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Brussels hits Meta with 'formal proceedings' over election inteference fears

EU worries content moderation opaque, political debate throttled, and disinfo ads generating cash

Photo by Dima Solomin / Unsplash

The European Commission has demanded that Meta explain its moderation processes for political content amidst mounting concern that both user and ad content on its platforms are subject to manipulation ahead of European elections.

Regulators are particularly concerned that Meta appears to have deprecated a tool that allowed journalists and researchers to monitor political accounts and activity on its platforms in real time.

The commission has been using the Digital Services Act to step up the pressure on online giants to work harder to protect their customers from manipulation in general, and gen AI in particular.

The commission has now opened formal proceedings against the Facebook and Instagram owner to establish whether it has breached the DSA.

The first "grievance" centres on concerns that Meta doesn’t have “effective” moderation of deceptive political advertising, and disinformation campaigns, or the use of generative AI in advertising. The commission said this was being exploited by foreign actors including Russian “interference campaigns” as well as plain old scam advertisers.

The commission also has concerns about non-ad political content. There have been concerns that the giant is obscuring political debate or discussion on its platforms. “We suspect policies to moderate political content are quite opaque,” a commission official said.

This amounted to throttling political debate while not giving consumers a chance to appeal.

The third concern is that Meta is deprecating a data sharing tool, CrowdTangle, which allows journalists and “civil society researchers” to monitor political activity on Meta platforms in real time. The company announced in March it was pulling the tool later this year.

Meta has flagged other tools that journalists, researchers and fact checkers can use, but officials are concerned that they will not be able to do so in real time.

A fourth grievance concerns the tools Meta provides for flagging illegal content. When it comes to visibility, ease of use and access, an official said, “We suspect the tools put in place by Meta are not in line with the DSA requirements.”

While the commission has not set explicit guidelines for Meta to respond to three of the requests, it is demanding a response to its questions about Crowdtangle within five days.

A spokesman said, “We are asking Meta to provide information urgently. The ball is really in Meta’s court now. How they remedy this is really up to them.”

These are the fifth and sixth cases that have been opened since the DSA came into force. An official said, “We are determined to conduct them with rigour and bring forth tangible change in the online space.” At the same time, they added, “We are a rule of law continent.”

The move comes just over a week after the commission moved against TikTok over concerns its recently launched TikTok Lite services and associated rewards program encouraged addictive behaviour. The Chinese owned platform pulled the services within days.

Asked whether operators were taking the DSA seriously, an official said, “It’s taken seriously by TikTok.”

The official pointed out that if Meta doesn’t engage, the commission could take further steps, including raiding premises and taking witnesses, and ultimately levelling fines.

The commission had seen “constructive engagement” on the concerns with Meta, the official said. “We don’t want to give the impression Meta is doing nothing. We’re just saying there are still serious shortcomings in keeping these elections safe.”

In the case of the concerns over ads, they added, where these are being exploited by Russian influence manipulators, the firm was making money. “Addressing the immediate threat is one thing, building better things is another thing."

Meta said in a statement, “We have a well established process for identifying and mitigating risks on our platforms. We look forward to continuing our cooperation with the European Commission and providing them with further details of this work.”