Disinfo News and Updates

  • A watershed moment for social media. The riot in the US capital last week led to broad social media deplatforming of the outgoing US president. The event was also a cybersecurity “nightmare scenario”. We reflect on the regulatory significance below.
  • More details on Finnish cyberattack. While the attack has not been attributed, more details have emerged about the attack on the Finnish Parliament last fall.
  • Count rising in the SolarWinds hack. Russia’s infiltration of the software company SolarWinds has compromised at least 250 US federal agencies and businesses by recent count, including the electronic filing system used by federal courts.
  • UK denies Assange extradition request. Last week, a UK judge rejected the US’s effort to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States to face charges of conspiring to hack government computers and violating the Espionage Act.
  • TalkRadio ban-reversal. YouTube has reversed a ban on the account of TalkRadio, a News Corp.-owned U.K. national radio station that had been sharing Covid-19 misinformation, after intervention by News Corp.’s executive chairman Rupert Murdoch.

EU Policy Monitor

  • INGE Committee Update. The Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Interference met yesterday to discuss their first working document, by rapporteur Sandra Kalniete. MEP Bart Groothuis suggested that the committee reflect on the Digital Services Act, and also called for increased attribution in the EU for actors spreading disinformation. Video available here.
  • The Digital Services and Digital Markets Acts. Yesterday, January 11, the Internal Market Committee (Imco) met and discussed the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act,  among other digital items. Here is the DSA slide presentation. Renew Europe also organized an internal dialogue session on the two texts.
  • Securing EU Cloud Services. The European Cybersecurity Agency is consulting on a draft candidate of the European Union Cybersecurity Certification Scheme on Cloud Services (EUCS), a volunteer certification plan to harmonize security obligations for cloud services across EU states. The consultation is open until February 7th. Before the holiday, the Commission had presented a package of new cybersecurity legislation in its EU Cybersecurity Strategy.

The Great Deplatforming and the Digital Services Act

The riot at the US Capital last Wednesday was a watershed moment for the public debate on social media regulation in the United States, and a moment of reckoning with the real-world impact of conspiracy theories, online disinformation, polarisation and hatred. Those attentive to dis- and misinformation had seen the insurrection building online for weeks across mainstream social media sites and within the pro-Trump, extreme MAGA, and QAnon-infected information sphere. Researchers looking at the open web had noted clear incitement to violence and advice on weaponry, often organized around hashtags, and more violence is expected in related to Inauguration Day.

Major social media platforms have finally removed the outgoing US President (Facebook, Twitter, Snap, Twitch, Shopify, Stripe… First Draft is keeping track of the full list of platform actions). But many see this as too little too late – incident response in fear of reputational damage and in anticipation of the new political climate. Deplatforming Trump will not solve other long standing problems with social media, like algorithmic amplification and the harms of the underlying business model. Meanwhile Parler, which was used to organize Wednesday’s riots and which has seen major growth recently, was removed from app stores by Google, Apple, and Amazon. It is extremely noteworthy that hosting services within the internet stack have been involved. These ad hoc and fragmented responses only strengthen the argument for consistent regulation.

Though this is not the first deplatforming of a politician (see Jillian C. York’s response to the weekend’s many content moderation hot takes) Trump’s deplatforming does raise questions about what this means for other global leaders purveying disinformation. International fact-checkers reflected on the positive and negative implications of more global action to remove Trumpish leaders from their digital pedestals – Duterte in the Philippines, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Maduro in Venezuela. Shouldn’t these platforms have some oversight for decisions of such global political importance? German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Twitter and Facebook’s decisions ‘problematic’, and French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire ‘oligarchic’, agreeing that these issues should be governed by states and justice systems. Croatian MP Maria Selak Raspudić argued that Twitter should not delete Trump’s account because this could fuel a narrative of media censorship. European lawmakers have seized on the Capital Hill Riots as an opportunity to call for a strong regulatory response to disinformation. Between the European Democracy Action Plan, the Digital Services and Digital Markets Acts, and EU Regulation on preventing the dissemination of Terrorism Content Online (TCO), European authorities have been hard at work at these issues for months and years. Following the riots, MEP Kris Peeters reflected on the need for the DSA to improve transparency and accountability for the dissemination of disinformation, while MEP Alexandra Geese took the chance to critique the DSA’s allowance of digital platforms to assess their own risks in certain areas. In an op-ed, Thierry Breton, commissioner for the internal market, called last week’s events “the 9/11 moment of social media”. While the analogy might miss the mark – (9/11 led to the controversial Patriot Act in the US and to the protracted ‘War on Terror’ abroad) – the overarching message is poignant: “With the DSA, Europe has made its opening move” he states, and urges the EU and the new US administration to work together. The platforms’ self-regulatory decisions can take effect quickly; suspensions and bans capture headlines and excitement, and stir lively debate. The EU’s legislation may be years away. Still, if the EU’s GDPR is any indication, the DSA may some day represent “a global approach to online platforms”, something worth waiting for.

Research, Studies, Long Reads, Tweet Archives…

  • Josh A Goldstein and Shelby Grossman reflect in Brookings on the five major changes to the digital disinformation threat witnessed during 2020.
  • The European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs commissioned a study on key trends and patterns in disinformation and counter-disinformation in the Western Balkans. EUvsDisinfo breaks it down for you here
  • The Citizen Browser Project is a new data-driven initiative from The Markup to study how social media companies choose to amplify content. They took a look at Facebook’s curation in the leadup to the US senate runoff in the state of Georgia.
  • Trump Twitter Archive is a privately run website currently hosting a collection of the outgoing and recently suspended US President’s tweets – a resource for historians, academics, journalists, and maybe some daring natural language processing engineers?

Events and Announcements

  • 19 January – Submit your proposal for RightsCon 2021, which will take place online this June. More info here.
  • 26 January – #PrivacyCamp21 will take place from 10.00 – 16.00 CET. Check out the draft agenda and register here
  • 1-12 February – The Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Diplomatische Akademie Wien and University of Vienna will be running an online winter school on EU policy-making, with a thematic focus on digital rights. (The deadline for applications was 6 January 2021 but late applications may be accepted.) More info here.