The trouble with fighting fakes with facts

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

The spread of fake news and disinformation are part of the tools used by state actors and other organisations to destabilise Western democracies. [Shutterstock]

In the context of the European Commission’s Public consultation on fake news and online disinformation, EURACTIV asked a couple of experts to contribute to this debate. More here.

Europe’s fight against disinformation requires a trust in legitimate media, writes Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck.

Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck is director at Lie Detectors, a news literacy campaign taking on fake news in schools in Europe.

In theory, it is the perfect solution. If platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter have allowed disinformation to flood our screens and alter our minds, make them mop up the mess with their own clever IT. Add to this an army of truth-seeking fact-checkers from renowned news organisations to straighten the record – no, Hillary Clinton did not give birth to an alien, and no, Saudi Arabia did not finance Emmanuel Macron’s campaign – and truth will once again triumph in our digital lives.

Recent years have produced a crop of highly useful fact-checking initiatives. Leading social media platforms are investing in verification systems. The option of regulating social media is now widely discussed. The European Commission is assembling a task force to tackle disinformation and Germany’s so-called Facebook law works to tackle hate speech online. Defense and justice officials across Europe are considering a range of measures against hoax-peddling trolls.

But what if this not enough? What if all the algorithms, staff and web crawlers are no match for fakes cleverly spliced with facts? What happens when the European Union’s considerations of combating fake news clash with those of protecting privacy and opposing censorship? What if a drip-drip of disinformation is colouring the views of Europeans from childhood, making them suspicious of fact-checking sites at all?

The fight against disinformation requires, fundamentally, a trust in facts. A recent Yale University study suggests that rather than by debunking fakes, it is the process of boosting trust in legitimate news sources that may prove the more powerful tool in combating disinformation. Evidence from Europe suggests that journalism and journalists have deep-seated problems that relate more to a suspicion of the entire media than of certain stories in particular outlets.

The implication is that efforts to combat disinformation and news bias must take a wider view and address the way people consume news. Young people must be a critical part of any such drive, since children’s consumption of information online often outstrips that of adults and currently occurs with few critical filters in place.

It is a natural reaction for governments to want to stem the flow of disinformation. But any such campaign must be complemented by a concerted effort to boost news literacy. It is better to have an informed and critical public to begin with than to try and correct false beliefs and misapprehensions after the event. Digital literacy initiatives exist, but their uptake in schools across Europe is limited – often because teachers need training themselves. Even where they find their way into classrooms, children are often taught how to use media without learning how to apply their analytical thinking to assess what they read and watch.

Journalists must be part of this news literacy effort and indeed must urge it along. If the journalist profession wants to secure and rebuild trust, it must go beyond the traditional processes of ombudsmen, corrections columns and fact-checking sites. It must avoid painting itself into an either-or picture of truth and lies, or risk building itself a glass house where it is vulnerable to attack at every honest error. Instead it must make space, in its campaign for truth, for an admission of its own limitations and mistakes. And wherever possible, it must carry this campaign out of the newsroom and directly to its audiences.

Education of news literacy is no substitute but a necessary complement for the burgeoning initiatives to tackle disinformation online. Citizens need to know how news works and how to read it if they are to tell fiction and bias from fact.

In the context of the European Commission’s Public consultation on fake news and online disinformation, EURACTIV asked a couple of experts to contribute to this debate. More here.


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