In March, its High-Level Expert Group (HLEG) on fake news and online disinformation published sensible and well-considered recommendations. Its report deserves international attention.
The HLEG rejects the popular term “fake news” because it is too vague. Populist leaders use it to discredit any news they dislike. In the experts’ eyes, the term “disinformation” is more appropriate. They define disinformation as “all forms of false, inaccurate or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit”.
As the HLEG points out, this definition does not cover illegal content such as defamation, hate speech or incitement to violence. Existing legislation serves to handle these issues. Disinformation, in contrast, is harmful, but not necessarily illegal. The challenge is to tackle the problem without curtailing the fundamental freedom of speech. The HLEG argues that this can be done and wants policymakers to adopt a multi-dimensional approach based on a number of mutually reinforcing responses:
“These responses rest on five pillars designed to:
- enhance 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.”
As the HLEG convincingly elaborates, keeping disinformation in check concerns society as a whole. It is not a job that can be left to government institutions. After all, “not all European politicians and public authorities share the same level of respect for media freedom” and political actors can be “purveyors of disinformation”. Foreign actors, moreover, may want to interfere in European politics. Part of the disinformation problem is that “not all news media maintain the same standards of professionalism and editorial independence”. Compounding the matter, “the role of digital media, and in particular of large, US-based platform companies (…), is important but not yet well understood”.
The experts want the EU and its member governments to facilitating roles in fighting disinformation. An important first step, according to the experts, is to get media stakeholders – ranging from the press and broadcasters to fact checkers and the advertising industry – to draft and adopt a European code of practices to define roles and responsibilities.
The HLEG therefore wants all digital media to provide the information their users need to understand who is disseminating the information they receive. Moreover, sponsored content should be identifiable. Information concerning algorithms, robots and payments must be made available. Users deserve information on advertising policies. Platforms should facilitate fact-checking and should offer links to trust-worthy fact-checking sites. They should also flag dubious content.
According to the HLEG, it is essential to boost media literacy. To detect disinformation, users must be aware of how media operate. They should understand what constitutes best practices and why errors may occur nonetheless. At the same time, independent, fact-based journalism must be encouraged, especially if it challenges well-established powers. Among other institutions, schools must promote media literacy. Even professional journalists, moreover, deserve advanced training to stay abreast of digital developments.
The EU experts acknowledge that the conventional media – in particular the press – are in crisis because the internet has made news freely available and thus undermined long-established business models. The HLEG is therefore in favour of public funding for projects that support quality journalism. It also suggests that quality media could be granted tax breaks.
Finally, the expert group wants the EU and its member states to establish a network of independent academic research centres that focus on disinformation. Among other things, this network would:
- monitor the scale, techniques and tools of disinformation as they evolve,
- identify sources of disinformation,
- help to analyse platform data, and
- share knowledge with all stakeholders concerned.
The proposals are coherent and indicate a way in which European societies can stem the tide of disinformation. The snag is that this approach will only work if a sufficient number of stakeholders cooperate. Unfortunately, some media outlets support irresponsible populists and spread disinformation that suits such political forces. They need to be named and shamed.
In principle, the approach proposed by the experts should work everywhere. As the authors write, however, it matters that the EU is a highly developed world region with strong infrastructure, good education and vibrant civil societies. It is probably harder to promote media literacy in places where literacy itself cannot be taken for granted or to encourage independent fact-checking in places where freedom of speech is not a long-accepted norm.
High-Level Expert Group, 2018: A multi-dimensional approach to disinformation.