Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE II)

Believe it or not: With a new era of heavily edited audiovisual content on their way, the intentional spread of fake news and misleading content has never been easier, affecting 4 out of 10 European citizens daily. What measures should the EU and its Member States do to minimise the circulation of disinformation via traditional and digital media?

By: Esmée O’Connor (IE)

Topic video

Endless Curiosity: The Science of Fake News, Indiana University 

The topic at a glance

In a media landscape with rapid production and content made to be attention-grabbing, deceptive or incorrect information is easily spread. The difficulties of finding accurate information is a threat to the foundations of our democracies, as is the growing mistrust toward information. Referring back to sources and gaining trust through linking back to other sites, media sites easily spread information without proper fact-checking. Readers then base opinions and decisions on incorrect information, especially when polarisation is involved, and corrections or proof of falsity does little to change those opinions. Spread of fake news has been an issue previously, and the news industry has had to deal with the consequences of fast production before, but the spread and impact of disinformation today is unprecedented. The problem impacts every different sector: the educational system, media, social networks, online platforms, and the work of professionals as well as the everyday life of citizens.

Topic Dictionary

Fake news: false stories and information spread online. They are frequently perceived and deliberated distortions of news with the intention to affect the political landscape and exacerbate divisions in society. 
Disinformation: false or misleading information spread deliberately to deceive.
Deepfakes: highly manipulated videos or audio content. They are edited and created from scratch by deep learning  Artificial Intelligence (AI) software1.
Iterative journalism: a model of reporting that uses audience interviews, surveys, analysis of comments, and observation to learn what readers are interested in regardless of the numbers. Its goal is to forecast the issues that truly matter and the context where news is useful for the audience. Content may be published early in the development of a story and corrected at a later point when more information has been gathered.
Link economy: 2 a media environment in which trust is delegated by articles and writers linking to other articles as sources. Readers habitually do not check the links and a chain of linking without checking may result. Content and stories might move from lesser known sites to bigger ones as bigger sites link back to smaller ones, and it is therefore possible to plant content that then climbs the web.
Media literacy: the ability to critically analyse content in different kinds of media for accuracy, credibility, evidence of bias.
Post-truth: the disappearance of shared objective standards for truth and the slippage between facts or alternative facts, knowledge, opinion, belief, and truth.

Key Actors

The European Commission (EC) is the executive branch of the European Union (EU)  proposing and enforcing legislations. There are no specific competences confirmed upon the EU to regulate the media pluralism. However, the EC deploys a range of tools to tackle disinformation and funds research
The European External Action Service (EEAS) is the diplomatic service combined with foreign and defence ministry of the EU. It is responsible for preparing acts to be adopted by the High Representative (HR), the EC or the European Council3 that has the responsibility for EU delegations, intelligence and crisis management structures.
The East StratCom Task Force was created as a result of a European Council meeting in 2015 to develop dedicated communication material for political leadership, press services, EU delegations and the Member States as well as the wider public with the aim to challenge Russian disinformation campaigns.
Member States are 27 countries that form the EU. They are  individually responsible for implementing legislations and policies regarding recongnising and combating disinformation. Member States such as Finland4, have already implemented policies  which have focused on media education for high school students and adults. 

Measures already in place

The EC’s Communication of April 2018 led to the establishment of a self-regulatory EU-wide Code of Practice on disinformation, which turned into the first worldwide self-regulatory set of standards to fight disinformation. Signatories- platforms, leading social networks, advertisers and advertising industry – presented detailed roadmaps to take action in different areas to minimise the spread of disinformation.
EC measures to secure free and fair European elections are encouraging the Member States to set up a national election cooperation network of electoral, cybersecurity, data protection and law enforcement authorities. Member States are directed to participate in a European-level election cooperation network to quickly detect and deal with threats such as online mass disinformation campaigns. Among other things, greater transparency in online political advertisements and targeting was also recommended, and rules around European political party funding were tightened.
Horizon 2020 is an innovative programme aimed at securing Europe’s global competitiveness while also tackling information accuracy for the media. This plan of action funded FANDANGO, which is a project collecting and verifying various typologies of news data, media sources, social media and open data to detect fake news and provide a more efficient and verified communication for all European citizens.
EUvsDisinfo is a project of the East StractCom Task Force, keeping a blacklist of articles and media which it labels as disinformation.

Key conflicts 

Censorship vs free speech

Definitions of fake news and disinformation vary, and separating fake news from extreme expressions of opinion – and at times from satire – is often difficult. Critics of regulations and taking down posted material may fear that freedom of speech could be threatened by such measures, and legal measures to stop disinformation must be carefully weighed as to not lead to unduly restriction of material. In Germany – a country with some of the strictest online hate speech rules in the Western world – rules on online hate speech coming into force in 2018 were criticised for leading to the removal of content that was neither hate speech nor fake news. The debate is often divided between the tech community supporting the platforms that have to adapt to the rules, and the broader public opinion. Moreover among those who support the taking down of content deemed as disinformation or as hate speech, views of to what degree this should be done and how it may impact groups of extreme opinions, vary.

Belief vs mistrust in existing media business models

While many within the media industry see iterative journalism and the link economy as safeguarding efficiency and relevance, and claim that the continuous corrections involved in the process of this kind of reporting result in efficiently getting to the facts of the story.  On the other hand, others from within the industry criticise this model as leading to low quality reporting and lacking source checking. Bigger news and media providers may have the opportunity to switch from a page view business model to a subscription model – which decreases the need for rapid production and enhances quality reporting – but the same is rarely possible for smaller providers, making change of the media landscape difficult.

What is next?

The European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO) is a recently started EU project bringing together fact-checkers and academic researchers, collaborating with media organisations and media literacy practitioners. This kind of promotion of knowledge on disinformation, intensified development of fact-checking and support of media literacy programmes is in line with the future plans of many in the field, seeing intensified collaboration between EU institutions and fact checkers, as crucial.
Additionally the empowerment of users, as well as the development of media literacy, is something that is likely to be focused on in the close future. Innovation both from projects such as EDMO, and within the private sector, are probable to play a large role in the development of tools to tackle disinformation. For example startups like the Netherlands-based Sensity work on monitoring deepfakes and developing solutions within Europe.
It has further been recommended that national governments create protocols and communication channels in order to have an adaptable toolbox abaling responding rapidly to large spreads of disinformation. For this, the development of methodological approach and exploration of hypothetical scenarios will be required, and strategic decisions (such as whether looking at all incidents of deepfakes is worth it or whether focus should be solely on the most dangerous ones) must be made.

Key questions 

  • What other forms of fake news are there?
  • What further steps should be taken to combat fake news in its various forms?
  • How may the development of a culture of disbelief by default be prevented?
  • With measures involving the removal of online content, how can fairness and trust be promoted and upheld?
  • How can the EU and its Member States work to root out disinformation without limiting the civil liberties of its citizens?

Links for further research:

Action Plan Against Disinformation – Report on progress”, The EC
Deepfakes and elections: should the EU be worried?”, Democracy Reporting International
Europe’s failure on ‘fake news’”, Politico
How to Destroy the Business Model of Breitbart and Fake News”, The New York Times
Questions and Answers about the East StratCom Task Force”, European Union External Action

  1. Artificial Intelligence is – with varied definitions – intelligence demonstrated by machines.
  2. Ryan Holiday, “Trust Me, I’m lying”, 2013
  3. European Council is the EU institution representing the Member States’ governments. It defines the general political direction and priorities of the EU.
  4. Liza Mackintosh, Edward Kiernan, Finland is winning the war against fake news. What it’s learned may be crucial to Western democracy, CNN