Avoid censorship, dilute fake with quality news

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

European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Gabriel Mariya announcing the creation of the High Level Expert Group on Fake News in January 2018. [@DSMeu]

The EU High-Level Expert Group on ‘fake news’ published its report with recommendations earlier this week. Christophe Leclercq, one of its members, offers his views on its potential impact ahead of the 2019 EU elections, and why it matters to the media sector.

Christophe Leclercq, the founder of EURACTIV and Fondation EURACTIV, was one of the experts on the High-Level Expert Group (HLEG). He was also the rapporteur of the subgroup representing the press. Other subgroups gathered broadcasters, civil society, academics, and the platforms (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, also known as the GAFAs).

Since January 2018, 39 stakeholders (from academia and journalism, written press and broadcasting organisations, online platforms as well as civil society and fact-checking organisations) have been advising the EU on policy initiatives to counter fake news and disinformation spread online.

Given their differing interests, it is amazing that we arrived at a near consensus in the HLEG. Why did we? Because what is at stake is more than business: it is the health of our democracies. Both in Europe and in the US. I would claim that – with less disinformation – Trump’s election and Brexit could have been avoided.

‘Fake news’ is not false or illegal information

First, some definition. We were not handling illegal news such as defamation or the publication of racist content. These are already handled by numerous laws. Neither were we handling satire or mere journalist mistakes, for which there are correction policies. The focus of our group was on intentional disinformation, either for a political or commercial motive. These days, the most talked about is destabilisation funded from Russia. But there is other fake news, home-grown, too.

It is these actions that provide a challenge. A judge cannot simply forbid fake news. Firstly because of the speed at which they propagate on social media and other digital platforms.  But also because it is very difficult to establish ‘the truth’ in these matters, legally anyway. Lastly, and most importantly, because such interventions would amount to censorship.

Dilute ‘fake news’ with ‘quality news’

The High-Level Expert Group suggests six measures on how to dilute disinformation with better content, four on substance and two regarding its implementation.

Media training: There is a consensus on the need for media literacy – developing critical minds of citizens. Journalists and other media professionals also need better skills: fact-checking and innovation, notably with data journalism.

Transparency: We need to harness the speed of platforms, while not leaving them the editorial choices. It is indispensable for users and advertisers to know where content comes from. This applies also to ads and sponsored content, so that doubtful funders can be un-prioritised.

Quality: To feed and influence the platforms’ algorithms, we need Source Transparency Indicators, aggregated from media organisations like Press Councils, and NGOs. This will dilute and slow disinformation, instead of trying to kill it. There is broad support for this ‘positive’ approach.

Funding, both private and public: Indeed, to provide quality information, we need journalists to survive! The EU will develop a Sustainability Strategy for the Media Sector for its 2019-2024 mandate. There is money available under R&D funding, training programmes and social funds. And the Union is currently reviewing its long-term budget perspectives. It could also facilitate national help or simple tax breaks.

Not all of these policy reports lead to impact though. So, we also spent time on creating review points and defining a framework for co-regulation.

We are working on a coalition of stakeholders, leading to a code of practices. This could have a short-term impact already before the EU elections in 2019.

Complementing this self-regulation, we will have more co-regulation where needed. This is combining voluntary measures and policy actions if goals are not met. This could explicitly include competition policy, the EU’s main power. Google received a huge fine last year under such rules. And Apple is meant to reimburse Irish tax breaks. So, yes, platforms do pay attention!

Questions at HLEG Report launch

Finally, let’s step back. I attended the press conference about our report earlier this week and heard four typical questions. Let me answer them clearly here.

Did we fulfil our mandate as High-Level Group? Yes! Every stakeholder engaged constructively.

Will this have a real impact? Certainly! Because the follow-up is based on co-regulation, meaning ‘carrots and sticks’. Notably ‘encouraging’ platforms.

Would this impact be timely? Probably! To put positive pressure on all, there are two review points before the EU elections of May 2019: in November and next spring. Based on an independent report, the Commission will issue its next steps in March 2019.

Will there still be fake news after 2019? Of course! They are fast-moving targets. Even their formats will keep changing. We just wish to reduce their number and their reach. It’s like vaccinating people against viruses and reducing exposure to contaminated areas.

Moving on, most of the fake news group members feel energised. For the media in particular, this challenge is an opportunity to leverage journalists’  work better.

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