TACKLING FAKE NEWS ABOUT THE EU
EVENT REPORT AND POLICY INPUTS
JANUARY 30, 2018 BRUSSELS
Introduction On the 30th of January, the Think Young Think Europe subcommittee of the European Commission’s Blue Book trainees organized an interactive workshop Tackling Fake News About the EU. Around 90 people attended, including staff from European institutions, private sector representatives and Blue Book trainees. The event was kicked off with speeches by Margaritis Schinas (Chief Spokesperson of the Commission), Marietje Schaake (ALDE MEP), Jakub Kalensky (East StratCom) and Sophie Chauvet (academic and journalist). The speakers addressed various fake news related issues, including definitions of fake news, the threats of over-regulation to free speech, EU activities against Russian disinformation campaigns and DG COMM's attempts to counter fake news about the EU. An interactive discussion followed, exploring the historical specificity of fake news. The afternoon was dedicated to finding solutions to the fake news phenomenon, both with regards to civil society and the EU institutions. Participants were invited to define fake news threats they themselves found relevant, and discussed inter-alia the appropriate responses of the media, the notion of free speech or ways to counter misinformation about health and vaccines.
The workshop topics covered both misinformation - false information whose disseminator actually believes in them - and disinformation - false information that is deliberately spread to advance a political, economic or any other gain. Acknowledging that an informed opinion is necessary for informed decision making regarding many aspects of our life (e.g. voting, medical issues), the underlying assumption of the event was that flooding people with false information can destabilize the EU and European democracies in general, and that we thus must strive to find appropriate responses to this threat. The goal of the Tackling Fake News About the EU workshop was (1) to raise awareness about fake news among its participants and (2) to involve various stakeholders and young EU trainees in a participatory discussion whereby they would define responses on different aspects of fake news. The workshop also aimed to contribute to the ongoing EU level discussion on this issue: In November. the European Commission launched a public consultation and in the middle of January the High Level Expert Group on fake news started its work, with the aim to define EU level actions to reduce their spread. This report summarizes the outcomes of our discussions, and has the ambition to reach relevant stakeholders participating in this debate.
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Speakers: Definitions, Proposals and Challenges Marietje Schaake
The concept of fake news clearly means different things to different people. Remarkably, it is increasingly posing a challenge to the open society and open mindedness of liberal democracies. When examining this phenomenon, we should primarily focus on how the content is spread, rather than what is spread.
We should find a common space where to communicate. It is essential to maintain and promote the freedom of speech principle in the online world. The EU should also avoid using top-down measures as this would be used by authoritarian regimes to suppress the freedom of speech.
Proposals: • Different aspects of fake news to be precisely analysed: •
Strategic concerns: covering illegal and destabilising information, but also cyber attacks, hybrid operations, etc. Commercial aspect: as in the case of blogs that spread unscientific information to attract people attention and thereby sell ads. Journalism: with tradition media under increasing pressure from new media with little (if any) journalistic ethic.
Regulation: should aim at transparency, i.e. of algorithmic mechanisms or political advertisements. Consumers should understand better what kind of information they are being served and why. Education: media literacy and the capacity to critically assess information are fundamental. Media pluralism: freedom and independent media should be protected across the EU, especially in the countries where it is now being under threat.
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Communication: there is a need to create awareness and empower civil society to promote media pluralism and new revenue models for journalism. Defence and security: illegal material such as terrorist propaganda should be targeted and taken down more effectively.
Q&A Q: Is Fake News a political problem besides a media problem? A: Trump has the right to say whatever he wants. We need to defend the freedom of speech of all our political opponents. The key political problem concerns bots and trolls spreading fake news online for strategic interests. Social media platforms have a huge responsibility as they allow automated accounts by state actors. Transparency is the key here because there should be public oversight over public debate.
independence of the media system. Freedom of the press is part of our founding values.
