Will independent research help the EU tackle disinformation?
The link between research and good governance, expressed in the familiar phrase ‘evidence-based policies’, invokes the benefits of taking decisions on the basis of high-quality information. In today’s increasingly complex information society, however, the role envisaged for researchers has taken on a whole new dimension. Debates on transparency of social media, including very large online platforms such as Meta, Google, Twitter and TikTok, go hand-in-hand with the urgent need to analyse vast data, as we try to understand the often impenetrable realities of information flows online.
Over the last years, both European research and EU policy have invested significant efforts to grapple with a problem which is becoming ever more pervasive in our societies, namely disinformation. The latter is not a new phenomenon, but what has changed is the speed, techniques, incentives and reach of disinformation. Yet, the need to better understand the reality and impact of disinformation remains pressing today in Europe.
How regulatory initiatives enable independent research
The EU’s approach to tackling disinformation is evolving from self-regulation to co-regulation. In particular, the online platforms and other players – advertisers, fact-checkers, civil society organisations (CSOs) – signed in June 2022 the Strengthened Code of Practice on Disinformation (CoP), which follows a first version of the Code, adopted in 2018. This self-regulatory tool is to be translated into a Code of Conduct under the recently adopted Digital Services Act (DSA), which in turn reflects a co-regulatory approach.
Both regulatory tools foresee an enhanced role for researchers. Signatories to the CoP acknowledge the importance of access to data for research purposes and commit to creating a robust framework for exactly that. The Code defines the research community to include not-for-profit CSOs with a public interest. It refers to vetted researchers and foresees the establishment and financing of a third body which will have the mandate to vet.
Access to data for research purposes is also part of the DSA (Article 40). The Act’s definition of researcher includes those at CSOs. Under the DSA the vetting process is in the hands of the Digital Services Coordinator of a given country (role which is going to be taken by the independent National Regulatory Authorities). The Act lists these vetting criteria: being affiliated to a research organisation as defined in the EU’s Copyright Directive; being independent from commercial interests; disclosing the funding of the research; being capable of respecting security, confidentiality and personal data protection; demonstrating that the data and the time frames for which access is requested are necessary and proportionate; open access publication of results; that the expected results contribute to the detection, identification and understanding of systemic risks and to the assessment of the risk mitigation measures.
Platform accountability through independent research
As the EU policy response to disinformation has increasingly recognised the fundamental role of independent scientific research in the field, with the push towards transparency in regulatory instruments comes an increased expectation that independent research will take on the role of fostering accountability and public scrutiny.
As such, the DSA is not only fostering research but empowering researchers in the broader policy discourse around disinformation. Something similar is happening in the pharmaceutical sector, where the European Commission published a proposal for a Regulation for a European Health Data Space, in which data would, as secondary use, be accessible for research, innovation, policy-making and regulatory activities.
On one hand, scholars have identified an emerging Third Wave of Open Data and the urgent need for data competence that will provide the public with “a means for disrupting the power asymmetries that persist in the current data and digital era”. On the other, the shift to process-based regulation in the EU, including in the DSA, calls for oversight not only by policy makers but by independent researchers who can analyse transparency efforts and translate them for the public at large. Policy makers often lack the relevant expertise and grasp to understand the language of the realities they need to regulate. With transparency the centrepiece of co-regulation, research acquires a new role not only as intermediary to foster public scrutiny, but to evaluate those transparency efforts themselves.
A number of open questions remain. One concerns the fact that independent National Regulatory Authorities will vet which researchers can have access to data. Although there is a list of criteria, some leave some margin for interpretation. This may lead to resistance from some in the research community who do not wish to be vetted by a non-academic institution.
The second regards the capacity for handling such a large amount of data. As also highlighted by the EDMO Taskforce on Disinformation on the War in Ukraine, only few universities have the capability to ingest the amount of data that is necessary to analyse platform data at scale and more resources need to be invested into universities and research centres across the EU.
The third point concerns the match between the policy and the research agenda. As mentioned, researchers will get access to do research with a specific purpose. This would very probably happen almost in parallel in all EU member states and would then inform the policy makers. To our knowledge, this exercise is something quite unique, and it will be interesting to see how the coordination will take place.
To summarise, the Code of Practice and the DSA are creating the potential for a thriving research ecology on disinformation. Independence, strong infrastructures and coordination will be key to profit from this opportunity.
As for independent access to data, the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO) working group led by Professor Rebekah Tromble has issued a report that includes a draft code of conduct for data access for research purposes, on the basis of Article 40 GDPR. As a follow-up, Tromble is leading the work to establish an intermediary body that could on one side vet researchers and research projects and on the other side oversee the provision of data access. Although no official decision has yet been made, this body could serve as a starting point and potentially as a delegated solution under the umbrella of the DSA.
The EDMO Taskforce on Disinformation in Ukraine has suggested establishing a permanent body, independent of governments and platforms, with an EU-wide network of centres that focus on preparing for and responding to ongoing and emergency information challenges. Among other things, this body could act a broker between platforms, fact-checkers, and researchers; provide vetted researchers with the necessary data storage and processing infrastructure; and offer EU-wide training and capacity building for researchers and fact-checkers so they can acquire the necessary data analysis expertise. It could also provide EU-wide native language NLP models and foster cross-country collaboration between researchers, so that cross-lingual and cross-cultural studies become the norm.
All this calls for strong coordination among researchers not only to implement those research activities that can contribute to evidence-based policy, but to speak with a single voice on matters of financing, data access and tools. EDMO’s work is a major step in this direction, especially as fostering research coordination at the EU level is within its mandate.
Lisa Ginsborg is a Research Fellow at the EUI’s School of Transnational Governance and is responsible for Executive Education at the European Digital Media Observatory.
Paula Gori is a Programme Coordinator at the EUI’s School of Transnational Governance and Secretary-General of the European Digital Media Observatory.