Tackling disinformation in the age of social media

Tackling disinformation in the age of social media

The European Commission, whose TV and radio studios in the Berlaymont building are pictured in this 2009 photograph, recently set up a high-level expert group on tackling disinformation.

(European Commission Audiovisual Service/Georges Boulougouris)

During a recent video intervention on disinformation at a seminar for journalists in Thessaloniki, Greece, I started my speech with a reference to a very basic and old-fashioned system of governance known as ‘democracy’: “the worst form of government, except for all the others,” as Winston Churchill, quoting an unknown predecessor, described it.

Today, the issue of disinformation is of crucial importance, not only for the media sector, but also for our democratic society at large. At the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) where I work as general secretary, we are very concerned by the current political response all over Europe to the dissemination of so-called ‘fake news’, or disinformation, as we prefer to call it.

The term ‘fake news’ was named as Collins Dictionary’s 2017 Word of the Year for its ubiquitous presence after use of the term had increased by 365 per cent since 2016. Although many high-level politicians like to use the term to attack and discredit the mainstream media, we should all refrain from it. For ‘fake news’ fails to describe the complexity of the ‘information disorder’. Disinformation is defined as false, inaccurate or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit.

Late last year, the Reuters Institute published a study which made a distinction between three categories of so-called ‘fake news’: (1) news that is ‘invented’ to make money or discredit others; (2) news that has a basis in fact but is ‘spun’ to suit a particular agenda; and (3) news that people do not feel comfortable about or don’t agree with.

As Damian Tambini, a professor in media and communications at the London School of Economics, correctly stated, ‘fake news’ is not the main problem in the relationship between journalism and democracy.

In fact, ‘fake news’ is so high on the political agenda because it is used as a kind of scapegoat. Politicians and people in positions of power make use of this concept to discredit journalists. The underlying problem lies in a global mistrust of the media, which is something that poses a serious threat to our democracies.

For instance, a survey recently conducted by the global market research company Kantar Sofres about citizens’ trust in the media in France shows a dramatic decline in radio, TV, print and internet media since 2015. This development, prevalent in numerous other countries, coincides with the increased usage of what is described as ‘fake news’, which is fuelled by social media.

Some governments are implementing what we at the EFJ consider to be very dangerous laws, like the Facebook law in Germany, the draft law against fake news in France, and Italy’s ‘red button’ system, which allows citizens to report hoaxes.

These are all bad examples of public actions as these governments are undermining freedom of speech. It is not the role of the government to decide what is true or untrue. Censorship has never been a solution to counter disinformation. These actions are dangerous, disproportionate and ineffective at tackling the real problem.

Public authorities need to realise that a sustainable media ecosystem with quality content and ethical self-regulation is the best antidote to disinformation. More than ever before, we need to promote ethical journalism, investigative journalism and much more transparency from those in power.

I have represented the EFJ within a high-level EU expert group on disinformation set up by the European Commission. One of the main conclusions of this group was that we do not need any restrictive or repressive legislation on this issue. Censorship, in any case, is the wrong strategy because it is inefficient, counter-productive and dangerous for our democratic society.

Actions against disinformation

It is crucial that initiatives aimed at countering specific problems of disinformation are precisely targeted and formulated to ensure that they do not – either by accident or design – enable public or private authorities to restrict free speech.

At a European level, the EFJ has repeatedly advocated for the European Commission to focus on the main responsibility of online platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, etc) in the distribution and monetisation of disinformation. For example, a useful tool to tackle online disinformation fostered by the advertising revenue policies of such platforms would be an EU sector inquiry on business driven by social media.

The most important outcome of our high-level group’s report, A multi-dimensional approach to disinformation, is a proposed set of actions against disinformation to safeguard the diversity and sustainability of the European news media ecosystem, based on five pillars:

• enhance the transparency of online news, involving an adequate and privacy-compliant sharing of data about the systems that enable their circulation online;
• promote media and information literacy to counter disinformation and help users navigate the digital media environment;
• develop tools for empowering users and journalists to tackle disinformation and foster a positive engagement with fast-evolving information technologies;
• safeguard the diversity and sustainability of the European news media ecosystem, and;
• promote continued research on the impact of disinformation in Europe to evaluate the measures taken by different actors and constantly adjust the necessary responses.

What we need is stronger support for quality journalism, as well as a stronger commitment on education and media literacy for all, not just children. I sincerely hope that the EU and its member states will avoid the risk of over-regulation and over-legislation. Last week, the Commission announced its official policy on disinformation. Let’s hope it will push EU members states to do much more in supporting a sustainable media sector.

Disinformation is not just a challenge for the media sector or for journalists. It is a democratic challenge: the duty to protect the worst form of government, except for all the others.