EU’s Disinfo Fight Gets Fact-Checked in Slovakia

With rules aimed at decreasing the spread of harmful online content now in effect, a pivotal election is putting tech companies in an awkward position.

(Bloomberg) —

In the days leading up to Slovakia’s national election, frontrunner Robert Fico didn’t attend the final debate hosted by the most-watched TV channel in the country. He didn’t need to: He just posted on Facebook.

The social media platform is so popular in Slovakia that people often just call it the internet. Fico has used it to spread the false claims that the war in Ukraine started with Russians being murdered by Ukrainian fascists, and that the massive protests that forced him to resign five years ago were financed by George Soros. In the past two weeks alone, his Facebook page has racked up nearly 6 million views – more than Slovakia’s total population, according to the research group Reset.

Fico, a three-time premier whose political career was considered over after a dramatic resignation in 2018 following a local journalist’s murder, now stands a good chance of winning Saturday’s elections — even if the contest is tightening — and becoming Slovakia’s next prime minister. Social media was key to his comeback. He used it “to cast doubt on the work of investigators, police, media, NGOs and political opponents,” said Rastislav Kuzel, director of the media and election watchdog group MEMO 98. 

A return to office for Fico could chip away at European unity, potentially providing Russian President Vladimir Putin with a key ally in the European Union and adding to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ranks of Euroskeptic leaders. Slovakia has also been in lockstep solidarity with Kyiv since Russia invaded Ukraine — a position that would likely change under Fico. Read More:  Trolls in Slovakian Election Tap AI Deepfakes to Spread Disinfo

But the elections are also being closely watched for another reason: they are the first to take place in Europe since sweeping legislation aimed at decreasing the spread of illegal and harmful online content went into effect last month. The Digital Services Act gives the European Commission unprecedented power to determine whether the world’s biggest social media sites are doing enough to police their platforms – and to hand out fines of up to 6% of annual revenue if they aren’t.

Candidates like Fico highlight one of the major challenges facing the DSA. While the law gives the EU more power to ensure companies take down illegal content, it is far more open-ended about how platforms should handle posts that are harmful but not illegal. The commission will be able to oversee how major tech platforms are mitigating these risks and can force changes, but companies are still the ones to decide how to respond to individual posts – including from politicians spreading untruths. 

On Facebook, Fico’s posts and those of his political rivals have mostly been left untouched and un-fact-checked. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, has different policies for hate speech and misinformation, said spokesman Ben Walters. While hate speech is not allowed on the platform, claims that are provably false can be reviewed by fact-checkers and demoted by Meta — unless they’re authored by politicians. “Meta basically believes that politicians should not be censored,” Kuzel said. “But what do you do in a country where the main disinformation actors are actually politicians?”

With populist and far-right politicians vying for office in Poland, the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as in widespread EU-level elections next year, the European Union’s fight against disinformation is only just getting started. 

In this small Eastern European nation, disinformation has already had measurable effects. A recent survey by the thinktank Globsec found that Slovakia has seen a significant drop in support for EU and NATO membership, and another by the organization reported that more than half of all Slovaks blame Ukraine or the West for the war in Ukraine, “with most respondents falling prey to disinformation narratives.” Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the country’s internet has been flooded with lies designed to stoke ethnic hatred and bolster support for Putin.  

“If you start to believe Russian propaganda, it has the capability to change the whole democracy,” said David Puchovsky, the communications officer for the Slovak police.

Puchovsky never intended to become a professional hoax-debunker. But after taking his job in 2017, he ended up spending much of his time removing lies from the department’s Facebook page. Six years later, with conspiracy theories proliferating, he now runs a team dedicated to stopping them.

Since the DSA went into effect on August 25, major tech companies have been forced to pay attention to disinformation that would have likely been ignored in countries like Slovakia just a few weeks ago. On the national level, the legislation gives governments more power to oversee how platforms remove illegal content and enforce their own community standards. (Anti-LGBTQ hate speech, for example, is not illegal under most national laws but does violate many platforms’ terms of service.) Companies are also required to give users avenues to flag illegal content, to hire more content moderators in every EU language, to provide researchers with data and to submit risk assessments for independent auditing.

Slovakia’s “election this week will be a test case” of these new rules, Commission Vice President Vera Jourova said on Tuesday. Earlier this month, the EU’s executive arm sent DSA compliance letters asking companies how they were preparing for the elections, and held meetings with representatives in Bratislava.

Social media companies have started to respond. In 2022, Meta took an average of 65 days to engage with flagged posts that potentially violated the company’s content policies, said Stanislav Matejka, the analytics chief at Slovakia’s Council for Media Services and the recently elected vice-chair of the European Platform of Regulatory Authorities. Until June of this year, Meta had only one independent fact-checker working in Slovak.  

Now the company has teamed up with a total of three independent fact-checking groups for the election period, and Matejka’s Media Council gets responses from Meta in less than two days. 

Still, this hasn’t been enough to handle the deluge of hate speech and fake engagement. Lies are easier to produce than facts are to check, and fact-checkers often struggle to address posts before they’ve spread across the internet. Moreover, users who are removed from one platform can simply migrate to another. Following pressure from US senators in 2022, Facebook blocked Lubos Blaha, a popular member of Fico’s party who repeatedly violated the company’s policies on hate speech and spreading hoaxes. Blaha has since joined other social media platforms, and Smer often reposts his hateful messages on Facebook. 

Many experts see the DSA’s risk mitigation tools, such as its transparency rules and ability to mandate changes to platforms’ algorithms, as the most promising ways to rein in misinformation. But implementation will be slow. The commission is still gathering data and setting up DSA enforcement processes, and future fines and regulatory decisions will likely be challenged in court.

In the meantime, Slovakia’s disinformation warriors worry that their work could be at risk depending on this Saturday’s outcome. Fico has said that he wants to implement laws that could curtail Kuzel’s internet watchdog group. Politicians from Republika, an extremist far-right party that published videos ahead of Saturday’s vote featuring deepfaked voices of Slovakia’s president and the leader of the progressive party, have said they want to shut down Puchovsky’s hoax-debunking site.

With DSA enforcement still ramping up, Slovakia’s election could demonstrate how much work is left to do. Speaking from his office, which is covered in stickers of hockey and hoaxes, Puchovsky said that while he doesn’t think disinformation will ever disappear entirely, “if we have backup from society and state leaders, there always will be space to minimize the impact.”

–With assistance from Daniel Zuidijk and Stephanie Bodoni.

(Corrects spelling of Globsec in a story that originally ran on Sept. 29)

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