We should strive to use more precise definitions when talking about fake news, as this concept is ill-defined and can be used to serve the purposes of the new populists to describe news content they disagree with. Another threat is that legacy media can use this term against less established news sources, and new intermediaries and discredit the so-called wisdom of the crowd. Last but not least, the term fake news lacks a legal framework, to effectively tackle the issue. Claire Wardle from First Draft News distinguishes different types of fake news content according to different categories of fake and the intentions lying behind. In sum, we can distinguish between: •
Q: What are regulators actually capable of doing? A: The Tech utopia has quickly changed into a big concern for democracy. The EU cannot act effectively on this issue when there are some Member States attacking the
Misinformation: Information that is false, but not created with the intention of causing harm. Disinformation: Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country.
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Malinformation: Information that is based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, organization or country.
What can media do about fake news? The recent surge of disinformation is representative of the crisis of the media in general, which are facing challenges in terms of ethics, trust, ownership and lack of independence. However, it is also a great opportunity for newsrooms to reinvent themselves and create new business models. One example of innovative media model to counter the phenomenon of disinformation is the French collaborative fact-checking platform CrossCheck. The platform was created in the context of the French presidential elections, after we had already witnessed how false information can pose a threat to national security and democracy by affecting the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum. French newsrooms created a fact-checking alliance, where more than 100 journalists from 37 major newsrooms collaborated online to factcheck cases of mis and disinformation. The project lasted for 2.5 months and eventually 67 debunks were published. In the CrossCheck, project editors would monitor social media and a list
of websites to spot rumours and fakes. Journalists would in turn factcheck, together, by aggregating their skills and debating whether a case was worth a debunk or not. The debunked information would then be published on CrossCheck’s website and communicated on social media. As the First Draft research on the platform results confirmed, CrossCheck had a positive impact on both journalists and audience, particularly through: •
Overcoming the issue of competition, which usually represents an obstacle to ethical journalism. Sharing of information and transparency standards, which resulted in high quality journalism. While the cross-checking process may have been slower than traditional reporting, it was overcome by this increased quality. Increasing skills of journalists through collective editorial decision making. Increasing the trust of the audience thanks to the fact that multiple newsrooms collaborated in the debunks. Collaboration as an identity made CrossCheck seem more reliable, more independent, impartial, and credible Providing media literacy skills to the audience, by explaining simply, neutrally, and step by
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step, how the debunk was done. This encouraged them to apply the learnings when they face cases of disinformation Providing arguments that were really used as a tool for debate and argumentation. The fact that CrossCheck was seen as independent and reliable, made its audience confident enough to argue and convince their peers to be more wary of disinformation, which was significant in an election context. Enabling, through the image of independence, the platform to reach a politically diverse audience, including individuals from the extreme sides of the spectrum.
Jakub Kalenský The East Strategic Communication task force exists since 2015 following a Council Resolution to tackle Russian disinformation campaigns, hence it precedes the term fake news.
population. In some authoritarian regimes such as Russia, journalists are playing the game.
East StratCom is a diversified task force with three main objectives: • Better communicate EU policies with the Eastern Partnership Countries to counter the negative messages of the local Sputniks. • Supporting independent media in the region, in collaboration with DG NEAR. • Rising awareness on disinformation campaigns giving them visibility to prompt critical thinking.
Disinformation campaigns are non-military means to achieve military goals, intentionally undermining the trust of the audience toward democratic institutions. In some instances they aim at awakening the protest potential of the targeted
Q: The East StratCom budget is going to sharply increase, what is going to change? A: The idea is to move from a voluntary to a professional network to monitor fake news in Eastern Europe.
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Q: How do you deal with nuances such as the distance between facts and interpretations? A: We only deal with factual statements. We can not judge the statement that Vladimir Putin is the most attractive politician, but we can disprove the statement that he is the most popular politician in Bulgaria, as we can find sociological polls about this. While this can be at times complicated, fake news have to be shot down very quickly to prevent their spread.
Q: If Russia is attacking us, why are we not attacking back? A: The EU is not thinking about firing back and, even if it wanted to, it would not be able because such disinformation campaigns require a very repressive and authoritarian regime.
The European Commission’s Spokesperson is a frontline practitioner
of the news machine 24/7, with a daily face briefing. It is indeed difficult to define fake news in scientific or empirical terms, as it is difficult to capture the whole picture of the issue. I would break it down to four dimensions: • • • •
Speed; Emotion; Half truth or lie; Technology.
The success of fake news rises from their ability to catch the attention, prompting engagement. Social media platforms have a huge role to play on all this. They cannot pretend to be the 21st century mailing service since they can in fact edit content.
