NewsGuard Statement on the Failure of the EU Revised Code of Practice on Disinformation to Empower Consumers
(Brussels — June 16, 2022) The European Union’s Strengthened Code of Practice on Disinformation was published today in Brussels, but the new Code fails to address key protections for news consumers.
Last October, at the request of European Commission officials, NewsGuard became a prospective signatory to the Code, joining the platforms, researchers, nonprofits, and other companies seeking to strengthen the 2018 European Code of Practice on Disinformation. The revision of the Code, which lasted from October 2021 until June 2022, was based on the Commission’s Guidance issued in May 2021, stipulating that the Code of Practice on Disinformation published in 2018 should be strengthened to enact a firmer, more regulated response to disinformation. NewsGuard has become a signatory and will continue to provide platforms, regulators, and legislators with data on the critical need for the platforms to start providing independent, transparent and apolitical indicators of the trustworthiness of news and information sources being distributed through their products and recommended by their algorithms.
In announcing these revisions, the European Commission stressed that large platforms in particular should do more to empower consumers with the information they need to judge the trustworthiness of sources in their social media feeds and search results, enabling users to make informed decisions about what to share and trust through useful context. “Users should have access to tools to understand and flag disinformation and safely navigate in the online environment,” the Commission said.
Failure to Empower Users
Despite the Commission’s recommendation that platforms provide their users with access to “indicators of trustworthiness, focused on the integrity of the source,” as stated in its Guidance, emphasizing how such indicators “can support users in making informed choices,” we are disappointed to see that only Microsoft among the large platforms committed to this measure. Meta (Facebook), Google, Twitter, and TikTok refused in their statements of commitment to agree to protect their users by providing information about the trustworthiness of sources, despite the encouragement in the Guidance that platforms take this crucial step. They said the Guidance only stated that they “could” empower their users, without this effective step being made mandatory. The fact that the major platforms cooperated on revising this self-regulatory instrument, yet exempted themselves from being held to account on the Commission’s recommendation to empower users with context that can help them avoid mis- and disinformation, shows that their participation amounted to little more than making hollow promises for favorable publicity.
‘Word Games,’ not Action
“By playing word games and emphasizing ‘could’ instead of ‘should,’ these platforms are finally acknowledging that since the original Code in 2018 they have only been paying lip service to this vital – and readily available – measure available to them that would empower users with information about the reliability of sources rather than continue to bombard them with content choices made by secret, unaccountable algorithms intended to empower their eyeballs-at-all-costs business model, rather than empower the people they are supposed to be serving. This key initiative of the Code now appears to be dead and buried – until the Commission acts to end its naïve dependence on the willingness of these platforms to act in the public interest voluntarily,” said NewsGuard co-CEO Steven Brill.
The failure of most of the large platforms to commit to providing their users with information about who is feeding them the news in news feeds and search results means that misinformation and hoaxes will continue to spread on the major digital platforms. Giving users information about the trustworthiness of sources by rating them at the website, or domain, level is a proven way to give users the news literacy tools they need to avoid believing or sharing misinformation. Research published in May 2022 by academics at New York University and Princeton University demonstrates that individuals who frequently consume low-quality news improve their news diets when they have access to NewsGuard’s Red and Green ratings for news websites. The study found that access to NewsGuard ratings led to a “substantively meaningful increase in news diet quality among the heaviest consumers of misinformation.”
The refusal of the largest platforms to empower their consumers with adequate information about the news sources they display and recommend is a lost opportunity, especially at a time when Russia’s disinformation about its invasion of Ukraine continues to be spread by these platforms. The platforms enabled the wide distribution of Russian disinformation. Kremlin-operated RT, for example, became the largest source of news on Google’s YouTube, with a Google executive claiming the disinformation service was “authentic” and without “agenda or propaganda.”
