Education is the best way to tackle fake news – Neelie Kroes

Neelie Kroes was the vice-president in charge of digital agenda in the Barroso Commission. [European Commission]

Education is the best way to confront fake news but regulation also plays a part and freedom of speech should not take precedence over the need to remove inflammatory content and hate speech, former European Commissioner Neelie Kroes told EURACTIV.com.

In two successive mandates, Neelie Kroes was the competition commissioner and then the vice-president in charge of the digital agenda. She spoke to EURACTIV’s Editor-in-Chief Daniela Vincenti in Davos. 

If you were a Commissioner today, how do you think you would tackle the problem of fake news ahead of the European elections?

Wow, I couldn’t think of a more difficult question. For me, it all started with the attitude of readers and listeners, if they are educated, then they can act as their own judge on what they see and hear and won’t accept, in principle, that what is written is true, however that’s not the case. So I believe in education focusing on emphasising critical listening and critical debating, as well as listening to debates, for me that is key.

Fake news will stay, and I’m not optimistic about it, it is not interesting if I am against it, but I am against it of course, but it won’t fade away. There will always be temptations for not only politicians by the way, but also for others with disruptive thoughts and feelings to create such content. Therefore everyone’s critical attitude is at stake and we are still not at the stage where we can be confident that we are doing what is right for the future generation who are still pure.

So what you are suggesting is starting education from an early age to make them critical readers instead of regulating fake news?

Regulation is in a way to an end, but don’t overestimate regulation. As regulation in most cases is based on the past and there will be new possibilities to present fake news in the future. It is important for me that we are more alert on just teaching people to listen and discuss in arguments.

In my personal opinion, of course, the outcome of the elections in the US is an example of a lack of awareness,  if you were to look at a map of where Trump got most of his support from, most of it are people living with one-liners. For me, that is the bad part of social media, it is about one-liners quite often and if you haven’t learned at school, and those people mostly are undereducated when you compare it with the European average, those people are believing one-liners. So we have to start with education, start with teaching people not to accept everything.

So if we need to start educating the next generation now, but in the case of the current generation, is there something that social media companies or media companies could do to make sure that they can revert or “drown” this trend?

Well, they, but also the political world, has the obligation and has the duty to just cut off all that news with awful messages, for children and others… There you can see that not only the big ones are taking their measures, but also the smaller ones are taking their measures and not allowing that type of message.

Nowadays, we are confronted with a dilemma, no doubt about that, as these things can be written and read by whoever, and it could contain the most horrible message, and because of social media and how it works we should be aware that there are limits, and the limitation of freedom of speech, and I’m a liberal so it is hard for me to say, but there are limitations for freedom of speech, especially if it is so much against a democracy.

But who should apply those limitations?

Well, the government has a role, no doubt about that… I also think that corporates that are confronted with this type of issues are absolutely responsible too. For example, I remember years and years ago BT taking duty on the awful messages about child pornography, saying that even if it is against freedom of speech that it would not be allowed on their network,  and I think that’s correct in my opinion.

So governments have to play a role. Politicians, by the way, should be aware that they have a responsibility, not of finding where the limits are but finding where the opportunities are for creating more responsibility, that is responsible.

Now the Commission has launched a High-Level Group on Fake News. If you had to give advice to Mariya Gabriel, who is very young and prone to do well, as a seasoned politician and a liberal what would you tell her?

Don’t give up, as it is a very difficult task but it is stimulating a debate, and I think that even if the final results won’t be as expected, don’t give up. And I strongly believe in more discussion about this issue for people. Also, I believe that most people in Europe, but also in other parts of the world, are not in the mood to accept everything and they are fed up with seeming like a fool and not having the opportunity to say ”that’s fake news, stop it”. So I wish her a lot of wisdom and it is again a push for a debate.