Wednesday 12 December 2018

Online platforms should accept their responsibility in fighting 'fake news' - new report

Editor in Chief of INM Stephen Rae (right), Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society and Wout van Wijk, Executive Director, News Media Europe
Editor in Chief of INM Stephen Rae (right), Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society and Wout van Wijk, Executive Director, News Media Europe
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

ONLINE platforms such as Facebook and Twitter should have to sign up to a Code of Practice accepting responsibility for their role in fighting ‘fake news’, a new European Commissioner report says.

The European Union is set to embark on a clampdown of disinformation, which is now posing a threat beyond day-to-day political discourse.

A High Level Expert Group (HLEG), comprising of members from across the EU, has today recommended a series of actions for leaders to take in the coming months.

It acknowledges that while “not necessarily illegal”, disinformation can be harmful for citizens and society at large.

Editor in Chief of INM Stephen Rae (right), Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society
Editor in Chief of INM Stephen Rae (right), Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society

“The risk of harm includes threats to democratic political processes, including integrity of elections, and to democratic values that shape public policies in a variety of sectors, such as health, science, finance and more,” it says.

Among the key proposals are:

-          A Code of Practice for online platforms

-          Media and information literacy to be added to the school curriculum

-          Taxpayer support for demonstrably independent public service media

-          And European Centres for monitoring the growth of disinformation.

The Committee, which includes INM’s Editor-in-Chief Stephen Rae, chose not to use the term ‘fake news’ as it has been “appropriated and used misleadingly by powerful actors to dismiss coverage that is simply found disagreeable”.

The report states that ‘disinformation’ “goes well beyond term ‘fake news’.”

Disinformation is defined as including “all forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit”.

While much of the report centres on what media outlets and politicians can do to battle disinformation, there is a strong emphasis on the role of digital platforms.

It notes that online sites “are becoming increasingly important as both enablers and gatekeepers of information”.

“The growing power of platforms to enable – and potentially interfere with – the free circulation of information comes with growing responsibilities.”

The HLEG found that social media sites have “enabled the production and circulation of disinformation on a larger scale than previously, often in new ways that are still poorly mapped and understood”.

As a result it says companies involved should allow access to date so that independent inquires, audits and research to ensuring transparency and authenticity of information sources.

“Digital intermediaries such as social networks and online video platforms can impact public opinion by sorting, selecting and ranking news and information via their algorithms.

“They should therefore be able and willing to act in a responsible way that is commensurate with their powers and the impact that their activities can have on forming public opinion,” the report states.

As there are “no clear and binding rules of conduct” in this area, the report supports the idea of sites committee to a Code of Practices “without delay”.

“Accepting a level of public accountability is a way of building trust for platforms as intermediaries, and to help end-users make better informed choices,” it says.

The report warns that disinformation is emanating from a variety of sources, including foreign governments who “could be working actively to undermine the integrity of European media systems and political processes”.

It says some news media “contribute to disinformation problems, thereby weakening European citizens’ overall trust in media”.

And “it is also clear that some problems of disinformation area animated by citizens’ individually or collectively sharing false and misleading content”.

To combat this, it is advised that European institutions and national governments should recognise media and information literacy as core subject, adding it into school curriculum.

The HLEG says governments should “mandate teacher training colleges to include critical media literacy modules and encourage critical media literacy to become an integral part of all subject-learning, lifelong learning for teachers”.

Governments are also encouraged to introduce tax breaks for reliable news outlets, such as VAT exemptions. These could be dependent on a commitment to invest in the training of journalists and innovation in news media services.

Responding to the publication, Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, said: “This report is just the beginning of the process and will feed the Commission reflection on a response to the phenomenon. Our challenge will now lie in delivering concrete options that will safeguard EU values and benefit every European citizen.”

Irish MEP Brian Hayes welcomed the recommendations, saying it is important to ensure that the steadfast principles of time honoured journalism - accuracy and truth - remain at the heart of all forms of journalism.

“These are the values which have served us so well to date in all aspects of our lives. We cannot and should not take them for granted. These principles are key cornerstones in the democracies which form the European Union (EU),” he said.

 “I hope the proposed measures in this report will help to enhance the transparency of the online news ecosystem and develop tools for empowering users and journalists to foster a positive engagement with fast-evolving information technologies.”

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