Dublin to be on the frontline in the war on ‘fake news’

30 Jan 2019

Facebook offices in Dublin. Image: Faithie/Depositphotos

As the digital capital of Europe, Dublin might find itself at the pointy end of a spearhead aimed at purveyors of false information.

Dublin will be on the frontline of the fight against online disinformation as it has emerged that Facebook is to establish new ‘war room’ activities in the city as well as in Singapore.

It is understood that the Facebook war rooms will function as a layer of defence against hate speech, voter suppression and so-called ‘fake news’. The teams will work cross-functionally with the social network’s threat intelligence, data science, engineering, research, community operations and legal teams.

‘I expect companies will fully follow up on their rhetoric and commitment. Time is short so we need to act now’

“While these efforts are global, we also customise our work to individual countries based on research and threat assessments that begin many months before ballots are cast,” said Katie Harbath and Samidh Chakrabarti from Facebook.

But it is clear that EU leaders are still not impressed and expect companies such as Facebook to do more, especially with the consequences of the US presidential elections and the UK’s Brexit referendum being felt.

Crucially, because of the presence of giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google in Dublin as well as Apple in Cork, Ireland could find itself in the trenches defending the public against a nefarious new kind of war on freedom.

Yesterday (29 January), US director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, warned that the US 2020 election will be another target for Russia and other foreign countries that are likely to use new tactics.

Also yesterday, Google, Facebook, Twitter and Mozilla, as well as trade organisations representing the digital advertising sector, submitted progress reports on how they are complying with the Code of Practice on Disinformation.

Elections are coming

The overwhelming sense from various EU commissioners was that they were underwhelmed by the submissions by the various internet giants, and felt the companies are not acting fast enough in the face of the oncoming 2019 EU elections and the 2020 US elections.

‘We don’t want to wake up the day after the elections and realise we should have done more’

“I expect companies will fully follow up on their rhetoric and commitment,” said Věra Jourová, commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality. “Time is short so we need to act now.”

Julian King, commissioner for the Security Union, said: “Given the proximity of the European elections, any progress made in the fight against disinformation is welcome. But we need to go further and faster before May. We don’t want to wake up the day after the elections and realise we should have done more.”

What the companies say they are doing

Facebook said it has taken or is taking measures towards the implementation of all of the commitments. EU commissioners said, however, that the social network needs to provide greater clarity on how it will deploy its consumer empowerment tools and boost cooperation with fact-checkers and the research community across the whole EU.

Google said it has taken steps to implement all its commitments, in particular those designed to improve the scrutiny of ad placements and transparency of political ads, and providing users with information, tools and support to empower them in their online experience. However, the European Commission (EC) lamented that some tools are only available in a small number of member states. It called on the online search engine to support research actions on a wider scale.

Twitter said it has prioritised actions against malicious actors, closing fake or suspicious accounts and automated systems/bots. Still, the EC said that more information is needed on how this will restrict persistent purveyors of disinformation from promoting their tweets.

Mozilla said that it is about to launch an upgraded version of its browser to block cross-site tracking by default. But the EU commissioners said that the online browser should be more concrete on how this will limit the information revealed about users’ browsing activities, which could potentially be used for disinformation campaigns.

Are war rooms the real thing or just a PR stunt?

As we mentioned, Facebook – the platform most maligned by privacy breaches and electoral manipulation scandals such as Cambridge Analytica during the course of 2016 – is taking material steps to combat online disinformation.

But whether the so-called war rooms that are being suggested for Dublin and Singapore are the genuine article or turn out to be just a PR stunt remains to be seen. In November, Facebook shuttered a war room it constructed in the US ahead of the country’s midterm elections as well as Brazil’s elections. The company has said very little about the effectiveness of these war rooms but did say it planned to open more if and when necessary.

King, quoted in The Guardian, asked for Facebook to be more demonstrative about the effectiveness of its various measures. “Allow me to thank Facebook for their announcement yesterday of strengthened efforts to tackle disinformation, including more transparent political advertising, more resources for rapid response and boosting their capacity to fight fake news,” he said.

“Ideally, it would have been even better if they had been able to report on these measures to us as part of this reporting process. Ideally, they would have provided figures breaking down their performance against the performance indicators for the last quarter of last year. We look forward to them doing that.”

Facebook offices in Dublin. Image: Faithie/Depositphotos

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years