Written by Heritiana Ranaivoson, Luciano Morganti, imec-SMIT-Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Fake News getting increasing attention

Fake news seems to be all over the place now. While there have always been rumours and unverified information circulating through word of mouth or through media, the term itself gained in popularity due to the tone of the debate during the US presidential election in 2016 and in the debates preceding the so-called Brexit referendum. More recently, Jair Bolsonaro has been accused of benefiting from an undemocratic and criminal industry of fake news and lies which led to his election as Brazil’ president-elect. In contrast to previous examples where Facebook had been the main focus of accusations, in Brazil, it is WhatsApp (owned by Facebook!) which is at the centre of accusations.


As a result, laws against fake news have been discussed in several European Union countries, notably in France and Germany, and the topic is highly debated also amongst European Institutions. The issue is even more important considering that in May 2019 Europeans are called to vote to elect their representatives in the European Parliament (EP). Not surprisingly the EP interest for fake news can be traced back to June 2017 when it issued a resolution on Online Platforms and the Digital Single Market (see Morganti and Ranaivoson, 2018)


Following the EP resolution, the European Commission (EC) released a Communication on fake news and online disinformation in November 2017. In line with the guidelines of the impact assessment, the European Commission launched a Eurobarometer public opinion survey and a public consultation. A High-level Expert Group (HLEG) was established later in January 2018, and much of the ideas contained in the report it produced have been used for the EC’s Communication on Tackling online disinformation: a European Approach.


A Code of Practice on Disinformation was released in end of September 2018. While it still belongs to a rather soft law approach, the lack of significant progress regarding its implementation could lead to more binding legislative or regulatory proposals by the EC.


Moving away from fake news… as a concept

In spite of its broad use, notably by journalists and policy-makers, it is rather clear now that “fake news” is not the best concept to depict the reality of the phenomenon. Fake News can be defined as news that is intentionally and verifiably false, aimed at misleading the reader and aiming at causing harm. Disinformation is, however, a phenomenon that goes well beyond this term, as the HLEG report reminds.


Following that HLEG report, the European Commission has broadened its approach to consider disinformation as a symptom of a wider phenomenon that can erode the trust in political institutions and the media and hence can harm our democracies. Looking at a bigger picture than only fake news has also an impact on the proposed solutions to issues related to disinformation.


Some of the most common measures – and why they are problematic

A commonly evoked measure to counter fake news consists of facilitating their removal. Thus the currently examined French law makes it easier and faster to ask for fake news to be removed, during pre-election times. Such an approach can be seen as a short term approach, aimed at preventing the quick spread of fake news. Those favouring this approach, are always careful in reminding that it should not lead to censorship or other forms of interference by policy institutions. Any hard approach that risks ex-ante interference in content should be avoided. Besides, the current legal framework (in most European countries) already offers a balanced way to tackle possible issues ex-post, in order to avoid any form of censorship while still offering protection against defamation, hate speech, etc (Morganti & Ranaivoson, 2018).


Another regularly evoked solution consists of identifying and labelling. This can be done with fact-checking activities when journalists analyse news (e.g. spreading on social media) or statements by politicians. While very useful, such activities are de facto plain journalism.


Another, probably more innovative approach consists in labelling news sources according to whether they can be trusted. This is what French journal Le Monde proposes with its Décodex search engine. This approach, however, raises several issues, in particular, related to the presumed neutrality of the entity that would provide such labelling. In the French example, a news media company cannot be seen as neutral. Having a governmental entity doing it rather than any other entity would be, for many, even more unacceptable.


Disinformation and news diversity

We have in a previous imec-SMIT-VUB Policy Brief discussed policy recommendations, in particular, those stemming from EC’s initiatives. Here we would like to propose an alternative approach to rethink the phenomenon of fake news, and more largely that of disinformation.


First, disinformation should be understood from the prism of diversity. Using the Stirling Model, diversity can be defined as a mix of variety, balance and disparity. Here, a diversity of news means that there are a lot of pieces of news available (variety), expressing very different points of view (disparity) with all views equally represented (balance). The fight against fake news can be perceived as an attack against disparity, e.g. if a post is removed by a social media because it relies on a piece of false information, this may lead Internet users to claim that this is an attempt to silence their point of view. In the same way, citizens may have the feeling that their opinion is not well represented in the media and so feel neglected by them for a lack of balance in the news reported.


Diversity can also be considered by distinguishing between (i) diversity among content producers and distributors; (ii) content diversity; and (iii) diversity among users. News media are characterized by a trend towards greater market concentration, which raises suspicion on behalf of citizens on whether they can provide diverse points of view and opinions. Online news production might be very diverse but its distribution is heavily concentrated, with online platforms such as Google’s search engine and Facebook playing a more and more important role as gatekeepers in citizens’ access to information. The fear is here that internet users are trapped into their “filter bubble” (Pariser, 2011; see our previous blog post) and get access only to a very limited diversity of news and content.


A matter of transparency, and ultimately of trust

The question of disinformation could also be considered from the point of view of transparency, i.e. of the information available on the process that has led to the provision of a given piece of information. Online platforms are – rightfully – pointed out for not making it clear to their users what is being done with the data they provide, as the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal exemplified. The way their algorithms (e.g. for recommendations) are being designed also remains obscure.


Also, citizens may be concerned about the positioning of media and the journalists within. Most journalists would claim they are neutral, which may differ from how they are perceived by their audience (more or less rightfully so). It could be in most instances better if journalists would admit that their status, their social background, etc. can have an influence on the way they report the news.


A common issue for traditional media and online platforms in terms of transparency has to do with making clear the economic motives that underlie their activities. Hence the importance, as stated in the HLEG report of the “follow the money” principle: Online platforms (notably social media) should be obliged to make visible who pays for what information.


Citizens need traditional and new media to provide them with a diverse, transparent and therefore trustworthy picture of the world they experience. If media are able to provide such a picture, they will be able to generate trust and help to reduce the impact and spread of fake news and disinformation while equipping their users with stronger critical filters.


Source (in Dutch): https://soc.kuleuven.be/fsw/diamond/hoefakenieuwstebestrijden

Photo credits: Sam McGhee

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