunification with Romania. They also shared manipulated photos, divisive narratives and satire and impersonated a local fact checking organization’s Page that called out other Pages for spreading fake news. Some of these activities might be linked to employees of the Moldovan government. This campaign happens just when the parliamentary elections will be held on February 28 in the country


Calendar and announcements

  • 27 February – Disinfolab Webinar: The ad economy of disinformation: does an alternative model exist? With Johnny Ryan from Brave.
  • Call for Nominations – 2019 GUE/NGL Award for Journalists, Whistleblowers and Defenders of the Right to Information: applications until 01/03

Open letter to Facebook: A coalition of European academics, technologists and human and digital rights groups, led by Mozilla, has signed an open letter to the company demanding far greater transparency about how Facebook’s platform distributes and amplifies political ads ahead of elections to the European Parliament which will take place in May.

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Disinfo Update 11/02/2019

YouTube: won’t the earth be flat anymore?

Google-owned video service announced it is tweaking its algorithms to “begin reducing recommendations of borderline content and content that could misinform users in harmful ways—such as videos promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness, claiming the earth is flat, or making blatantly false claims about historic events like 9/11.” For the time being, the change will be operated gradually and will only affect recommendations of a very small set of videos in the United State. “It is a great victory”, former Youtube engineer Guillaume Chaslot commented.

Trolls are humans too

Inspired by her research on the Internet Research Agency interference during the 2016 US campaign, Camille François tried to find out the humans behind the trolls. She talked to some of the actual persons who worked on these influence campaigns. What she discovered could help countries fight foreign-sponsored attempts to influence elections in the future.

“This number is no longer in service”

In a white paper on “stopping abuse” published last week in India, Whatsapp says it has been deleting 2 millions accounts per months in an effort to hinder the spread of disinformation. The company had discovered examples of “attackers” rigging hardware to be able to control several accounts simultaneously. Others used emulators to run multiple accounts on the same computer. One giveaway was that messages sent by automated accounts rarely displayed a “typing” status. Suspicious accounts also tended to send high volumes of messages soon after registering.

Matt Jones, who leads anti-spam engineering team in the company said that WhatsApp had seen evidence in earlier Indian state elections of a major party appearing to create multiple groups of voters based on demographic data.

Oooh Canada

The federal government of Canada has unveiled a series measures aimed at protecting Canada’s electoral system from foreign interference and enhancing Canada’s readiness to defend the democratic process from cyber threats and disinformation. This will be done through a “Critical Election Incident Public Protocol” that will be overseen by a working group of five senior level non-political government officials. This “Bill C-76” also gives Canada’s Elections Commissioner new powers to conduct investigations into election interference and compels social media platforms to create databases of their advertising during the campaign.

Duty of care

The British government has signalled it will make social media firms sign a legally binding code of conduct that imposes on them a duty of care towards young users. Margot James, the minister for digital and creative industries, announced the measures during her speech at the Safer Internet Day conference. The British government will be bringing forward laws to tackle social media giants in the coming weeks.


Agenda and announcements

HR corner

  • Avaaz is building up its team for a European elections project. Find the job descriptions here.
  • Reboot is seeking eight consultants across Nigeria to work on a project aimed at understanding the misinformation and disinformation on closed messaging apps in Nigeria.
  • Poynter has been awarded a $5 million grant from Craig Newmark Philanthropies to establish the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership.
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Disinfo Update 05/02/2019


Last week was the first exam session for the signatories of the EU code of practice. This week’s newsletter will come back to the first reports by the signatories (Google, Twitter, Facebook, Mozilla and trade associations representing the advertising industry), presenting their efforts to comply with their commitments. 

Facebook (link to Facebook’s report)

  • Will extend the transparency on political advertising already in place in the US, Brazil, and UK. The person paying for the ad will need to confirm its location and identity. The ads will be archived for seven years.
  • Will strengthen the verification process of content authenticity and detection of fake accounts.
  • Will continue to rely on a network of fact-checkers to detect false stories and will promote trusted content in the News Feed.
  • Will establish a European research advisory commission to award research identified as relevant to the Academic community.

