The European Commision has presented the new Strengthened Code of Practice on Disinformation, an agreement negotiated among 34 organizations including some of the main digital platforms, such as Google, Meta, Twitter, Tik Tok and Youtube; as well as Maldita.es and other fact-checkers, companies and organizations from civil society.
The Code sets commitments and specific measures for the signatories to fight disinformation in different areas, including user empowerment, access to reliable information, demonetization of disinformative contents, and closer collaboration between the platforms and independent fact-checking organizations. New signatories are welcome to join whenever they wish.
How does the new Code work?
On paper this is a self-regulatory and voluntary code, in which each signatory decides to which measures they will and will not adhere. However, as soon as the new European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA) comes into effect, the “very large online platforms” (45 million of users or more) will be required to prove they have taken specific risk mitigation measures against disinformation. The European Commission will supervise this and it has already said that fulfilling this code will be the easiest way of abiding by the law and avoiding large fines under the DSA.
Google, Meta, Twitter, Tik Tok, Microsoft and Youtube have signed a large part of the most important commitments. Nevertheless and unfortunately, many platforms that are not yet considered “very large” according to the DSA have not agreed to do much. Telegram, for example, has not signed the Code, while others such as Twitch have committed to little.
Improvements and commitments for fact-checkers
Maldita.es and other European fact-checking organizations have participated in the negotiation for more than half a year and, although in a process like this one nobody gets all they would like, we consider that the Code can be a clear improvement if the platforms fulfill the commitments they have taken.
More specifically, the seventh chapter of the Code focuses on the measures that ensure that platforms cooperate with independent fact-checkers in several areas: the integration of fact-checking in their services, granting fact-checkers access to the relevant information about contents that they need in order to do a better job, and providing fair financial contributions for their work fighting against disinformation in those platforms.
The Code includes commitments for fact-checkers as well. All of the signatory fact-checking organizations commit to follow strict rules regarding ethics and transparency, also guaranteeing their independence. Verified members of the European Fact-Checking Standards Network (EFCSN) (that will be set up in a few months) or verified signatories of the Code of Principles of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) will be considered as compliant with the Code.
A new step
The first edition of the Code of Practice on Disinformation signed in 2018 assembled some of the most important actors in the sector and allowed them to commit to some measures. It was written almost exclusively by the larger online platforms and, although it was an interesting first step, its impact was limited by several shortcomings, in particular its ambiguity.
The new “strengthened” Code has been drafted taking into account the guidance for improvement published in 2021 by the European Commission, a document that proposed more specific measures. Furthermore, as mentioned, it has been negotiated and drafted by a much larger and diverse group of organizations and having in mind the clear incentive for platforms to use this Code for fulfilling the obligations they have under the new Digital Services Act.
The signatories of the Code have joined a task-force that will monitor and develop the implementation of the Code, with the participation of fact-checkers like Maldita.es and chaired by the European Commission. The group has already started its work and, by early next year, the larger signatories will have to present their first reports on how they are fulfilling their commitments.
Signing up for the Code is just the beginning of a process in which the key aspect is its implementation and supervision. In the following years we will have to constantly ask ourselves two questions: have the commitments adopted by the platforms translated into real, meaningful actions? And secondly, have those actions, if real, been successful in reducing the circulation and consumption of online disinformation?
Only if the commitments translate into effective actions will we be able to confirm that the Code has been successful, but it is way too soon for that. Maldita.es will follow the Code and its implementation very closely.