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EU official warns social media firms to monitor for false Israel-Hamas information


Since the war broke out between Israel and Hamas, social media has been flooded with misinformation. Countering fake news is a familiar game of whack-a-mole. Falsehoods spread around a major event, and then tech companies try to keep up. NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn joins us now to explain what's different about this time around. Bobby, so what kind of claims are spreading around?

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: So all sorts of things. There was an image purporting to show Israeli warplanes bombing an Orthodox church in Gaza that turned out to be a fake, video game footage circulating claiming to depict the war, you know, a fabricated White House memo. A very violent graphic, a piece of footage from Guatemala in 2015, was shared widely, claiming to be violence connected to the war. I mean, A, right now, being on Twitter - or X, as I guess it's now called - Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, it's kind of like experiencing a digital fog of war. I mean, sifting fact from fiction is just harder than ever. And it's really alarming researchers because obviously, this is how many people around the world are trying to stay up to date with what's happening on the ground.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so how well are social media companies staying on top of this?

ALLYN: Yeah, it really depends where you look. Meta has significant resources devoted to policing content on Facebook and Instagram. And they've set up a sort of command center with Hebrew and Arabic speakers to closely monitor and tackle misinformation related to the war. And some stuff has slipped through the cracks, but they've been largely responsive. Now, over at X, it is a different story. And there's a reason why, right? I mean, when Elon Musk took over the platform last year, he laid off more than two-thirds of the staff, including teams dedicated to trust and safety, you know, exactly the kind of expertise sorely needed in times of conflict and crisis, and it shows on the platform.

False and misleading information is just ricocheting all around. Bad actors, A, are just really capitalizing on the lax rules and the chaotic environment Musk has created. And making matters worse is Musk's decision to sell blue check verification badges to anyone who is willing to pay a monthly fee. That has really deepened the confusion. And it's gotten so bad that the EU has opened a formal investigation into X.

MARTÍNEZ: The European Union, wow - probes. What does that mean for X then?

ALLYN: Well, there is a new law in the EU known as the Digital Services Act. It's seen as the toughest online safety law in the world. And it requires that social media companies quickly take down illegal content like hate speech and remove harmful disinformation, like some of the posts spreading about the war. And yesterday, the EU informed Elon Musk that X is now the target of an EU probe. Officials at X, you know, was being flooded with misleading content, and the company is not acting fast enough to stamp out all the falsehoods.

Now, falling short of the EU's new rules is not just a hit to X's reputation, right? The EU law allows for fines of up to 6% of a company's global annual sales, which could be a financial penalty in the hundreds of millions of dollars, right? That's a lot of money. Now, the EU sent similar letters to Meta and TikTok, but only X under Elon Musk is the subject of a probe. Executives at X say they've taken down thousands of posts since the war erupted on Saturday and have dedicated resources to fighting misinformation. But EU watchdogs say X is just really falling short.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Bobby Allyn. Bobby, thanks.

ALLYN: Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOMOS, CASSOWARY AND MARV ALI'S "DAY 01") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.