Arguably one of the biggest problems facing the world right now is disinformation. It’s fueled everything from the spread of QAnon conspiracy theories to the Capitol Insurrection to anti-vaccination movements — all of which undermine democracy and public health.
Lawmakers and researchers in the U.S. have demanded that social media platforms do more to deal with disinformation. But what about the European Union, which has aggressively regulated tech in other ways and has historically been more willing to police speech than the U.S. has?
Margarethe Vestager, executive vice president of the European Commission, oversaw an EU legislative proposal, the Digital Services Act, which would require online platforms to do more to tackle things like hate speech. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Margrethe Vestager: You know, what we have discussed for decades in the real world and agreed upon: this is illegal, bomb recipes, incitement to violence. If we agree that is illegal offline, it must also be illegal online. But of course, the interesting thing is what is then the gray zone? What is in the gray zone? Because that’s a question of interpretation. Different cultures have different sensitivities. Because for instance, I’m Dane, and even with our neighbors, the Swedes, it’s definitely not a given that we would agree.
Molly Wood: The gray area, though, seems like it’s big and getting bigger, right? That’s the area of storytelling, deliberate misinformation, political manipulation. Is it your view that these companies should take a stronger hand?
Vestager: So I think a lot of things can be done systematically. But I think it’s also important that each and every one of us apply a principle of being critical of what we see and what we read.
Wood: In the U.S., I think we have a tendency to want government to either solve none of our problems, or all of our problems, and I really hear you describing a core of personal responsibility in the consumer? And I would love for you to talk more about that, because that does seem like sort of an important leg of the stool that we don’t always talk about.
Vestager: I think this is really important. We have a saying that if something is too good to be true it’s probably not. But I think one could also apply the equivalent — if something is too bad to be true it’s probably not. Sound, critical management of what you see and what you want to pass on to say, ‘Well, it’s part of my credibility, what I pass on.’
Wood: Yeah, absolutely. That we live in a world of a lot of big companies with a lot of power, but that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily … they don’t own us.
Vestager: No, and we should never let ourselves be victims. Because if we feel like, ‘Oh, I’m a victim for something much bigger than myself,’ then where comes the energy to push someone like me and my colleagues to make sure that we can get in control of our data? How much we want to leave for other businesses to look into our lives?