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Brussels has been urged to take a tougher line with internet companies over the spread of so-called fake news, because activists fear the EU will stop short of investigating tech companies for promoting articles that deliberately spread disinformation. 

The European Commission will publish next month its first set of rules on how governments and tech groups should combat various types of “online disinformation” such as conspiracy theories, false news stories and doctored videos.

But Brussels’ voluntary approach to regulating tech companies, which will stop short of proposing new laws, is already under fire. Critics say it does not go far enough in compelling companies to clamp down on the proliferation of the fake news that has been blamed for influencing European elections.

In particular, activists and MEPs are pushing Brussels to hold an inquiry into whether social media companies have business models which generate more advertising revenues from clicks on fake content rather than more trusted news. 

Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said platforms had models that “inherently push sensational content on newsfeeds that is often false, inaccurate, or misleading”. 

“We need to address this elephant in the room if we want to get serious about disinformation,” she said. 

The criticism comes after a report commissioned by Brussels and published on Monday stopped short of calling an inquiry into the spread of misleading content and backed a voluntary code of conduct for media organisations, internet companies and advertisers.

The report from 39 experts — including journalists, academics and internet companies — said companies should promote more online literacy to train people to spot fake news and help fund quality journalism.

The commission’s approach comes as EU governments are beginning to take tougher action on fake news amid growing accusations of Russian-sponsored interference in election campaigns. The European Parliament will hold elections next year.

Germany has passed a stringent “ hate speech law” which slaps fines of up to €50m on social media companies who fail to crack down on xenophobia, fake news or terrorist content.

The French government is preparing its first fake news law which would allow judges to take down false news content during election campaigns. A new EU-wide survey found that 83 per cent of European citizens think fake news represents “a danger to democracy”. 

The European Consumer Organisation, a lobby group, refused to sign off on the Brussels-commissioned report despite being one of the experts consulted.

Monique Goyens, director of the group, said: “Platforms such as Google or Facebook massively benefit from users reading and sharing fake news articles which contain advertisements. But this expert group chose to ignore this business model.

“Consumers are being locked into echo chambers partly because of these click-baiting models.”

Corporate pressure is also building on platforms to clamp down on fake news.

Unilever, the consumer goods company, last month threatened to pull advertising from Google and Facebook if they “created division”, fostered hate or failed to protect children.

Google’s YouTube has also been forced to take down a doctored video claiming to depict one of the survivors of Florida’s Parkland school shooting as a paid actor. The footage became a “trending” hit last month.

Facebook said it had been investing in the fight against fake news through initiatives such as working with fact checkers. 

“We are pleased to have been able to be part of the high-level group as we believe that it is only by working together across industry, governments and civil society that we will be able to tackle this societal issue,” Facebook said. 

Olaf Steenfadt, a journalist at Reporters Without Borders, another one of the groups involved in the EU-commissioned report and which expressed dissent against the main recommendations, said: “The platforms have bought time, and they seem very happy with it [the report].

“Journalists are not at the core of the problem. The report appears rather platform friendly and refrains from any serious wording against the companies.”

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