Hot off the (word)press – This morning, our research team released a new blogpost on the challenges of moderating scientifically debatable claims. The post shows how Facebook’s labelling of fact-checked disinformation on the risks of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) can easily be overturned, allowing similar stories to circulate without labels or context. Here’s a link to the post!

Disinfo News and Updates

  • European Parliament. MEPs of the Special Committee on Foreign Interference quizzed Graphika’s Camille François, Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins, and more, on the state of disinformation in the EU. (full summary below)
  • United States. The US Department of Justice indicted six Russian GRU officers (military intelligence) – a unit dubbed “Sandworm” – for instances of hacking in countries around the world. Also, the US Intelligence Director issued a statement that Russia and Iran hacked into some US voter information by sending emails posing as the Proud Boys. The New York Times reflects that “the Iranian and the Russian activity could pave the way for so-called perception hacks, which are intended to leave the impression that foreign powers have greater access to the voting system than they really do.”
  • Infodemic. Wikipedia and the World Health Organization announced a collaboration to stop the spread of false information about the coronavirus. WHO will grant the online encyclopedia free use of its published information, graphics and videos. The United Nations Secretary General has also launched a campaign, #PledgetoPause, to help combat the impact of misinformation. 
  • Belarus. A Minsk court has labelled a political opposition Telegram channel as “extremist material”, a decision which allows the information ministry to restrict access to it.
  • Ukraine. Ukraine held local elections this past Sunday. In preparation, Ukraine’s foreign ministry issued a statement warning Hungary against violating its electoral legislation and interfering in the country’s internal affairs.
  • Platform Governance. Facebook’s Oversight Board is finally up and running. Users can now appeal final content decisions by Facebook or Instagram. TikTok has expanded its understanding of hate speech to include white supremacym, white genocide theory, anti-immigrant sentiment (Identitarianism) and male supremacy. Meanwhile, YouTube is drowning in political ads seeking placement on the platform.

EU Policy Monitor

Update from the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Interference and Disinformation (INGE)

On Monday 26 October, MEPs from the INGE Special Committee put their questions to experts from the disinformation community: Camille François, Chief Innovation Officer at Graphika, Michael Bossetta, Social Media expert at Lund University and Eliot Higgins, Founder and Executive Director of Bellingcat (See the full agenda here). All three speakers highlighted the need for more regulatory pressure on social media platforms.

  • Lund University’s Michael Bossetta pointed out that, yes, social media may have improved our participation in democracy but it has weakened our ability to deliberate effectively. Looking at new forms of identification where users are allocated a pseudonymised identity could be one solution. 
  • Camille François highlighted the progress made since the 2016 US presidential elections but that malign actors have adapted their tactics and become more sophisticated and continue to find ways to polarise domestic political debates. For example, recruiting unwitting journalists to disinform. What can Europe learn from the American experience? Employ teams to track foreign interference, increase cooperation between law enforcement and platforms (reflecting the success of FBI tips to Facebook in bringing down Iranian or Russian networks), and up the regulatory pressure for platforms to release essential data linked to information operations to researchers. The EU remains an important target for disinformation, and yet we still face huge gaps in our knowledge of the mechanics behind past campaigns, like the Macron Leaks.
  • Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins emphasised the value of the growing OSINT community in verifying fake news and tackling recent disinformation put out by the Russian Ministry of Defence on military activities in Syria and Ukraine. Bellingcat is preparing a new volunteer section on its website to improve the collaborative nature of its investigations. Bellingcat also hinted at an upcoming report on Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Russian troll farms detailing examples of “election interference 2.0” in the United States, to be released in the coming days.

The Committee elected three additional Vice Presidents and Chairman Raphaël Glucksmann announced that the next important discussion on disinformation would take place in the subcommittee on Security and Defence (SEDE) on Wednesday 28 October focusing on terrorist propaganda (agenda), and on November 16 on cyberattacks in the EU. The next INGE meeting will be held on November 9 2020.

In other EU News

  • Digital Services Act. MEPs approved a set of non-binding reports calling for stricter conditions for targeted ads, specific rules for “gatekeeping” platforms like a binding “notice-and-action” mechanism, and a strict distinction between illegal and harmful content. Platforms must avoid upload filters or any form of ex-ante content control for harmful or illegal content, the parliamentarians also want the final decision on the legality of content to be taken by an independent judiciary and not private undertakings. The report even “invites the Commission to assess” the options for a phase-out and prohibition of targeted advertising in the EU. Despite being a non-binding report, the European Parliament has sent a strong signal to the Commission on the need for tough regulatory action.
  • Surveillance software. According to Politico, the EU is finalising a plan that would make sure “China and Russia are not simply given the newest technologies” by limiting the export of some “dual use” technologies (ie technologies with a dual civilian and military use), including hacking software, facial recognition systems, other espionage and surveillance tools.
  • Counterfeiting. The Together Against Counterfeiting Alliance, gathering nearly 100 major brands, has seized this occasion to list their demands for the Digital Services Act: duty of care for platforms, a stay down mechanism, identity verification of third party vendors and new transparency obligations. Contexte reports.

In Member States

  • Bulgaria. Prime Minister Boyka Borissov has joined the US-led international coalition against Huawei, citing the risks created by the Chinese telco to the country’s 5G networks in terms of competition, transparency and rule of law.
  • France. The French executive is refining measures in its so-called “Separatism bill”, a response to the threat of radical Islam, which includes strengthening of French Ministry of the Interior’s reporting platform, Pharos. Meanwhile the Minister Delegate in charge of Citizenship, Marlene Schiappa has announced the creation of a “republican counter-discourse” unit to address “cyber-Islamism”. Both come following the killing of a French school teacher.

Research & Studies

  • Cybersecurity. The EU’s Cybersecurity Agency (ENISA)  released its 8th annual ENISA Threat Landscape (ETL) examining the most serious cyber threats for the period between January 2019 and April 2020”, finding that the EU’s cyber resilience is pushed “to the limit”.
  • Chemical weapons. Bellingcat has released a major report detailing how Russia has continued to develop the Novichok nerve agent despite claims to the contrary.
  • Freedom of expression. ARTICLE 19 has released their Global Expression Report on the state of freedom expression worldwide. See also the Executive Director Quinn McKew’s op-ed.
  • Inside Algorithms. A Mother Jones report explores the inner workings of Facebook’s News Feed recommendation systems.
  • Media literacy. The RAND Corporation and IREX have conducted a study using a randomized control trial to look at the effect of media literacy messagings on social media users.
  • Inauthentic Behavior. Facebook has begun a new reporting series on the trends, tactics, and response efforts related to Inauthentic Behavior (IB).

Events and Announcements

  • Harvard’s Shorenstein Center has published the Media Manipulation Casebook, a package of resources for detecting, documenting, and debunking media manipulation and disinformation campaigns. Check it out!
  • 26–28 Oct will be the Western Balkans Digital Summit 2020, held both online and in Albania.
  • 30 Oct, Margrethe Vestager will speak at an Algorithm Watch event on the Digital Services Act. Register here
  • Tactical Tech is organising a three-week online workshop for civil society investigators across the European Union, “Exposing the Invisible Investigative Institute” Apply before November 1 here.
  • This year’s 15th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) will take place virtually. Register here
  • 14 Jan. Data & Society will host a workshop titled Against Platform Determinism. Apply before 21 Oct. More info here.