In terms of policy the Commissioner Mariya Gabriel is on the frontline of the anti-fake news drive. The High-Level Expert Group is expected to deliver an assessment of all possible countermeasures by March 2018. On the ground, the European Commission Representations have developed their own tool tackle fake news. A successful example being Les décodeurs de l’Europe, a myth-busting guide produced by the Representation in Paris during the French Presidential campaign.
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Individuals involved in the Brussels ecosystem should also play a role in shooting down false information. Indeed, all actors should be actively involved: national institutions, agencies and civil societies. In addition, tackling fake news is a generational issue, because it will continue to concern young people in the future. This puts a special obligation on EU trainees as users, as citizens and as defenders of a cause that is still under threat.
Q: How can the European Commission be a credible alternative to politicians that exploit fake news? A: Europe is ever more relevant, an oasis of reason and stability. As we will continue to face difficulties, we need politicians to take ownership, to become shareholders of the European project. Q: Where was the emotional dimension of the Brexit campaign? A: Unfortunately, in that occasion the EU did not manage to combine policy success with emotions. The Commission has â€œtechnical charismaâ€?, but is not good at emotions.
Q&A Q: In general, there is poor education on EU literacy, how can we do more about it? A: We cannot communicate everything from Brussels, we need to reach the average citizens in their reality. We need more third party endorsement from actors that are closer to the average citizen. THINK YOUNG. THINK EUROPE. | WINTER 2017-2018 7
What is new about fake news? Participants were divided into small groups and asked to engage with the question “What is new about fake news?”. While the answer could be taken-for-granted, the discussion was in fact rather challenging, as it aimed at filling the gap in the definition of the term. A useful expedient was found in comparing and contrasting Fake News with a more traditional concept: propaganda. In this way a better understanding of the issue was reached, as the following explains.
or scientific research. Indeed they both use emotions to rally people against something or someone.
SIMILARITIES Fake News are similar to a certain extend as they both aim at arising strong emotions to pull people together against something. In one sentence, three elements emerge: •
A common element is aggregative, people come together around a common believe or rather misconception; Strong emotions play a key role not only in uniting people but also in skipping rational reasoning and rejecting facts contrasting one’s personal views; Another critical aspect in common is their antagonistic nature. Propaganda mobilized masses to attain war or political aims, fake news target the credibility of established institutions i.e. political parties
Whereas propaganda had a predefined target group, fake news are directed to a much broader and undetermined audience; Plurality: in propaganda time the state or other political groups enjoyed or at least aimed at obtaining the monopoly of information distribution, by contrast there are today many channels to assess information; Propaganda was a “pedagogic” instrument in the hands of political actors with political objectives, fake news can be fabricated to serve private interests i.e. a blog that aims at selling advertisements; Accountability: in the past one could assume the power was in the hands of political institutions, nowadays there are multiplicity of actors and lobbies more powerful than politicians that are not democratically accountable.
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What seems to lead the passage from propaganda to fake news is a social change. Whilst propaganda was based on scarcity of information, fake news spread in an information overloaded environment. Social networks have revolutionized the circulation of information as they increasingly tailor the message to the receiver without any journalistic ethic. The challenge fake news pose is unique to our times as driven not only by technological change but also by the way people’s appropriate communication technologies in their daily life. Everytime a potentially disruptive change occurs, the ball goes in the legislators’ court. Questions such as “what should social media platforms be accountable for?” ever more urgently call for a response. The rest of this report aims at fuelling such a debate on the regulatory initiatives the EU institutions could and should take.
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How to tackle fake news? During the afternoon session, participants were then asked to set forth possible ways to address the issue of fake news. Small groups gathered to develop each of these proposals. The following is the result of such discussions.
EDUCATION Media has become so pervasive in our daily lives that there should be media literacy classes already at school. Since childhood, citizens should be taught how to spot misleading information and how to behave on social media. The purpose should be to create a citizenships that is keen toward constructive debates and fact-checked information. The final result should be a society where critical thinking is embedded in the popular culture. From comedy to social media interactions, communication should be based on self-reflection. This should involve not purely a top-down policy but also a bottom-up mobilisations of school teachers, parents, journalists and more in
general all professionals operating in the cultural industry. Possible obstacles to be overcome would be the current polarisation and the growing distrust in science.
