Steve Ahern reports from Europe
The European Union has just released a study by a high level expert group recommending a series of actions for media and political leaders to take when combating fake news.
Since Donald Trump’s misuse of the #fakenews twitter hashtag has bastardised the terminology, the expert group deliberately avoided using that phrase, preferring instead to use the word ‘disinformation.’
While there is no specific mention of Trump in the 40 page report, his shadow looms large in some parts, such as this mention in section 1: “This term has been appropriated and used misleadingly by powerful actors to dismiss coverage that is simply found disagreeable.”
The term ‘fake news’ is “inadequate to capture the complex problems of disinformation that also involves content which blends fabricated information with facts,” says the expert group report.
While “not necessarily illegal,” disinformation can be harmful for citizens and society at large, according to the report, which urges governments, journalists, educators, advertisers and media to take action to minimise the effects of deliberate and/or unintended disinformation.
“The risk of harm includes threats to democratic political processes, including integrity of elections, and to democratic values that shape public policies,” according to the report.
The report defines disinformation as “false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted for profit or to intentionally cause public harm.” It underlines the need to involve all parts of society in solving this modern disinformation problem, recommending initially a largely self-regulatory approach.
Properly resourced, publicly funded public media play an important part in countering fake news, according to the report, as does increased media literacy, quality fact checking and good journalism.
The multi-dimensional approach recommended by the expert group articulated ‘five pillars’ in its recommendations:
1. Enhance transparency of online news, involving an adequate and privacy-compliant sharing of data about the systems that enable their circulation online;
2. Promote media and information literacy to counter disinformation and help users navigate the digital media environment;
3. Develop tools for empowering users and journalists to tackle disinformation and foster a positive engagement with fast-evolving information technologies;
4. Safeguard the diversity and sustainability of the European news media ecosystem;
5. Promote continued research on the impact of disinformation in Europe to evaluate the measures taken by different actors and constantly adjust the necessary responses.
The report calls on the European Commission to consider, in its upcoming Communication on “fake news” and online disinformation, a multi-dimensional approach based on these five pillars
Because of the international nature of the world wide web and social media, good practices must be backed by “a structured cross-border and cross-sector cooperation involving all relevant stakeholders, in order to foster transparency, algorithm accountability and public trust in media to an appreciable extent,” says the report.
If the European Commission adopts the recommendations of the report it is likely to set up a network of independent European Centres for (academic) research on disinformation. “This network should be open to fact- and source-checkers, accredited journalists, researchers from different relevant fields and platforms.” It also calls for public finding to support research within media newsrooms and in independent bodies. “Examples include advanced content verification tools for newsrooms, artificial intelligence and big data for media,” says the report.
The report notes that online platforms “are becoming increasingly important as both enablers and gatekeepers of information” and calls on them to play a part in regulating disinformation.
Having studied the report here the day it was released, it strikes me that it will be highly useful as a model for us in Australia, as we formulate our country’s responses to fake news. Codes of practice are recommended in the report for media bodies and online platforms – we already have such codes for our media, but they are notably absent for social media and search platforms within Australia’s legal jurisdiction. The report raises the idea that perhaps the time has come for such codes for social media and online platforms.
The report is weak on reach and timeliness of responses to disinformation in my opinion. There is an old saying (attributed to Mark Twain) that goes like this: “A lie will travel halfway around the world while the truth is still pulling on its boots.” This old adage reminds us that taking action is not enough, it has to be timely action, because fake news travels fast. There is not much point in countering misinformation many days after it has been disseminated, it has to be countered in real time, while it is spreading worldwide.
Section 4 of the report is the most meaty, detailing all the areas that the expert group deliberated on. One of the most significant parts of that is a section dealing with the “empowerment of journalists.” It says in part:
“In order to keep their brand reputation and retain customers’ trust, media outlets will have to equip newsrooms with professional automatic content verification tools for audiovisual and text-based reports spread online, preferably as part of an industry wide solution…
“Newsrooms in particular need more powerful tools to be able to visually map online networks and connections to understand how disinformation is being created, spread and amplified. When assessing the credibility of a piece of information, the source who originally created the content or first shared it, can provide further evidence about whether something is accurate.”
Other important recommendations in this section include better training for journalists, improved newsroom tools and innovations, and funding for quality journalism. The Australian government’s recent initiatives to fund quality reporting, newsroom innovation and cadetships is a good first step in this area.
The report is an important distillation of all the issues around fake news that face media at this time. It will be available in Australia shortly.
About the Author
Steve is the founding editor of this website.
He is a former broadcaster, programmer, senior executive and trainer who now runs his own company Ahern Media & Training Pty Ltd. He is a regular writer and speaker about future trends in media.
He is currently on assignment in Europe and next week will cover RadioDays from Vienna for radioinfo.