Tackling Fake News: To be continued

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

Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel (centre), with Members of the High Level Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation and EC staff during one of the expert meetings that gave input in the HLEG Final Report released today. [Veni / Flickr]

Fake news has been blamed for the election of Trump, the Brexit vote and the rise of populist parties in Europe. A High Level Expert Group (HLEG) on fake news has been set up by the European Commission to suggest how to address the problem. Žiga Turk, one of the members, shares his comments on their Final Report, released earlier today (March 12).

Žiga Turk is a professor of design communication and vice dean of the University of Ljubljana. He served twice as a minister in the government of Slovenia.

The Report is the result of the mission of the group – that fake news is supposed to be “tackled”. Hands off approach was out of the question.

The Report is also a result of the stakeholder/interest groups that were represented in the group – established media, journalists, fact checkers, selected civil society organisations, internet platforms and a few independents and academics, 40 in total. And it is the result of an extreme time pressure under which the group was working – it had four meetings in the span of less than two months.

The Report is a compromise. It includes some good and some bad ideas. And the Report excludes some good and some bad ideas.

Fortunately included

The Report reaffirms the commitment of the European Union to stand by the civil liberties. Like the freedom of expression as defined in the European Convention of Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

It states clearly that “all responses should avoid interference with freedom of expression and freedom to receive and impart information.” And that “initiatives aimed at countering specific problems of disinformation (…), need to be very precisely targeted and formulated to ensure that they do not by accident or design enable public or private authorities to restrict free speech.

“HLEG believes that EU or governments should” avoid the politically-dictated privatisation of the policing and censorship of what is and is not acceptable forms of expression”.

The Report recognises the Internet as the force of good for the prosperity of our countries and the vibrancy of our democracy. Yes, there may be some issues, but in general the impact is positive.

And the Report finds that in general our democracies have several strengths because of which they do not fall victim to disinformation. It is finding that content produced by quality, independent and pluralistic media is the best antidote to disinformation.

The suggested responses suggest diluting fake with real news, support quality journalism and pluralistic media environments in member states, investment in media literacy, in fact checking that a user can choose to shape his social media streams, for research of the size of disinformation problem as hard data on the disinformation problem is in fact scarce.

Unfortunately included

The Report suggests that a “Coalition” of all stakeholders to be established and proposes ten commandments that will guide it. This coalition will, assist the internet platforms in increasing the availability of “real” information and down-list the “disinformation”.

The Facebooks, Twitters and Googles of the world are supposed to demote “disinformation” and promote “real” news on their services.

After a year or so the Commission will check if these “voluntary” measures reduced the spread of “disinformation”. Voluntary is in quotes, because if the results are unsatisfactory, there is a threat of “fact-finding and/or additional policy initiatives, using any relevant instrument, including competition instruments or other mechanisms” against the platforms. In the worst case this can be interpreted as outsourcing of the policing of the internet to the platforms.

The proposed Coalition is risky. The threat of regulatory measures after a year of operation may motivate the platforms to interfere with the flow of ideas on their platforms in ways to please the governments. This could potentially lead to outsourcing of interference to “freedom to receive and impart information”. A balanced composition of the Coalition that includes independent content creators and free speech advocates should be able to mitigate this risk.

I am using quotes for disinformation as well because it us defined vaguely as “false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit”. As if what does and what does not cause harm, what is and what is not misleading, was not flexible enough, the group chose to include in the definition things like “astroturfing, networks of fake followers, fabricated or manipulated videos, targeted advertising, organised trolling, visual memes and much more”.

The definition is broad and elastic. As free speech conventions do not make any differences between information and disinformation, the definition should be irrelevant.

Unfortunately excluded

The Report failed to address the growing fear that the platforms start pushing their own agendas when deciding how to present information. For example, favouring the information aligned with interests of the owners of the platform. Given the enormous power of some platforms, this strict reading of the Charter – which indeed only prohibits government interference – is a mistake. But understandable since the platforms should collaborate in the “Coalition” and actively shape what people see.

Fortunately excluded

The Report acknowledges that “government or EU regulation of disinformation can be a blunt and risky instrument” and makes no proposals to regulate speech now, because “legal approaches amounting to well-intentioned censorship are neither justified nor efficient for disinformation”. The EU remains a protector of human rights and hopes that the actors in the digital communication environment will be able to do something about disinformation autonomously.

The road ahead

“Or else”, should be added to the last sentence of the previous paragraph. Incentives may exists that the platforms will interfere with the flow of ideas on their platforms in ways to please the governments and avoid regulation in the future.

On the other hand, the Report shows deep respect for the freedom of expression. Commissioner Gabriel reiterated that: she stressed that nobody has a monopoly on truth and that truth is only established as a result of free confrontation of ideas.

The sensitive balance between freedom of expression and tacking the harmful effects of disinformation will require continued vigilance. As Ronald Reagan said, freedom is never far from extinction, it must to be fought for and protected.

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