“Aggressive Russian disinformation about its invasion of Ukraine has added urgency to the need to give consumers the information they need about who is feeding them the news on the digital platforms. NewsGuard analysts have so far identified 229 websites publishing Russian disinformation – far more than the two [RT and Sputnik News] so far sanctioned by most digital platforms following European Commission Guidance. The Code will continue to fail to protect users until the platforms are forced to provide independent information about the journalistic standards of the news and information spread and recommended by the platforms, which too often act as the useful idiots for propagandists such as those in the Kremlin,” said NewsGuard co-CEO Gordon Crovitz.
Progress on Reducing Advertising Support and Financing of Disinformation
The revised Code does take important steps to demonetise disinformation, with major platforms committing “to defund the dissemination of disinformation, and improve the policies and systems which determine the eligibility of content to be monetised, the controls for monetisation and ad placement.”
“The Code holds platforms and other signatories accountable to eliminate the placement of programmatic advertising on sites that persistently publish disinformation by using trustworthiness indicators like NewsGuard. As NewsGuard and Comscore found out last year, the misinformation industry is booming, with US$2.6 billion in estimated advertising revenue being sent to publishers of misinformation each year by top brands due to the nature of programmatic, or algorithm-driven advertising, where brands don’t know where their ads have appeared. Reducing advertising for publishers of misinformation is a crucial step. Advertisers who use brand-safety tools like ours stop supporting misinformation and instead spend more to support quality journalism,” NewsGuard co-CEO Brill explained.
NewsGuard Becomes a Signatory to the Code
NewsGuard, which rates news and information sites at the domain level using nine basic, apolitical criteria of journalistic practice, signed onto all of the measures that are relevant to its services, committing to maintain its journalistic practices, which include an independent, unbiased, and apolitical approach; full transparency on its methodology; and calling for comment when publishers are deemed to fail certain criteria. Furthermore, NewsGuard is also committing to continue and strengthen its media-literacy efforts with public libraries and schools to help users develop their critical thinking and online awareness through its browser-extension tool. Through NewsGuard’s existing media-literacy programs, more than 800 public libraries globally receive free access to source-reliability ratings when they surf the web using NewsGuard’s browser-extension tool.
The platforms now have seven months to submit their first set of performance reports to the EU Commission and prove that the new actions they are taking under the Code can sufficiently be considered the “risk mitigation” efforts they will be obliged to have in place under the Digital Services Act, the regulation that defines the obligations of digital services that act as intermediaries in their role of connecting consumers with goods, services, and content.
“The Code is just the first step,” said Virginia Padovese, Managing Editor and Vice President of Partnerships for Europe at NewsGuard. “To make sure it has a real impact in practice, we need to monitor its implementation to ensure big tech companies will enforce these measures in a timely and effective manner. It is crucial to have civil-society actors, fact checkers, source-raters, and counter-disinformation companies joining the EU Code with their own commitments to ensure it is as effective as possible in the fight against disinformation, and to participate in the permanent task force in charge of monitoring the Code and evaluating the performance of signatories over time.”
Launched in March 2018 by media entrepreneur and award-winning journalist Steven Brill and former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz, NewsGuard provides credibility ratings and detailed “Nutrition Labels” for thousands of news and information websites. NewsGuard rates all the news and information websites that account for 95% of online engagement across the U.S., Canada, U.K., Germany, France, and Italy. NewsGuard products include NewsGuard, HealthGuard, and BrandGuard, which helps marketers concerned about their brand safety, and the Misinformation Fingerprints catalog of top hoaxes.
NewsGuard’s ratings are conducted by trained journalists using nine apolitical criteria of journalistic practice, including whether a news source repeatedly publishes false content, whether it regularly corrects or clarifies errors, and whether it avoids deceptive headlines. Based on the criteria, each source receives an overall rating, a trust score of 0-100, a score on each of the nine criteria, and a detailed “Nutrition Label” explaining the rating and providing examples of the site’s editorial practices. Advertisers, advertising agencies and advertising tech companies license NewsGuard’s ratings to direct their programmatic advertising toward legitimate journalism and avoid misinformation.
For more information, including how to download the browser extension and review the ratings process, visit newsguardtech.com.