Google (link to Google’s report)

  • Has already implemented obligations for advertisers to comply with policies against misrepresentation complemented by a “valuable inventory policy”. In 2019, the company should provide additional metrics specific to EU member states and upgrade implementation mechanisms before the European elections.
  • Regarding political ads in the context of EU elections, Google will also introduce an election-ads transparency report and searchable ad library in a downloadable format.
  • The company also underlines its efforts to surface fact-check content and support projects to surface indicators of credibility. 
  • Hired dedicated staff to work on disinformation project.
  • Will roll out a new version of Firefox with additional privacy settings and tracking protection targeted to reduce user’s exposure to disinformation campaigns. A specific version including relevant add-ons should be released in March.
  • Mozilla foundation also recruited a cohort specifically working on disinformation issues

Mozilla (link to Mozilla’s report)

  • Hired dedicated staff to work on disinformation project.
  • Will roll out a new version of Firefox with additional privacy settings and tracking protection targeted to reduce user’s exposure to disinformation campaigns. A specific version including relevant add-ons should be released in March.
  • Mozilla Foundation also recruited a cohort specifically working on disinformation issues.

According to Mozilla, Facebook ad archive doesn’t provide enough technical feature to allow third-party to efficiently use their data to provide apps that would bring more transparency to political targeting. Mozilla is currently developing an add-on to its Firefox browser that would analyse ad targeting on Facebook.

Twitter (link to Twitter’s report)

  • Also underlines its ad policy, draws attention to its annual transparency report and ads transparency centre launched in 2018. Promoted content are also clearly labelled as such.
  • Twitter will continue its efforts to address spam, malicious automation, and fake accounts.
  • In terms of support to the research community, Twitter released account suspected of information operations and provides support to organisations focusing on the European environment (including EU Disinfolab, which received support from Twitter in 2018).

Advertising trade associations (reports from World Federation of Advertisers, European Association of Communication Agencies and Interactive Advertising Bureau Europe)

When it comes to the trade associations representing the advertising sector, they committed to raise awareness about the Code amongst their members. But one can regret the absence of corporate signatories, while brands and advertisers should play a greater role in the efforts to demonetize purveyors of disinformation.

Commission wants more efforts

At a conference in Brussels, European Commissioner for digital affairs Mariya Gabriel welcomed the efforts made by the signatories of the code of practice but stressed remaining weaknesses to be improved ahead of the upcoming European elections in May:

  • Most of the initiatives are deployed only in some members states
  • The platform’s mostly commit on transparency over political ads
  • KPIs should be detailed for each member states
  • Support to research should be strengthened
  • Users should be empowered with relevant tools

The Commissioner also announced a week dedicated to media literacy in March.

Such efforts by tech companies should be welcomed and supported. From our perspective, we still regret a lack of transparent access to data from several actors. As each of the signatories are focusing on political advertising transparency, and repositories of political ads, we can regret the lack of harmonisation in this matter, as a common repository would help analyse cross-platforms campaigns.


  • Researchers at Cardiff University will study the rise of online alternative political media and public attitudes towards mainstream media.  The three-year project will investigate the production, content and consumption of both left and right-wing alternative online political media.
  • Facebook restricts campaigners’ ability to check ads for political transparency: Social media network says the change was part of a crackdown on third party plug-ins
  • Could ‘fake news’ be good news for journalism? What is the future of journalism in a world of ‘fake news’, social media and citizen journalism? LSE professor Charlie Beckett takes a look.
  • Disinformation and democracy: The home front in the information war: In this Discussion Paper, Paul Butcher assesses the various efforts that have been made to fight the spread of disinformation and finds that the results are mixed

Agenda and announcements

ASD seeking input on a study on institutionalizing hybrid threat response. Take part to the survey

HR corner

  • The world wide web foundation has open positions as policy manager and communication officer.