MEDIA REFORM A number of initiatives were identified for media actors to tackle fake news. Journalists are invited to make information more readily understandable and the use of sources more transparent. Fact-checking should occur in real time when needed, for instance during a debate, as this is when myth-busting affects the audience more directly. Media outlets of different political affiliation should collaborate when important events like the elections occur, as it was the case of the French CrossCheck platform. Civil society can also assist media professionals: A good example are the Latvian â€˜elveâ€™ volunteers, who are fighting trolls by exposing and debunking disinformation spread by pro-Russian trolls.
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Obstacles one could envisage are indeed the competition among media outlets and the “click” culture that seems spreading among journalists. Journalistic professionalism and ethics should be uphold rather than discarded now that journalists have to adapt to the logics of social media platforms and the clickbait culture. Last but not least, citizens should become more conscious about supporting quality journalism. As revenues of traditional media are declining, we should support them through buying subscriptions, crowdfunding campaigns or simple expressions of trust. We should accept and promote the notion that consuming quality information is good for our well-being, similarly to eating healthy food.
SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTABILITY Social networks have become de facto editors, hence a number of legislative initiatives are being put in place. For instance, in Germany the social media platforms can be fined if they fail to remove illegal content. However, such regulatory approach can be dangerous to freedom of speech, especially when the concept of fake news is ill-defined. All ideas for regulation of such an elusive subject seem very ambitious. A huge obstacle consists in the fact that promoting quality content is at odds with the founding business model of social networks, which is based on
selling ads through promoting popular, rather than quality content.
A legislative framework should be created at the EU level, promoting primarily transparency and accountability of online platforms in their algorithmic editorial policies and their dealing with personal data. As the issue of fake news is in fact transnational, the EU could create an international internet forum to bring together all relevant actors and favor cooperation among law enforcement agents. Platforms should fund fact-checkers, provide guidelines for users’ conduct and rise awareness about fake news.
VACCINE MYTH-BUSTING The issue of vaccination illustrates very clearly the rising scepticism against established institutions and commonsensical knowledge. Indeed, lobbies try to influence regulation, hence transparency should be increased to make decision-making more credible.
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However, occasional misconduct cannot justify throwing away centuries of medical advancements. Facts on the positive results of vaccination should be made readily available from trustable sources. There should be very clear and simple explanations of pros and cons for each vaccine. These should be published both online and on booklets distributed through relevant institutions i.e. schools, parentsâ€™ associations. The use of sensationalistic and emotional language should be reassured to bring the debate back on the field of rationality.
GENERATIONAL DIVIDE While fake news proliferate mainly on social media, the issue has also a generational dimension. Seniors are prone to consume and share misleading content too, for instance through electronic mail. Therefore, for quality communication to be effective, it should target specific generational groups through the most appropriate channels.
Story-telling could be made all the more compelling with third partiesâ€™ endorsements on social media. A way to do this could, for example, be a blogging competition to stimulate young-to-young debate about Europe and its future.
EUROPEAN IDENTITY The EU is a vulnerable target of fake news because it is not underpinned by a strong European identity. A number of initiatives could nourish a European-wide sense of belonging: European TV programmes on the model of Eurovision, European holidays and festivals, strengthening successful programmes such as Erasmus and Interrail, introducing the practice of a gap year for the European Civil Service. The underlying problem is that there is no strong European narrative, instead EU generated benefits are simply taken for granted.
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THREATS TO FREEDOM OF SPEECH In many countries the freedom of expression is already limited for what concerns hate speech or the promotion of undemocratic behaviour i.e. in Germany it is unlawful denying the Holocaust, in Italy reproducing fascist propaganda. Voluntarily spreading false information online should also be regulated, although it is always a very delicate enterprise limiting such a fundamental freedom. A committee of media experts could be formed to suggest policy-makers on how this delicate balance should be achieved.
