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Google tries to curtail fake news during the EU elections

IT giant launched a series of tools to prevent the repeat of fake news and Russian misinformation affecting another election.

In an effort to prevent “dark adverts” from interfering with the upcoming EU elections in 2019, Google has launched several tools to ensure political transparency.

In 2016 Presidential elections in the US, Russia has been able to purchase a huge quantity of “dark adverts” that played a part in Donald Trump’s election. Through this campaign, foreign operatives have managed to influence the American public.

In order to prevent that from happening in the EU election, Google has taken several steps. Each ad will have to disclose “a political party, candidate or current officeholder”, informing the voters who is paying for them. All European advertisers will have to be verified “to make sure they are who they say they are”. Finally, in order to “to provide more information about who is purchasing election ads, whom they’re targeted to, and how much money is being spent”, EU-specific library of election adverts will be created.

According to Google’s director for EU public policy and government relations Lie Junius, the aim is to “help voters better understand the political advertising they see”.

After US Congress threatened that is will make it mandatory, all social networks are stepping up their game in an effort to combat fake news and “dark advertisement” and prevent the future misinformation campaigns. Online political ads have become a focus of many legislative bodies after evidence of Russian meddling surfaced in more than one election in the past several years. Senators Mark Warner, Amy Klobuchar, and the late John McCain have introduced Honest Ads Act following the 2016 election, aimed at full disclosure of the organizations behind the ads. It would also require major networks from forming and maintaining a database of all advertisers that push political ads. The act is still in committee, in part thanks to Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s efforts to prevent it from being passed. Both Facebook and Google have voiced their opposition to the act, deeming it too restrictive and proposing self-regulation instead. Currently, 18 senators have declared their support for the bill.

In an attempt to preempt the government’s regulation, Google has rolled out its transparency tools in the United States during the summer. Facebook has something similar, but their solution is only active in the United Kingdom. The US and EU will have to wait for the revision since it turned out that it is a lot harder to stop advertisers from lying than Facebook originally thought. Twitter’s tools are also only active in the US.

Facebook has faced difficulties in vetting advertisers from the US and UK in their efforts to enforce transparency on the world’s biggest social network, which may delay the implementation of the program in the EU. They have initiated a process of verifying the advertisers’ location in the UK in October, but have hit a snag.

“We have learned that some people may try to game the disclaimer system by entering inaccurate details and have been working to improve our review process to detect and prevent this kind of abuse,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “Once we have strengthened our process for ensuring the accuracy of disclaimers, we will be introducing enforcement systems to identify political advertisers and require them to go through the authorization process.”

It remains to be seen how Facebook plans to deal with these obstructions and whether it can deliver on its promise to increase transparency, as EU prepares for the elections next year.

Due to Brexit, the UK has been left out form the latest Google efforts. Transparency tools won’t be active in Britain since it is set to leave the EU in 2019. Only the continental part of the Union will benefit from the latest Google initiative.

Brexit itself has been passed under heavy Russian influence, according to the report prepared by the US Senate. Among other things, the report has been highly critical of Twitter and Facebook’s effort to investigate the alleged campaign of fake users that may have contributed decisively to the Leave vote win. The University of Edinburgh research, cited in the report, found more than 400 Twitter accounts that have been active in both the Brexit campaign and the 2016 US presidential elections. The University of California at Berkeley and Swansea University have conducted their own joint research and found more than 150,000 Twitter accounts tied to Russia sharing content related to Brexit.

The reason for Google’s actions may be, at least partially, explained by the mounting pressure the company is facing in Europe. The latest attack came from the shopping comparison services. A group of 14 of them has written a letter to Margrethe Vestager, the European competition commissioner, stating that Google has yet to open its shopping services to third parties, in compliance with the EU regulation. The group has urged the commissioner to start a noncompliance procedure against the company. This could expose google to some hefty fines and increased monitoring, not to mention political backlash that could bring on further regulations.

“Not only do Google’s users inevitably end up paying higher prices for products that they need to,” the group alleges, “they are often left completely unaware that comparison shopping services even exist.”

In a response, Google said: “We’ve complied with the European Commission’s order. We allow all comparison shopping services to compete equally to show product ads from merchants on Google’s Search results page. To help drive awareness amongst merchants who are unfamiliar with these new opportunities, we’re currently offering incentives for them to work with comparison shopping services. One year on, both services that existed before the remedy and services that are new to comparison shopping are participating successfully.”

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