Fake News – why the fuss?
Just about everyone has heard the term “Fake News” by now, right? Well, Fake News and disinformation are certainly not new phenomena as these have been reported on, predominantly in the form of propaganda, since the medieval times. However with the rapid development of digital media in more recent history there have been increasing reports of those with the power and means to do so developing ways to interfere with the global political climate using “information warfare” and profiting from releasing untrue or distorted “news” into the digital ecosystem, where it has the potential to spread rapidly.
First things first – the term “Fake News” is no longer fit for purpose
The HLEG were tasked with presenting a strategy on tackling online disinformation to the European Commission. The starting point was to define the problem at hand as being one of “disinformation” which “includes all forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit”. The HLEG consider the term “fake news” too simplistic to cover the complex issues at stake and that the term has been contorted for use by those in positions of power to dismiss reports which are not liked or fail to further their cause. The HLEG’s report is not concerned with illegal content (which is already the subject of laws and regulations), unintentional mistakes in reporting or satire and parody.
The HLEG acknowledge that they aren’t starting from a blank piece of paper when it comes to putting together policy actions. Many key stakeholders, such as online platforms and print press organisations, already have in place “good practices” to tackle disinformation, although the effectiveness of these haven’t been independently verified. Furthermore, the HLEG give due consideration to Europe’s constitutional commitment to the doctrine of freedom of expression as set out in the Charter and Convention. As with any discussion on regulating content online, considerable thought needs to be given to the difficult but extremely important balance between protecting the public from harmful content and avoiding a chilling effect on freedom of speech.
The HLEG’s recommendations
The HLEG’s “multi-dimensional” approach rests on the following “inter-dependant” actions (which we interpret as the core aims of further policy on disinformation):
(a) Enhance transparency of the online digital ecosystem (including adequate and privacy-compliant data sharing about the systems that enable online news circulation);
(b) Promote and sharpen the use of media and information literacy approaches to counter disinformation and help users navigate our media environment;
(b) Develop tools for empowering users and journalists and foster a positive engagement with fact-evolving information technologies;
(d) Safeguard diversity and sustainability of the European news media ecosystem; and
(e) Calibrate the effectiveness of the responses through continuous research on the impact of disinformation in Europe and an engagement process that includes predefined and time-framed steps combined with monitoring and reporting requirements.
The HLEG sets out ten “Key Principles” for platforms which are a starting point for developing specific rules for a proposed Code of Practice to establish a multi-stakeholder approach. The “Key Principles” seek, for example, that online platforms be more transparent with regard to the processing of users’ data for advertising placements and that they ensure that sponsored content, including political advertising, is distinguished from other content. Platforms should also make available to their users advanced settings to enable a customised online experience, improve visibility of reliable news and cooperate by providing information on the functioning of their services in order to find a common approach.
The HLEG suggests the establishment of a “Coalition” to represent online platforms, news media organisations and fact-checking organisations to develop the Code of Practice, implement it and ensure its continuous monitoring. The HLEG agreed that the Coalition should start as soon as possible to develop the Code of Practice and in parallel; (1) agree key performance indicators to evaluate the effectiveness of the Code; and (2) “further reflect on the definition of adequate source transparency indicators which should help the effective implementation of the transparency measures required from platforms”.
The HLEG report also makes recommendations for the short and longer term for the European Commission and Member States, which include a call for support to develop European Centres for research of disinformation. Ultimately, for the short to medium term, the HLEG suggests a self-regulatory approach within a clearly defined framework. The Commission is invited to re-examine the position in Spring 2019 and consider whether further actions, such as fact-finding and/or policy initiatives, should be considered for the next European Commission term.
The detailed report can be found in full here.
The HLEG report represents a significant step in the right direction towards developing a collective response to tacking disinformation, and shall play an essential role informing the Commission in anticipation for its upcoming Communication on “Fake News” and online disinformation (due to be released in ‘Spring 2018’). Stay tuned for further updates…