Fake news: Europe needs a plan

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

Many people believe that fake news was the key to success for Donald Trump, as well as the pro-Brexit campaign. [Willow/ Shutterstock]

Fake news is now the buzz word across Europe and the wider world. But how do we fight it? Nicolas Vanderbiest and Gary Machado warn that censorship is not the solution.

Nicolas Vanderbiest is a PhD assistant at the University of Leuven and a social media expert. He wrote this opinion piece with the help of Gary Machado, co-founder of Saper Vedere, a social-media analysis company based in Brussels.

Many think that fake news was the key to the success of Donald Trump and the Leave campaign. Lately, there isn’t a single week in Brussels without a conference on fake news, misinformation and disinformation but it is hard to see what European plan is being devised to tackle these threats in a comprehensive way.

In the US, Jack Posobiec – a serial-propagator of fake news including the #MacronLeaks – is now accredited to the White House briefings.

Over the last five years, I developed multidisciplinary techniques to analyse how information spreads on social media and how communities get themselves organised. Rumours and false news were not born during the recent elections. For many years, the corporate world had to deal with the online spread of false information.

Before the French elections, I published a paper on the influence of the pro-Russian media outlets and their proximity with the far-right. This article didn’t get much traction at that time; maybe some could not realise what was at stake and how much impact it could have during a major election. This work served as a basis which helped me source very rapidly the rumours on Emmanuel Macron, including the supposed offshore bank account in the Bahamas and the #MacronLeaks.

In my opinion, we have to go deep to the source of the rumour, and to do so very quickly. Fact-checking is important but too slow. The communities spreading fake news have one weakness; they live in information bubbles and it takes some time for fake news to spread outside their community.

We need to exploit that weakness by fighting them at the same time before the contamination of the other communities on social media. When elections are held in two days, we need to act and to tweet rapidly with the relevant information showing that false news is being once again shared by the same serial propagators of rumours.

This is what I did during the #MacronLeaks, before the legal deadline to end the campaign on 5 May. Fact-checking by the media is also crucial; but it takes time and we have to acknowledge that. If we really want to combat misinformation, we need a plan and a puzzle.

We need organisations to quickly source the rumour (i.e. where it comes from and who is spreading it – this can be done quickly) and others to fact-check (i.e. to verify the veracity of an information – this takes more time).

But to understand who is spreading rumours, we need to identify their accounts. The overly simplistic answer proposed by the German government – which basically requires social media platforms to ban accounts promoting hate speech and fake news – is not the right answer.

Serial-fakers will create another account once their previous account has been banned; they will continue sharing misinformation; they will be presenting themselves as being censored by the governments; and instead of monitoring these accounts, debunkers like me will have to waste their energy into mapping new communities of social media accounts.

So instead of doing our work, we will have to start from scratch over and over again.

We need a plan

It is fair to say that the EU institutions don’t have a plan. They navigate between the opinions expressed in the member states and flood the debate with commonplaces and clichés. The institutions need to seriously consider the topic.

Fake news is not new; they didn’t start with social media. In the UK, you will find misinformation about the EU daily in printed newspapers.

To understand the context and its scope, there are about 4 million tweets about Brexit each month, with their fair share of disinformation. We need to have a plan. And we need to move fast.

Censorship is not and will not be the answer. This does not mean that there should not be a regulation but a regulation or any action should focus on giving the tools to the ecosystem so that they can better source and combat fake news. What should be done?

  • NGOs, foundations, academics and media organisations should be given better access to social media data to be able to better source and combat fake news;
  • Furthermore, the Parliament’s proposal for an EU-funded anti-Russian propaganda pilot is an excellent idea and should be supported. The Commission is expected to send its feedback in the coming next weeks. Anything but a positive answer would be a sign of defeatism;
  • Lastly, the EU institutions must get themselves organised internally to debunk ‘Euromyths’. They also have to provide the necessary support – including financial – to an ecosystem of external organisations who know how to source, debunk and fact-check. It is surprising to observe that many member states and other countries around the globe are moving much faster on this matter than the EU.

In a recent answer to a parliamentary question, the Commission said it “encouraged industry to step up voluntary efforts to prevent trust-diminishing practices and recognised the need for greater transparency for users to understand how the information presented to them is filtered, shaped or personalised, especially when it influences either purchasing decisions or participation in civic or democratic life”.

We should expect more than such a vague response. Let’s work on a plan and implement it.