Saturday 16 November 2019

We have much better chance of tackling fake news crisis with Juncker's backing

The abortion referendum and the European Parliament elections could be influenced by large-scale disinformation, writes Stephen Rae

UNITED CAUSE: INM Group Editor-in-Chief Stephen Rae (left) with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker
UNITED CAUSE: INM Group Editor-in-Chief Stephen Rae (left) with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker

Stephen Rae

Ireland has been a lagger in the debate on fake news, either complacent about the dangers or afraid of irking the US tech giants based here.

All that is likely to change with an abortion referendum on the horizon and European parliamentary elections around the corner in 2019.

Both polls have the potential to be influenced by fake news or as it is more accurately characterised "disinformation". It is very hard to distinguish disinformation from quality content on Facebook and Twitter because the perpetrators go to great lengths to disguise their real identity.

During the US presidential election, for example, Republican voters were bombarded with Facebook posts and tweets from account holders they thought were kindred spirits in Texas and elsewhere in the US - but were in fact coming from robots based in St Petersburg, Russia. The profile photos for the Russian bots were often emblazoned with the US flag and military veterans' insignia to hoodwink users.

There are now serious fears that the European Parliament elections in 2019 could similarly be influenced by industrial scale disinformation to elect pro-Russian MEPs throughout Eastern Europe.

It's one of the reasons European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker ordered a report into Fake News which was delivered earlier last week.

The 39-strong group was made up of academics, media, the tech giants (Facebook, Twitter, Google) and civic society representatives. We had two months, four meetings and many teleconferences to draw up the report which in the end was overwhelmingly agreed by the participants.

From the start the chair, Dutch law professor Madeleine de Cock Buning made it clear we would be working in a "pressure cooker" environment to come up with recommendations on tackling viral fake news on the social media platforms. I was appointed the "challenger" to the tech giants to prompt them to come up with fresh, imaginative and for them painful ways of curtailing the flow of State and 'for profit' disinformation.

It was funny to find myself the disruptor to Facebook and Google. But the social media companies are well aware they have a huge problem on their hands which must be tackled or they face European regulation.

Nor was it all one-sided. While platforms are responsible for the dissemination of huge volumes of junk news, they would point to one newspaper group whose campaign had led to a considerable drop in childhood vaccine take ups. Clearly, the problem goes way beyond politics and also covers established health and scientific facts - such as cancer causes and climate change - being eroded by interest groups propagating false science.

Now for the first time the report compels the social media companies to sign up to a code of practice. This code has a number of effects including taking the profit out of generating fake news. In the US Presidential election teenagers in a Macedonian "click farm" generated thousands of dollars a day from the advertisements around their fake pro-Trump news. The tech giants say they will stop this incentive to produce disinformation.

Similarly they must provide greater transparency about where the disinformation is coming from. Users are entitled to know if their news is coming from St Petersburg or Milan and who exactly is producing it.

For Twitter that will mean big decisions on the amount of anonymous users churning out hate and garbage. Irish users will be familiar with the multitude of anonymous tricolour emblazoned profile users who troll opponents on a consistent basis. The average user cannot tell if they are robots, political parties, activists or just one person with a grudge holding multiple accounts.

Significantly, independent academic researchers will be allowed to look at the algorithms which decide what news feeds you receive on Facebook. Facebook is an emotive medium meaning users are more likely to share content that provokes humour, disappointment or anger - all the elements used by foreign governments and troll factories to make disinformation viral. Investigating the secret tech algorithms which make content viral will provide greater transparency over social media.

Much of the criticism of the report here in Ireland and by the European Consumer Group says it goes too easy on the platforms. In effect the tech companies have been given two months to clean up their act and have been given the summer to implement the changes. If there is no improvement by November, the High Level Group will report again on the situation and the platforms then face the prospect of regulation or co-regulation. They could also face a European Commission sector inquiry and the e-Commerce Directive - which allows them immunity from legal sanction for the content they carry - could also come under pressure.

From the outset, the group agreed the term "fake news" had become weaponised by all sides in the political debate. Disinformation on the other hand is described as "all forms of false, inaccurate or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit".

There was widespread agreement that laws cracking down on disinformation were double edged as they could also be used to curtail free speech. The experience of fake news laws in Germany introduced earlier this year was cited by German media as an example of where the State had overreacted.

The report will provide for greater transparency around online news but it also recommends Europe spends more money promoting media and information literacy in our schools to ensure children can more easily identify the junk.

It also identifies safeguarding "the diversity and sustainability of the European news media ecosystem" as a priority if we are to drown out the disinformation with verified and trusted information.

Another area that has attracted headlines is the recommendation to set up research centres to monitor the tech giants, evaluate their actions and "constantly adjust the necessary responses".

The importance of the Commission report is that it means action will come centrally from Europe as here in Ireland there is a reluctance in government to upset in any way the tech giants who provide so many jobs in Silicon Docks.

At the same time concentration of tech expertise here means we would be an ideal centre for research into the platforms and how they are responding to disinformation.

The problem, however, will not be going away any time soon.

Also on the group were renowned Italian journalists Gianni Riotta and Federico Fubini. Riotta was able to tell us that during this month's general election, 10pc of comment on Italian social media was generated from Eastern Europe.

It gives us an idea of what to expect in the upcoming referendum, European elections and our General Election whenever that may be.

Presenting the report to Digital Single Market Commissioner Mariya Gabriel last Monday, the chairwoman Madeleine de Cock Buning said it was something that should be implemented in its entirety and not piecemeal. With Juncker's backing that has a better chance of happening.

Stephen Rae is Group Editor-in-Chief at Independent News & Media. He is a member of the European Commission High Level Group on Disinformation and board member at the World Editors Forum

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