Coronavirus disinformation: EU warning over wave of fake COVID-19 claims on social media

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By Laura Ruiz Trullols
n this Nov. 15, 2018, file photo the icons of Facebook and WhatsApp are pictured on an iPhone in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
n this Nov. 15, 2018, file photo the icons of Facebook and WhatsApp are pictured on an iPhone in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.   -  Copyright  Martin Meissner/AP

A massive wave of COVID-19 disinformation has hit social media during the pandemic, the EU claimed on Wednesday. 

Brussels said it false information about the virus can prove deadly and wants to strengthen its response to the problem.

It wants to improve communication of the problem to EU citizens and co-operate better with member states. 

“Disinformation in times of the coronavirus can kill," the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said. "We have a duty to protect our citizens by making them aware of false information and expose the actors responsible for engaging in such practices. 

"In today's technology-driven world, where warriors wield keyboards rather than swords and targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns are a recognised weapon of state and non-state actors, the European Union is increasing its activities and capacities in this fight.”

Several cases have been found where people have taken harmful medication or using "cures" that don't work

The virus has also become a powerful geopolitical weapon with the EU identifying disinformation coming from both sources in Russia and China.

Borrell told reporters that some of the biggest tech giants, including Google, Facebook and Twitter, allow coronavirus-related "fake news" to be shared on their channels.

“Disinformation waves have hit Europe during the coronavirus pandemic," said Věra Jourová, vice president of the European Commission for values and transparency. "They originated from within as well as outside the EU. 

"To fight disinformation, we need to mobilise all relevant players from online platforms to public authorities and support independent fact-checkers and media. 

"While online platforms have taken positive steps during the pandemic, they need to step up their efforts. Our actions are strongly embedded in fundamental rights, in particular freedom of expression and information.”

But some experts disagree with the European Commission's approach. They are calling for freedom of speech laws to be updated to adapt with the digital world.

"They kept pushing back the responsibility to moderate, to downrank, to take offline, harmful information and even illegal information, back to the very companies that are creating the problem," says Marietje Schaake, international director of policy at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center and president of the CyberPeace Institute.

She argues that any EU solution which continues the trend of privatising the policing of speech online is a big problem. 

Schaake wants to see rule of law principles becoming the "leading anchors against which we look at content moderation". 

She also calls for more transparency and accountability from companies.

For now, collaborating with the EU authorities remains voluntary. One of the platforms growing the fastest, TikTok, has confirmed that will endorse this code of conduct in the coming weeks and months.