We must empower citizens in the battle of disinformation
Calls for censorship will become louder if effective action is avoided
Few would disagree that fake news, the most visible part of the war of disinformation, represents a real and present threat. Luckily the evidence we have so far, from research carried out by the Oxford Reuters group1, is that fake news is having a minimal direct impact. Its effect is limited mostly to groups of “believers” seeking to reinforce their own opinions and prejudices. But accusations of fake news are frequently hurled indiscriminately, as different sides try to impose their own news agenda. And, paradoxically, the more fake news is discussed, the greater problem it is felt to be. This undermines trust in all media and instils the idea that it’s impossible to know what’s true and what isn’t. This is furthered by deep fake news, a development in Artificial Intelligence where Audio Visual content is manipulated to make it virtually impossible to recognize true from false. If we believe that the informed citizen is the underpinning of democracy, then this is an issue that requires action – but what action?
There are some calls, in the European Union and elsewhere, for certain sources or websites to be blocked, or demoted in searches. This is a misguided approach. For one thing trolls, like mushrooms, will simply pop up elsewhere. And people are entitled to read what they choose, including fake news. And the idea that the “mainstream media” is being favoured over so-called alternative media sources plays into the hands of those with interests in sowing dis-information. Instead, we must ensure that consumers understand what they are reading, and that they have proper access to diverse and independent media.
Our report highlighted a number of actions2 and none of the actors in this can avoid their share of responsibility. Media companies have sometimes not paid enough attention to checking the sources of information. Fact-checking technology has an important role to play, provided it is independent and free from any political influence. Platforms can provide client-based interfaces for control and guidance on selecting, for example, priorities in news searches and news feeds, diversity of opinions on consumer time lines and the re-posting of fact-checked information. Platforms need to be transparent about their algorithms. They should identify sources as much as possible and make these visible to the reader. Sponsored content needs to be very clearly identified. There are many opportunities for co-operation in information-sharing across media. Governments and regulators have an obligation to provide for a sustainable, diverse media environment, whilst ensuring there are full protections for freedom of speech and its dissemination.
Finally, it is crucial that the EU and member states come forward with budgets to support independent quality news media and media agents, including journalist training and support for fact-checking organisations. We not only need a concerted effort to teach media literacy in schools, but also to adults – indeed all those that have the right to vote. Ultimately it will be citizens and consumers that will marginalise the effects of fake news. Our task is to give them all the help we can.
Professor Madeleine de Cock Buning,
Chair, High Level Expert Group advising the EU Commission on Fake News and online disinformation; Chair, The Regulatory Authority to the Media in the Netherlands
- Thursday, 04 October 2018