Fake news and Freedom of Press: can the EU ever find the fine line?

Press conference by Mariya Gabriel, Member of the EC, and Madeleine de Cock Buning, Chair of the High-Level Expert Group on fake news and online disinformation
Date: 12/03/2018 Location: Brussels – EC/Berlaymont
© European Union , 2018.
Source: EC – Audiovisual Service Photo: Lukasz Kobus

The European Commission attempts to tackle disinformation which is spread online by building up strategic measures in the EU. Last January, the EC assigned to a High Level Expert Group (HLEG) to define the problem and propose concrete recommendations on how it can be dealt.

The report which was completed last month sets this issue as multi-dimensional and that it should be treated as such. It thus proposes short-term measures to the most pressing problems and long-term initiatives to strengthen society.

Disinformation: a multi-dimensional approach

First of all, the HLEG defines disinformation as a “phenomenon which includes all forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit”. According to the report, democratic political values are threatened by the creation and promotion of disinformation for financial gains or political goals. The HLEG mentions that simplistic approaches such as internet fragmentation and public or private censorship are not recommended.

On the contrary, a multi-dimensional approach is promoted based on five pillars. Transparency of online news is the first one where HLEG’s proposal is to make all the information available to the reader. Promotion of information literacy and strengthening of journalists and users are the second and third pillars respectively. Furthermore, it is imperative to protect the sustainability of the EU media news ecosystem and to continuously evaluate the disinformation issue and propose up-to-date solutions.

Code of Practice for platforms

The HLEG has proposed a code of principles which should be followed by platforms in order to ensure quality news and online information. According to this code, the platforms have to transform their advertising policies so as to be clear and transparent where it is prevented to use disinformation for profit.

The user’s data must be processed in a transparent way with respect to each user privacy and freedom of expression. What is more, platforms should provide users with visible options to access trustworthy news and create a user-friendly environment providing the opportunity to connect with trusted fact-checking sources.

With regards to the issue, Sir Julian King, the European commissioner for security, expressed his concern on how social media can function during political campaigns. More specifically, the European commissioner wrote a letter to Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, on March 19 according to the Financial Times: “The psychometric targeting activities such as those of Cambridge Analytica, a data analysis company, are just a preview of the profoundly disturbing effects such disinformation could have on the functioning of liberal democracies. It is clear that the cyber-security threat we are facing is changing from one primarily targeting systems to one that is also increasingly about deploying cyber means to manipulate behaviour, deepen societal divides, subvert our democratic systems and raise questions about our democratic institutions”.

The HLEG has suggested that this Code should be self-regulated in the short and medium- run and all shareholders including online platforms, news media organisations, journalists, fact-checkers, independent content creators and the advertising industry have to comply with the principles, roles and responsibilities of the Code.

Education is a key factor

But who can decide on the way media work and judge them at the end of the day? The only one who should criticize media must be the reader and it should be up to him to decide and distinguish among “fake” and “non-fake” news.  According to critics, this work faces the risk of undermining freedom of expression and publishers’ rights.

A group of lawyers complained to the EU ombudsman last week saying that: “The EU Disinformation Review seeks to control the right to freedom of expression by labelling publishers as disinformation outlets and their content as disinformation, creating a chilling effect on the work of journalists that is central to democracy”. Furthermore, the group mentioned that the EU cannot decide whether a publication is producing disinformation as it does not have a clear and reliable approach.

Instead, more attention should be paid to the educational system enhancement provided to the EU citizens in order to be able to understand false or inaccurate information which is meant to harm and mislead them intentionally. Thus, people should be in the position of evaluating the accuracy of the information in a more efficient way while freedom of speech would not be violated.

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