Prof Dr. Madeleine de Cock Buning is Chair to the Regulatory Authority of the Media in The Netherlands, Professor of Digital Politics, Economy, and Societies in the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute (EUI) and Professor of Copyright, Media- and Communications law at the Faculty of Law, Governance and Economy, Utrecht University (UU). In 2018 de Cock Buning was Chair to the European Commission’s High-Level Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation.

Nowadays our world seems to be dominated by fear of fake news and efforts to find solutions against its devastating effects. But are we shooting at the right target? Or are some of the suggested cures even worse than the disease?   

Few would disagree that fake news, the most visible part of disinformation, represents a real and present threat. Luckily the evidence we have so far, from research carried out by Oxford Reuters, is that fake news seems to be having a minimal direct impact.  Its effect is limited mostly to groups of “believers” seeking to reinforce their own opinions and prejudices. But accusations of fake news are frequently hurled indiscriminately, as different sides try to impose their own news agenda. According to the Digital News Survey 2018 in the USA 49% of participating citizens have seen politicians use the term fake news to discredit media they do not like, in Hungary that was 44% and in Turkey 40%.    Such accusations can have a negative effect on the general trust in media.

Paradoxically, this distrust is furthered by well-intended public discussions on cures for disinformation. The more the dangers of fake news are outlined and warnings are signaled, the greater societal problem it is felt to be. Furthermore some of the proposed actions in “the fight against disinformation” can even create a self-fulfilling prophecy when they call for certain sources or websites to be blocked. This is a misguided approach. For one thing trolls, like mushrooms, will simply pop up elsewhere. And people are entitled to read what they choose, including fake news.   The idea that the “mainstream media” is being favored over so-called alternative media sources plays into the hands of those with interests in sowing disinformation.

Looking back, it seems that these so called “cures”, as well as all the flagging out of the dangers together with the politically motivated false acquisitions of fake news, equally contribute to the citizens’ distrust in media as disinformation that is actually circulated. According to the Digital News Survey 2018 that includes 74.000 citizen-participants within 37 countries, the average of 58% of the participants is concerned about news that is completely made up, but only 26% have actually seen it.   

It is distrust that is truly detrimental to the role of media in our democratic societies. When audiences do not know what to believe anymore the media as a watchdog is factually muzzled.  It instils the idea that it’s impossible to know what’s true and what isn’t.

Avoiding the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

If we believe that the informed citizen is the underpinning of democracy, then disinformation is indeed an issue that requires action – but what action?

Our report of the EC High Level Expert Group on fake news and disinformation highlights a number of actions  and empathizes that none of the actors in this can avoid their share of responsibility. First of all governments and regulators have an obligation to provide for a sustainable, diverse media environment, whilst ensuring there are full protections for freedom of speech and its dissemination. It is crucial that the EU and member states come forward with budgets to support independent quality news media and media agents, including journalist training and support for fact-checking organisations.

This is especially important because we have seen that due to pressure on their business models professional media have not always been able to invest enough time to checking the sources of information, turning them into involuntarily purifiers of disinformation. Fact-checking technology has an important role to play here too, provided it is independent and free from any political influence.

At the same time platforms should provide client-based interfaces for control and guidance on selecting, for example, priorities in news searches and news feeds, diversity of opinions on consumer time lines and the re-posting of fact-checked information. Platforms need to be transparent about their algorithms. They should identify sources as much as possible and make these visible to the reader by providing fair and objective source transparency indictors. The scrutiny of the placements of advertisements should be significantly improved to reduce revenues of the purifiers of disinformation  and sponsored content needs to be very clearly identified.

All these measures taken together contribute to the strengthening of societal resilience to disinformation. But we need to do more. Especially with the coming of deep fake news, a development in Artificial Intelligence where Audio Visual content is manipulated to make it impossible to recognize true from false.

Therefore we must urgently ensure that citizens can always place information in a proper context and can have actual access to diverse and independent media. As was emphasized in the report of the High-Level Expert Group, Media and Information Literacy (MIL) plays an important role in strengthening societal resilience against disinformation since it will ultimately be citizens that will marginalise the effects of fake news. We must empower citizens in the battle against disinformation and fake news. We therefore need concerted efforts to teach media literacy in schools, as well as to all adults that have the right to vote. Media- and Information Literacy (MIL) efforts should however be independently designed by professionals that use the utmost care whilst avoid creating an atmosphere of distrust. Justified levels of trust in media together with diverse consumption can diminish the societal impact of disinformation. In the Netherlands for example research shows that news consumption of both young and old is very diverse whereas only 30% of Dutch citizens are concerned about what is true and what is fake online. As such, the Netherlands takes the hightest place in trust in the ranking of 37 countries researched in the Digital News Report 2018. The Dutch score is particularly remarkable in comparison to countries such as Brazil (85%) and the US (64%). Other positive examples are Denmark and Sweden with both only 36%.   

Existing and justified trust in media as a public watchdog should be cherished and furthering fear by pointing out the dangers of fake news should be avoided. A positive attitude in MIL is the only way forward to strengthen societal resilience, for instance by focusing on the importance of diverse new consumption by breaking out of the filter bubble. Viewing multiple sources as opposed to exclusive news consumption through a social media time line substantially reduces the impact of disinformation.

In order to be effective, this also requires media literacy of professional media. Also professional media need to be able to invest time and have adequate tools to fact check their content before distributing it. This requires sustainable business models and consumer willingness to remunerate. To help future proofing the media eco-system, MIL should therefore include the raising of consumer awareness of the fact that good journalism requires investments.  If citizens keep relying on free news, quality journalism will be less sustainable.

At the end of the day, we need to avoid the self-fulfilling prophecy of public distrust that actually empowers trolls instead of marginalizing them. Only a strong media eco-system together with diverse news consumption truly empowers citizens in the battle for the truth.