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24th Oct 2020

EU told to create coalition against fake news

  • The spread of disinformation online has rattled lawmakers (Photo: rawpixel.com)

The European Commission has been told to set up a coalition to fight fake news, with additional plans to create a so-called 'code of practice' by July.

The ideas were presented on Monday (12 March) in a 50-page report by group of 39 people assembled by the commission.

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  • Profesor Madeleine de Cock Buning (l) and Commissioner Mariya Gabriel (r) on tackling fake news (Photo: European Commission)

It includes setting up a coalition, composed of people from online platforms, news media organisations, journalists and civil society organisations, to fight disinformation.

It would also be asked to create a code of conduct, which they label as a 'code of practices'.

The experts also suggest that online platforms and social networks should commit to "ensure transparency by explaining how algorithms select the news put forward".

That would be a difficult task given that major social media platforms' revenue is related to how it will keep users' attention – with often sensationalist, or fake news.

The report also suggests replacing the term 'fake news' with 'disinformation'.

Given that financial incentives or a political intent from a foreign power are likely culprits, the report suggested first looking at motivations before labelling something as 'disinformation'.

"We define it as false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit," notes the report.

It means sloppy journalism, satire, lying politicians reported accurately, and hate speech will not figure under the label of disinformation, although sensationalist stories might.

The experts however have not looked at the source of much of the disinformation stemming from foreign powers, such as Russia, saying they were tasked to examine best practices.

The report also does not contain answers on what to do if a member states' government itself is disseminating disinformation.

The experts pledged that a vibrant media market should be protected.

"In the report, no blacklisting is advised, quite the opposite. What we advise is fact checking in an open-sourced way. [...] It will be done by several people you can be sure it will amount to the right result," professor Madeleine de Cock Buning, who head the expert group, told reporters.

The report also suggests promoting internet 'literacy' among EU citizens, so that they are better equipped to spot fake news, and to support independent journalism.

Difficult talks

The proposed coalition of stakeholders would then be evaluated. The report suggests the commission could examine other options, if necessary, including "regulatory interventions".

"We haven't decided on regulations. Let's put this [report] into action, and we will examine other possiblities in the future," commissioner for the digital economy Mariya Gabriel told reporters.

The report also recommends the commission support the establishment of 'European Centres' for research on disinformation, improving media literacy, and increase funding for investigative journalism, among other ideas.

They also recommend EU states provide VAT exemptions or other types of tax breaks.

The expert group - composed of media, academics, civil society, and others - debated how to deal with fake news for almost two months, given Russian election meddling accusations in France and elsewhere.

But talks were not always easy.

A contact said discussions at one point had "basically deteriorated into a lobby wish list" after broadcasters, civil society, academics, and others, were divided up into their own sub groups.

"Some of the members of the group really wanted to have a sector inquiry in how the money flows and who makes how much money," noted the contact.

One media participant threatened to leave because of it. The idea was ultimately scrapped.

Despite the differences, the group managed a shaky compromise with a report that will feed into a larger EU commission plan to be presented before the summer.

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Opinion

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The EU's bid to fight 'fake news', the EUvsDisinfo website, is in its infancy and has made mistakes. But transparency and a willingness to put those errors right means it is doing vital work in the battle against Russian propaganda.

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