6 April 2018
A European Union experts panel set up to look at the problem of fake news and disinformation last year has called upon political leaders to create an international coalition to fight fake news.
This was one of the actions in a series of proposals outlined in the 50-page report published on 12 March 2018 to combat fake news (a term now officially abandoned in favour of the more precise “disinformation”) including creating a new alliance of online platforms, media and journalists and civil society groups.1
The report, commissioned by the European Union and produced by 39 media activists, journalists, media supporters, academics and internet specialists, also calls for a code of practice to be introduced across Europe, with national centres established to fight disinformation, promote media literacy and, importantly, to find resources to pay for more investigative journalism.
Those expecting a hard-line response to the problems created by Facebook and others will be disappointed that there is no demand for the tech companies to end the secrecy over the way they work, although the experts do suggest that social networks should commit “to ensure transparency by explaining how algorithms select news.”
Given that social media makes money by attracting the attention of users, often with sensationalist or false information, it’s unlikely that they will be happy to reveal the dark arts of robotic information processing anytime soon.
Although it’s widely accepted that the algorithm-driven business models of groups like Facebook and Google’s Youtube as well as politically-motivated government propaganda are widely accepted as responsible for disinformation, the report says the motives for putting out false information must be determined before labelling something as ‘disinformation’.
However, the experts failed to examine the avalanches of disinformation that comes from governments and made no mention of how to deal with the problem of governments such as Russia or even EU member states who put out blatant propaganda and disinformation.
But perhaps most importantly the EU inquiry failed to follow the money trail that explains how social networks operate. An attempt to organise an inquiry into how the money flows and who makes how much money in the disinformation business did not get off the ground.
This would have been a deal-breaker for some of the experts around the table, but without fully understanding how falsehoods, propaganda and potentially abusive communications triggers profits for advertising companies like Google and Facebook it is impossible to understand the extent to which commercial interests are an obstacle in controlling the spread of disinformation.
Nevertheless, the report makes a number of positive recommendations including:
- setting up ‘European Centres’ to combat disinformation,
- improving media literacy,
- increasing funding for investigative journalism, and
- providing VAT exemptions or other types of tax breaks in EU states to encourage more reliable streams of information.
The recommendations will feed into a larger European Union plan to be presented later in 2018.