According to the March 2018 Eurobarometer on fake news and online disinformation, 85% of the citizens in the EU perceive fake news as a problem in their country, 83% perceive it as a problem for democracy in general, and 73% are concerned about disinformation online during pre-election periods.
Fake News is nothing new. It is just as old as humankind. In the Iliad, the Trojans fell for a fake horse. Procopius, a Byzantine historian of the 6th century AC, produced dubious information, known as “Anecdota”, to smear the reputation of the Emperor Justinian while praising the emperor in his official histories.
Moreover, according to Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister in Nazi Germany, if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. Just take a look at what is happening in the UK.
Nowadays, fake news is the buzz word across Europe and the wider world. The internet and social media are the most important operators in cultural connection on the planet. Freedom, speed and penetration make it possible for anyone, even the most doubtful vagabond, to gain publicity and influence.
Internet and social media can also create worldwide embarrassment on Facebook or Twitter. Armies of trolls armed with virtual pitchforks and torches can destroy the reputation of any organisation, CEO or politician.
Speedy dissemination of any conspiracy theory and fake news is now possible. The internet and social media have become incubators for new movements, parties and leaders and, have brought back fascism into our western societies.
The Donald Trump phenomenon would not even exist without the internet. Facebook, the largest social network on the planet, has to answer to increased concerns over its users spread of hate speech and propaganda.
The revelation that 50 million people had their Facebook profiles harvested by data firm Cambridge Analytica so it could target them with political ads is a massive blow to the social network. Fundamental questions arise about Facebook’s approach to data protection and disclosure.
Can social networks adequately secure our most personal data? And if that data is misused, is our democracy still safe? Do we need a voters protection legislation as we have in place for consumers?
The exposure of citizens to large scale disinformation, including misleading or outright false information, is a significant challenge for Europe. It has come to the point where the EU has decided to take initiatives to protect citizens.
In 2018, the European Commission :
- Organised a public consultation to gather the views of a wide range of stakeholders on fake news.
- Launched a Eurobarometer public opinion survey to measure and analyse the perceptions and concerns of the European citizens around fake news.
- Established a High-Level Group, to advise on policy initiatives to counter fake news and the spread of disinformation online. The Group submitted its final report on 12.03.2018.
- Published a communication on “Tackling online disinformation: a European approach” (26.04.2018) which outlines the key overarching principles and objectives such as transparency, credibility, diversity & inclusiveness. These principles should guide actions to raise public awareness about disinformation and tackle the phenomenon effectively, as well as the specific measures which the Commission intends to take in this regard.
- Organised a multi-stakeholder conference (13–14.11.2018) and a colloquium on fake news to define the boundaries of the problem, assess the effectiveness of the solutions already put in place by social media platforms and to agree on key principles for further action.
- Established a self-regulatory Code of Practice to address the spread of online disinformation and fake news is now in place as a step forward to ensure transparency and fairness in online campaigns. Representatives of online platforms, leading social networks, advertisers and advertising industry agreed on this Code. This is the first time worldwide that industry agrees, on a voluntary basis, to self-regulatory standards to fight disinformation
- Published an Action Plan to step up efforts to counter disinformation (05.12.2018) in Europe and beyond, focusing on 4 key areas to build up EU’s capabilities and strengthen cooperation between Member States and the EU:
a) improving detection,
b) having a coordinated response to threats,
c) collaboration with online platforms and industry,
d) raising awareness and empowering citizens
In its Action Plan, the EC recognises that disinformation is a major challenge for European democracies and societies and that the Union needs to address it while being true to European values and freedoms.
Disinformation undermines the trust of citizens in democracy and democratic institutions. It also contributes to the polarisation of public views and interferes in democratic decision-making processes. It can also be used to undermine the European project.
The Action Plan sets out key actions to tackle disinformation in a coordinated approach of the Union institutions and the Member States. It also highlights measures to be taken as a matter of priority by different actors ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections. Member States are encouraged to step up their solidarity and defend the Union against hybrid attacks, including attacks using disinformation.
Also, the Commission calls upon all signatories of the Code of Practice to implement the actions and procedures identified in the Code swiftly and effectively on an EU-wide basis, focusing on actions that are urgent and relevant for ensuring the integrity of 2019 European elections.
In particular, large online platforms should immediately:
a) ensure scrutiny of ad placement and transparency of political advertising, based on effective due diligence checks of the identity of the sponsors,
b) close down fake accounts active on their services
c) identify automated bots and label them accordingly.
Although the above are excellent steps in the right direction, the European Commission does not provide any audit tool to check the implementation of the Code of Practice. There is no proposition on how to monitor transparency of social media providers algorithms and commercial practices. It does not provide any real regulation proposition to limit the dissemination of fake news which is the real problem.
It should become mandatory for social media and other online platforms to reveal the identities of who pays or issues advocacy advertising and where they are based. Nevertheless, the EU approach should avoid fragmentation of the internet and protect and promote freedom of expression, media freedom and pluralism.
Finally, the sustainability of the media sector is hardly addressed in the Action Plan. The EU and its Member States need to make much more efforts in supporting actively independent journalism in Europe. The media is going through a huge transformation, which will deepen due to Artificial Intelligence, robotics and big data.
Fake news feeds on the media’s current weakness. Supporting credible information sources and trusted journalists can help prevent the spread of disinformation. Combating disinformation with quality content and investigative journalism would lead to more trust in our democracy and European values.
The innocence once was in social media and the sincere desire to share authenticity and creativity is over. Now it is only about business. Therefore we need strong regulation in the EU as well as significant funding and support for constructive journalism.