For all the talk of the European Union taming Silicon Valleys tech giants, Facebook is still running wild across the Continent ahead of this weeks European Parliament election.
European voters are under assault from disinformation unleashed on Facebook and Messenger, as well as other parts of the media giants empire, such as WhatsApp and Instagram.
In a report released this week, the online activist network Avaaz found that Facebook continues to allow far-right and anti-EU groups to spread false or purposefully misleading information on the platform. Independent fact-checkers reviewed thousands of public pages, groups and websites identified as spreading disinformation or content that is hateful or inciting violence, uncovering the systemic use of fake accounts.
In Germany, fake accounts amplified the message of far-right party Alternative for Germany, while in France they spread white supremacist content. Dozens of pages created in Italy attracted followers with generic issues before morphing into pages that share fake-news and messages of support for the far-right League party or the anti-establishment 5Stars.
After running its own independent investigation, Facebook took down an unprecedented number of the pages and groups reported by Avaaz. Combined, the pages it took down had 5.9 million followers — almost three times more followers than the record-performing pages of Europes main far-right and anti-EU parties. Italys League, Germanys AfD, Spains Vox, Britains Brexit Party, Frances National Rally and Polands Law and Justice party have 2 million followers between them.
Facebooks response is praiseworthy, but it comes too late. Millions of Europeans have already been exposed to malicious content, lies and hate. It also fails to address the main problem.
The prominence of disinformation in the pre-election debate — which in many places has drowned out the messages of mainstream parties — was made worse by new political advertising policies Facebook put in place after revelations of abuse ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Under the new rules, an ad buyer can only pay for political content in the country in which they are based. The result? EU political parties, institutions and civil society groups have largely found themselves barred from using Facebook and other apps for EU-wide communication campaigns.
Its a major oversight on Facebooks part. By confining political messaging to national borders, the social network has prevented mainstream parties and pro-EU organizations from mobilizing citizens and countering malicious disinformation efforts.
Facebook has invested a lot of energy in claims that it does not take sides and is inherently “neutral.” But the companys self-imposed political advertising rules are far from politically neutral. It has systematically refused to investigate and act on content from “specific” actors, for example, despite the well-established fact that the most problematic content comes from an identifiable community.
By insisting it is “neutral,” Facebook is creating false equivalences between dangerous ultra-nationalist, right-wing propaganda and mainstream political messaging. This provides an indirect advantage to the political preferences of extreme actors.
Indeed, Facebooks ubiquitous pay-as-you-go business model — which rewards views over veracity — favors extreme political messages over others. As a result, these malicious postings continue to be perceived as more widespread than what they actually are.
It should not come as a surprise, then, that ultra-right parties, whose extraordinary social media fluency and outreach unite them across the Continent, are among the few remaining defenders of Facebooks interests.
Too often, the EU has shown itself to be ambivalent and even complicit to Facebooks activity.