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Words by Luciano Morganti and Heritiana Ranaivoson

On 23 February, the MediaRoad consortium contributed to the Public Consultation on Fake News and Online Disinformation launched by the European Commission. The MediaRoad’s joint position builds upon different point of views of its diverse members representing European media organisation, researchers, creative and cultural industries and technology experts and entrepreneurs who have highlighted the role of quality journalism and trusted content to counteract disinformation and information disorder.

The consultation mainly aimed at:

  1. gathering ideas and insights about the definition of fake information and their online dissemination
  2. assessing measures already taken by platforms, news media companies, and civil society organisations to counter the spread of fake information online
  3. scoping for future actions to strengthen quality information and prevent the spread of disinformation online.

Read more to see the key points raised by the MediaRoad consortium in its response to the consultation.

 

Ideas and insights on the definition of fake information and their spread online

 

The MediaRoad consortium believes that the present consultation does not address the issue with the required level of precision and sometimes mixes the phenomenon of fake news and that of the information disorder.

For MediaRoad, it is important to distinguish A) the phenomenon of fake news (and its potential relevance and amplitude in the new digital environment) from B) the larger issue of the information disorder. A and B are different phenomena and, hence, require different technical, political and societal answers.

MediaRoad highlights a distinction between 1) a narrow definition of fake news and 2) the specific criteria to identify fake news.

1) Fake news can be defined as articles which include content which there evidence as demonstrably false. Fake news, so defined, can then fall into different categories according to their scope, aim, and type: false connections with existing and verifiable facts; false context in which the news is framed; manipulated verifiable content; fabricated content; false content attributed to real sources; and malicious intentionality.

2) Different criteria to identify fake news to scope the problem include resemblance of their support with professional media outlet, resemblance of their content and appearance with professional journalism, maliciousness of intention.

If we combine the narrow definition of fake news proposed under 1) and the criteria to identify fake news under 2) a working definition of fake news can then be: fake news are news that are intentionally and verifiably false, aimed at misleading the reader and aiming at causing harm.

 

Measures taken by online platforms, news media companies and civil society organisations to counter the spread of fake information online

 

Online Platforms 

For MediaRoad online platforms need to be considered as any other medium, and hence they should exert editorial control over the content present on their properties online.

There is then a list of measures online platforms could take to counter the spread of fake information online:

  • organize ad-hoc campaigns to inform about the falseness of news circulating online and on their own platform;
  • set up complaint mechanisms;
  • exercise more control over the news they circulate: make sure information from broadcasters is “findable”;
  • organize editorial teams of fact-checkers;
  • organize and put in place fact-checking processes for more sensible news;
  • establish preferred links with and give priority to reliable news sources;
  • self-limit the functionality of the platform to prevent automatism in the spread of fake news;
  • delete asap identified fake news;
  • use technology based on automation through AI solutions.

More generally, online platforms could increase the transparency of their activities and contribute to their users’ media and digital literacy. This means that users should be made aware of how recommendation algorithms function and how they impact what is finally recommended to them. Online platforms and social network operators should also be urged to design algorithms in a diversity-friendly way to ensure exposure to a wide range of information and opinions (so-called ‘exposure diversity’).

MediaRoad considers that technical solutions aimed at enhancing the “digital traceability” of information-items and information-packets are the key measure to work on to empower both users and platforms evaluate the information they use and circulate. All measures considered should not go against the right to freedom of expression and privacy.

 

News media organisation

News media organisations should be the official actors who can provide the most reliable verifiable quality information to the audience. Radio and television are by nature impervious to filter bubbles: listeners and viewers are exposed to content they were not expecting, or they had not looked for previously. Also, in comparison to other media, Radio and Television have to comply with strict rules related to their licenses to broadcast.

Concerning the measures news media organisations could take, they could set up fact checker teams who would notably be active on online platforms to identify and debunk fake news. Such initiatives would work better, especially for media smaller or active in smaller markets, when they rely on collaborations, between news media organisations, and between such organisations and civil society organisations or online platforms. Such cross-industry initiatives are going to be crucial in the future.

Collaborations with civil society and with schools can be key when promoting media literacy to tackle the issue of misinformation through education. This could also be an opportunity to change the current relationships between citizens and their news media.

More important, MediaRoad believes that trust can be improved by investment in quality journalism, by self-regulatory codes of conduct and editorial guidelines. News media’s websites could also be considered a ”go to” destination for authoritative, trusted, unbiased news coverage.

 

Civil Society Organisations

MediaRoad believes that some civil society organizations can have a decisive role in supporting reliable information and prevent the spread of disinformation online by raising awareness and educating citizens, notably the most vulnerable groups.

They can sensitize and raise awareness on the “fake news” and disinformation online by rolling out programs and initiatives that support the development of digital and media literacy skills and competencies. Informative campaigns, ad-hoc workshops and direct communication with the audience can improve the audience’s ability to find, process and discriminate qualitative from non-qualitative information and make the audience more aware of information that can be “fake news” and hence less vulnerable to it.  These campaigns, trainings and workshops could and should be better done in cooperation with media organisations and with public administrative, organisational and financial support.

These educational campaigns should reach out to the most vulnerable groups that are prone to misguidance and have a low level of (digital) literacy skills. This includes children at a young age. To achieve maximum impact, one could envisage the appropriate educational initiatives on media literacy to become also part of the incisive and citizenship education programmes within formal education, and in the context of lifelong learning.

 

Future actions to strengthen quality information and prevent the spread of disinformation online

 

In the longer term, MediaRoad believes that providing a better general quality framework for journalists and media organisations would improve the overall quality of news media. This would mean creating a level playing field and a favorable framework for quality media and journalism as well as innovation in the media sector. Such an approach would be based on a comprehensive package of incentives, support and regulatory measures to ensure and safeguard quality and trusted information. This goal can be achieved via different regulatory frameworks, such as in the revised Audiovisual Media Services (AVMS) Directive which can enable EU Member States to introduce so-called ‘prominence’ measures for general interest content.

On one side, some MediaRoad members consider that public authorities could make easier the fight against fake news by making it easier to remove fake news from online platforms, by sanctioning disinformation, or by giving industry and civil society the means and incentives to fight the creation and dissemination of disinformation. However, there might be risks stemming from such initiative such as a negative impact on freedom of expression. It is paramountly important to avoid any restriction in the functioning and openness of the Internet. It is again the role of public authorities to protect the independence of news media organizations and to ensure the protection of the integrity and security of journalists.

Other members would be inclined to deny any role of public authorities to counter the diffusion of fake news. According to their view, public authorities should not become more competent or be the main actors in fighting fake news because, simply put, one cannot expect mistrusted politicians to provide solutions that would be trusted by citizens.

Finally, for MediaRoad, an extremely important component of future approaches to prevent and minimise the risk of the spread of fake news online  is media literacy focused at educating citizen about how media works and their inherent logic.

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