Disinformation: how should Europe prioritise its to-do list

Tackling disinformation: Europe’s to-do list

Any to-do list can be structured depending on whether tasks are urgent and/or important. While the “important not urgent” model should warrant lots of attention, it’s a common mistake that the “urgent, not important” pushes back more serious matters.

We need to make sure that the EU’s media strategy becomes an “urgent and important” matter. But what should be in the EU’s “urgent and important” list to tackle misinformation in the next few months leading up to the European elections and beyond?

Disinformation has plagued the public space since modern media has existed. The amplification provided by social platforms increases the concern considerably. As Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in his State of the Union address on Wednesday 12 September said: “We must do more to protect our democracy and its agents – our journalists.”

Along with this, he renewed his commitment to countering the spread of online terrorist content and disinformation. But the question is: how?

Some solutions to counter disinformation

Tackling disinformation is hard. Many solutions are under implementation, with varying degrees of success. Because they are technological and comparatively simple to implement, some self-regulatory tools can be classified as “urgent, not so important”:

  • “Truth” indicators: Icons that the reader can click on to learn more about the publisher of articles shared have generated a lot of attention from the media sector and specialists since they were implemented, notably by Facebook in 2017.

A recent study has shown that while such indicators – in another setting – were treated by most readers as credible and increase trust in news outlets, they didn’t prevent the majority of people from sharing news noted as not worthy of trust, just because they liked doing so anyway.

  • Transparency: Allowing readers to know who’s paying for what is the bare minimum publishers can do.

Then, there’s the worthwhile effort to counter disinformation with fact-checking. It’s a fact – no pun intended – that we cannot count on reason alone to push back conspiracy theorists, demagogues and professional liars. Nor to build successful business model. It is an important yet challenging task to produce the right effects in the short and long run.

We’ve been told on the one hand for a while that this can backfire because of cognitive biases. On the other, more recent studies suggest that this is not the case. Consequently, many fact-checkers are developing their fact checks for impact. “If constructed pedagogically, fact-checks can be useful as methodically verified pieces of information while contributing more largely to a fact-based public debate and media literacy”, points out Mikko Salo of Faktbaari (FactBar). In other words, Fact-checking is an important part of the solution; but only one, qualifying it in the eyes of many as an important yet not urgent effort for the upcoming elections.

However, it could be seen as “urgent and important” if done very transparently and linked to major media for outreach and impact. Europe’s challenge is that most EU member states still don’t have fact-checkers, nor is there an “Independent network of European fact-checkers”- although the latter was recommended both by the European Communication (in its communication) and the independent HLEG report. Also, as Mikko Salo points out, “the advantage of fact-checking next to journalism is also that academics can more easily contribute to fact-checking while factual story telling is more natural for journalists. The problem is that they don’t have a good incentive structure to do it”.

Academic views

Director of research Renée Dinestra at think tank New Knowledge argues in a recent Wired article that also in the definitely “urgent, important” box, we should counter the notion that free speech entails free reach and fight the algorithmic amplification of unfounded news as a matter of priority.

Along the same axis, University of Southern California psychologist Ira Hyman makes the point in a recent article that when “a large share of the populace is living in an epistemic space [NDLR: i.e. how people related to knowledge] that has abandoned conventional criteria of evidence, internal consistency, and fact-seeking”, there’s no measure of checked facts, validated posts and referenced articles that will stem the tide of disinformation.

The priority, she argues, is acknowledging that “the issues involved in misinformation in the post-truth era concern worldviews”.

As more and more people believe anyone is entitled to their own version of reality, it’s essential to address people’s worldviews.

This is definitely the type of challenge that can be filed in the “probably-important-but-we-don’t-see-anything-urgent-that-needs-to-be-done” box by governments. It involves sustained education and citizenship building efforts as well as support to quality media, something many think is beyond their ability to act and time horizon.

In the year ahead, with the upcoming European elections, what should be on Europe’s ‘to-do’ list in this respect, beyond continuing exploring the options already listed above?

Our suggestions

Fondation EURACTIV identifies 5 key priorities for a comprehensive EU strategy for the media sector, so that altogether we don’t forget the “important, not urgent” matters, notably:

  1. Further invest in R&D: Horizon2020 has funded a number of useful initiatives, but is it normal that Europe’s effort in this matter is smaller than Google’s Digital News Initiative? Horizon Europe should do better in the coming years.
  2. Help diversify funding, working hand-in-hand with foundations, supporting in particular trust indicators and speeding up technology underpinning new payment schemes, notably based on blockchain.
  3. Support cross-country and multi-lingual cooperation between media outlets, helping align the ecosystems of translations, language technology and content industries
  4. Invest in capacity development and training for media professionals. Our proposed Stars4Media approach is a potential template.
  5. Support efforts to bring the media sector closer to citizen readers. The media and public authorities need in equal measure to channel people’s expectations, knowledge and ideas in more constructive ways. It’s interesting to note that the HuffPost recently transferred its entire newsroom of 45 reporters and editors to Birmingham as part of the ‘HuffPost Listens

Such efforts are clearly important but may bear fruit over the next few years as opposed to the next few months. As Mr Juncker said, “We should fix the roof while the sun is shining” Same for the EU’s media strategy. Now’s the time to invest in efforts that may be complex and will bear fruit only a long period of time if we want to strengthen quality media throughout the EU’s 2019-24 mandate.

Stephen Boucher

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