Podcast: 'Ireland has opportunity to become European centre for tackling fake news'
IRELAND should pitch to become a European centre for tackling the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and ‘disinformation’, two leading academics have said.
Our healthy democracy and ability to house some of the world’s leading internet companies are cited as reasons why there is a “wonderful opportunity to do good in this space”
Speaking on a special Independent.ie podcast, Jane Ohlmeyer (Erasmus Smith's Professor of Modern History at Trinity College) and Kate Shanahan (Head of Journalism and Communications at DIT) agreed that Ireland is well-placed to be a world leader.
Ms Ohlmeyer, who is also chair of the Irish Research Council, said: “I think we’ve got the expertise in terms of the technology. But we are also a great example of a democracy that’s actually functioning remarkably effectively at the moment.
“I know we bitch and moan about it but actually when you look elsewhere, particularly to Eastern Europe and the United Kingdom, what we have a very robust political infrastructure and a commitment to it.”
She suggested education facilities on both sides of the border should work together with computer scientists and the big technology companies on a “very inclusive basis”.
The podcast, hosted by INM’s Group Political Editor Kevin Doyle, also features former communications minister Pat Rabbitte and INM’s Editor-in-Chief Stephen Rae.
They were reacting to the publication of a High Level Expert Group (HLEG) report on fake news compiled for the European Commission.
It recommended that 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.
But Mr Rabbitte suggested it should have gone further to put pressure on digital companies to actively prevent false information being spread on the internet.
“Fake news is as old as the Roman civilisation but not in the sense that we are talking about here,” he said.
“I would argue for some more imposition on the digital companies themselves.”
Mr Rabbitte said that online platforms can no longer present themselves as “neutral” bystanders who are “just a vehicle to share information”.
“The digital companies get off lightly. I think they have a larger share of responsibility,” the ex-Labour Party TD added.
Mr Rae, who was the Irish representative on the HLEG, explained that there was a consensus that this report is a first step in a “carrot and stick” approach if the companies don’t engage adequately with self-regulation.
Ms Shanahan said the battle against disinformation needs to take account of the reality younger people are no longer tied to a single media outlet or even platform.
“I think the generations that are coming through now have a very different understanding of choice. They graze a lot of platforms. They are quiet agnostic. They are not loyal to one particular platform.”
But she said when a big story breaks people still look for “trusted sources”.
Ms Shanahan said many online platforms have “not been willing” to consider the social impact of their activities or “curbing or monitoring what they do”.
“It has run away with them. They haven’t staffed up the way a newspaper would have to because they haven’t been subject to the same laws as a newspaper or media outlet has.
“You are going to see that they will have to man or woman up to their responsibility. But they are being dragged very slowly to the table,” she said.
Addressing the decision to side-line the phrase ‘fake news’ in favour of ‘disinformation’, Mr Rae said much debate had taken place but the “overwhelming majority didn’t want it called fake news”.
“Everybody was agreed we shouldn’t be called ‘fake news’ because it has now become a weaponised phrase.
“The way Donald Trump has been using it makes it increasingly more weaponised.
“The consensus was to describe it as it is, and that is disinformation,” he said.
Five key findings from the report
1. ‘Fake news’ will no longer be a term used by the European Commission as it has been “used misleadingly by powerful actors to dismiss coverage that is simply found disagreeable. The report states that ‘disinformation’ “goes well beyond term ‘fake news’.”
2. 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’.
3. EU Member States should support media that provide a trustworthy public information service. This could be by way of VAT exemptions or other types of tax breaks.
4. Governments should recognise media and information literacy as a 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”.
5. EU should create a network of European Centres for Research on Disinformation, which should link up fact-checking organisations, scientists, members of press councils.