Euroviews. Social media empowers disinformation operations. What can the EU do about it?

A person stands in front of a Meta sign outside of the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, March 2024
A person stands in front of a Meta sign outside of the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, March 2024 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By Domonkos D Kovacs
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Brussels has started to recognise that social media platforms are not just digital town squares, but the profit-driven allies of the enemies of democracy. It is high time to act accordingly, Domonkos D Kovacs writes.

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On 26 January, news broke that digital forensic experts had unearthed a major Russian disinformation operation targeted at the German government. 

The operation leveraged 50,000 fake accounts and bots on X (formerly Twitter). They sent more than 1 million posts over one month from 10 December, pushing tried and tested disinformation narratives.

The German foreign ministry, which commissioned the investigation, concluded that governments need to counter the proliferating disinformation campaigns and be mindful of their ramifications for elections. 

Whilst governments certainly need to step up their defences against foreign disinformation and election interference, the German foreign ministry seems to miss a key point. 

It is not by mere coincidence that social media, and specifically X, became a vector of foreign disinformation.

Social media companies, driven by their vested financial interest in propagating disinformation, have formed an unholy alliance with authoritarian states and malign actors seeking to interfere in democratic countries’ internal processes. 

Whilst the European Union has started to reckon with this, it must ensure that its first salvo does not fall short.

The colour of money

Humans’ natural struggle for recognition has always incentivised oddity — the further away an expression is from the median, the more reactive engagement it receives. 

However, the emergence of digital socialisation has done away with the restraints keeping the discourse from gravitating towards the extremes. 

Social media encourages rapid interaction, anonymity and lack of accountability. It has a low barrier to content creation and trends towards information overload. 

Collectively, these have given rise to a context, in which incendiary and sensational content proliferates in an unprecedented manner. 

Since disinformation tends to be partisan, provocative, and divisive, it thrives in this environment. Mark Zuckerberg himself admitted that lies get more engagement than factually accurate content.
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the tech giant's Connect developer conference, September 2023
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the tech giant's Connect developer conference, September 2023AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vasquez

Since disinformation tends to be partisan, provocative, and divisive, it thrives in this environment. Mark Zuckerberg himself admitted that lies get more engagement than factually accurate content.

However, there is more to social media’s nature as fertile soil for disinformation, than the inherent conditions of digital interaction. 

Corporate social media’s business model rewards and profits from disinformation. Since social media companies make money by keeping users engaged, they have a vested interest in gearing algorithms towards promoting content which elicits virulent support and deep outrage, validates users’ biases, and locks people into echo chambers where inflammatory posts are more likely to go viral. 

Nothing achieves this better than disinformation. Indeed, studies have shown that the algorithms of every social media company give preference to disinformation over factual content.

Surveillance advertising remains detrimental

This mechanism, engendered by a profit motive, is responsible for empowering, amongst many similar instances, Russia’s recent disinformation campaign against the German government.

It isn’t only recommender algorithms driving users towards particular content based on past online activity and inferences drawn from big data with which social media empowers the purveyors of disinformation to turn a profit. 

Their surveillance advertising model — the practice of targeting advertising based on huge amounts of information gathered about individuals from their online activities and personal data — allows authoritarian governments to reach highly specific audiences. 

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Fighting disinformation is fundamentally incompatible with social media’s business model. Social media’s failure to address disinformation is not merely a reflection of the technological challenge.
The TikTok Inc. logo is seen on their building in Culver City, CA, March 2024
The TikTok Inc. logo is seen on their building in Culver City, CA, March 2024AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

For instance, Meta made more than $100,000 from permitting Russian state-linked actors to target, amongst others, African-American populations with disinformation advertisements in the leadup to the 2016 US elections.

Fighting disinformation is fundamentally incompatible with social media’s business model. Social media’s failure to address disinformation is not merely a reflection of the technological challenge. 

There are solutions available, but they have been termed "antigrowth" by internal reports and abandoned. Indeed, as whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed: “Facebook repeatedly chose to maximize online engagement instead of minimizing harm to users.”

X is a 'cesspool of disinformation'

While this is a social media problem, it is even more of an X problem.

Even before Elon Musk’s takeover, scholars found that Twitter, amongst all social media platforms, gave the highest relative amplification to misinformation and disinformation over factual content.

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Since the acquisition, X has been rendered a safe haven for disinformation and authoritarian propaganda. 

Whilst the EU is on the right track, it must make sure that its measures do not remain an isolated act of political posturing directed at an obvious target but are applied systematically and rigorously — for every violator, and for every violation.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk enters the stage with a child on his shoulders at the Tesla Gigafactory for electric cars in Gruenheide near Berlin, March 2024
Tesla CEO Elon Musk enters the stage with a child on his shoulders at the Tesla Gigafactory for electric cars in Gruenheide near Berlin, March 2024Carsten Koall/dpa via AP

X has withdrawn from the EU’s Code of Practice on Disinformation, which aims to prevent profiteering from disinformation. It has reinstated accounts of disinformation propagators and reduced moderation. 

The platform has sold verification badges to terrorists and misinformation superspreaders and removed labels from state-controlled media. It has also dissolved its Trust and Safety Council.

Musk himself used his account to direct users towards profiles sharing disinformation and peddling Russian talking points.

We've reached a critical moment

The EU is finally reckoning with the gravity of the issue. In December, the European Commission opened infringement proceedings into X under the Digital Services Act, in relation to the spread of Hamas-linked propaganda and disinformation. 

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The proceedings could result in fines of up to 6% of X’s annual revenue.

The maiden flight of the DSA is a critical moment. Whilst the EU is on the right track, it must make sure that its measures do not remain an isolated act of political posturing directed at an obvious target but are applied systematically and rigorously — for every violator, and for every violation. 

The Commission needs to ensure that the lack of legal deadline for the proceedings does not indefinitely delay enforcement. It must impose penalties swiftly, and not allow cases to get tied up in court.

As long as social media companies can turn a profit from empowering disinformation operations, technical fixes will not suffice. 

The EU should decisively move forward with fining violators to the extent that aiding disinformation operations becomes a loss-making activity. 

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The EU has started to recognise that social media platforms are not just digital town squares, but the profit-driven allies of the enemies of democracy. It is high time to act accordingly.

Domonkos D Kovacs is an academic researcher at the Central European University in Vienna, focusing on the interplay between Russian information warfare and right-wing radical populist parties in the West.

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