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Conclusions and policy solutions Tackling Fake News About the EU workshop brought forward a range of issues relevant to the fake news phenomenon. This illustrates that fake news is a complex issue, in need of precise definitions and differentiated approaches towards different types of misleading content (e.g. targeted disinformation vs. unintentional misinformation vs. illegal hate speech). Actors from the EU institutions, national governments, the civil society and the private sector need to cooperate in order to efficiently tackle fake news. In a participant satisfaction survey, most respondents highlighted that the workshop contributed to their greater understanding of fake news They also appreciated the interactive format of the discussions, and the quality of speakers. Examples of responses we have received: Blue Book trainee: Honestly, this was the best workshop event I've attended since arriving at the Commission - great work! European Commission employee:The morning session was extremely interesting with great speakers, my compliments to the organisers! Blue Book trainee: I liked the speakers - very good and interesting - and the various participatory discussion that allowed for fruitful exchange. European Commission employee: I liked how it was animated. There is nothing I would improve. Bravo! Other participant: I liked the varying formats of discussion and the formats themselves; the combination of discussion and speeches; the content itself and everybody's motivation and ideas. The interactive format of the workshop strengthened the participants’ ownership of solutions they proposed. This demonstrates how collaborative approach to tackling fake news can be more efficient than top-down regulation. In democratic societies, the truth cannot be dictated from above. Rather, trust of general population in objectifiable facts must be built through empowering citizens to recognize and debunk false information, while sustaining a debate about norms and practices between them and policy makers.
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The workshop generated the following policy suggestions:
EU INSTITUTIONS ● Promoting education policy: concerning media and digital literacy (grass-route, considering parents, teachers, schools, students, youth associations) ● Safeguarding media pluralism and freedom of speech, as founding principles of the European Union, across all the EU member states ● Regulation ○ Promoting transparency of social media platforms in terms of algorithms, financing sources, political advertisements. ○ Creating a shared, clear definition of fake news with a clear distinction from other harmful content such as illegal hate speech. ○ Applying a differentiated approach towards different types of content: Removing clearly illegal content, raising awareness about disinformation and misinformation. ○ Setting up an independent, permanent committee to strike the balance case-by-case between fake news and censorship (non-binding legal opinion). ● Better communication ○ Creating a common European narrative that is able to promote pro-European messages emotionally, not just rationally. ○ Promoting European identity through pan-European festivities, exchanges or cultural programmes. ○ Using local ambassadors to promote pro-EU messages. ○ Targeting different generations through different channels (e.g. social media for the young people, TV for older generations). ○ Raising awareness about targeted disinformation campaigns from political parties or foreign states that are aiming at dividing populations and eroding trust of citizens in their public institutions.
CIVIL SOCIETY ● Setting up intra-newsrooms collaborations in times of strategic concerns i.e. international crisis, elections, etc. on the footprint of Cross Check France ● Setting up forum of scientific organisations to shoot down with a broad consensus anti-scientific fake news ● Youth Associations should be play a more active role in combating fake news on social media
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● All members of the civil society should adopt and promote the discourse that consuming low-quality information is bad for us, just like eating unhealthy food
PRIVATE SECTOR ● Social media platforms should acknowledge their responsibility as content editors, not just neutral transmitters. After assuming this responsability, they should: ○ Cooperate with public authorities in taking down illegal content ○ Promote transparency of their editorial policies (algorithms, political advertisements, take down practices) ○ Try to define a business model that promotes quality information from trusted sources ○ Raise awareness about the threat of fake news ○ Fund and cooperate with fact-checkers and journalists The Think Young Think Europe welcomes the approach of the European Commission with the setting up of an High-Level Expert Group with member drawn from all the actors involved. TYTE wishes the final conclusions of the Expert Group and the following EU policies will take into consideration the above-written policy suggestions.
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Our sincerest thanks to all those who participated and made the event and report possible. Please share this one last word from our most distinguished guest! #TackleFakeNewsEU
Report completed by Luca Bertuzzi, Klára Votavová and Flavio Proietti. Photos taken by Dario Belluomini. The workshop was organised by the Think Young Think Europe subcommittee: Leonie Neuffer and Flavio Proietti (Coordinators), Dario Belluomini, Luca Bertuzzi, Thomas Duval, Helga Majzik, Petra Sandor, Teemu Toivola, Klára Votavová. Please direct enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org
Published on Feb 27, 2018