Featured image courtesy Jason Howie
BRUSSELS – Instagram, a photo-sharing platform owned by Facebook, recently caved in to a demand by the Russian government that it remove posts by opposition leader Alexey Navalny alleging misconduct on the part of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko. In a YouTube video that has garnered almost six million views (and which is still available), Navalny shows Prikhodko hobnobbing with the oligarch Oleg Deripaska on a yacht in Norway, where he alleges bribery took place.

After Navalny’s posts appeared, Deripaska went to the Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor to request that Facebook remove the content, which it immediately did. This episode has now attracted much attention, as well as criticism for Facebook. And yet there have been thousands of other cases just like it.

In an age when most people get their news from social media, mafia states have had little trouble censoring social-media content that their leaders deem harmful to their interests. But for liberal democracies, regulating social media is not so straightforward, because it requires governments to strike a balance between competing principles. After all, social-media platforms not only play a crucial role as conduits for the free flow of information; they have also faced strong criticism for failing to police illegal or abusive content, particularly hate speech and extremist propaganda.

These failings have prompted action from many European governments and the European Union itself. The EU has now issued guidelines for Internet companies, and has threatened to follow up with formal legislation if companies do not comply. As Robert Hannigan, the former director of the British intelligence agency GCHQ, recently observed, the window for tech companies to reform themselves voluntarily is quickly closing. In fact, Germany has already enacted a law that will impose severe fines on platforms that do not remove illegal user content in a timely fashion.

These ongoing measures are a response to the weaponisation of social-media platforms by illiberal state intelligence agencies and extremist groups seeking to divide Western societies with hate speech and disinformation.

Specifically, we now know that the Kremlin-linked “Internet Research Agency” carried out a large-scale campaign on Facebook and Twitter to boost Donald Trump’s chances in the 2016 US presidential election. According to US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s recent indictment of 13 Russian individuals and three organizations, an army of Russian trolls spent the months leading up to the 2016 election stoking racial tensions among Americans and discouraging minority voters, for example, from turning out for Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Mueller’s findings obviously raise important questions about transparency and the protection of democratic institutions in the digital age. Despite having allowed themselves to become Kremlin special-operations tools, the major social-media platforms have been reluctant to provide information to democratic governments and the public.

For example, in the United Kingdom, the MP Damian Collins has launched an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum, but he has struggled to receive much cooperation from Facebook and Twitter. In December, he described Twitter’s response to his questions as “completely inadequate.” That is regrettable. When democracy itself is at stake, social-media platforms have a responsibility to be transparent.

Moreover, if Russia can interfere so thoroughly in the US democratic process, just imagine what it has been doing in Europe, where we still do not know who financed some of the online advertising campaigns in recent national elections and referenda. I suspect that we have only just scratched the surface when it comes to exposing foreign meddling in our democratic institutions and processes. With European Parliament elections due in May 2019, we must be better prepared.

The tech giants, for their part, will continue to claim that they are merely distributing information. In fact, they are acting as publishers, and they should be regulated accordingly – and not just as publishers, but also as near-monopoly distributors.

To be sure, censorship and the manipulation of information are as old as news itself. But the kind of state-sponsored hybrid warfare on display today is something new. Hostile powers have turned our open Internet into a cesspool of disinformation, much of which is spread by automated bots that the major platforms could purge without undermining open debate – that is, if they had the will to do so.

Social-media companies have the power to exert significant influence on our societies, but they do not have the right to set the rules. That authority belongs to our democratic institutions, which are obliged to ensure that social-media companies behave much more responsibly than they are now.

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Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, is President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE) in the European Parliament.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.