I was very pleased to speak at the Club of Venice Plenary to discuss a topic that especially in the modern times of post-truth, false news and high polarization of the institutional and political debate in Europe, is of the utmost importance for communicators, analysts and all those involved in making laws that regulate and protect the information market and the veracity of what billions of people see every day by scrolling their thumb on their phones.
Disinformation is not a new issue but it is certainly an issue that has assumed a new amplitude with the advent of social networks that share information at an unprecedented pace. The issue of disinformation is not merely confined to analyzing the way social networks work. It relates to a discussion that affects how we perceive society and the future of democracy.
Disinformation is a cause of public harm, a threat to democratic policy making and a danger for citizens’ health, security and their environment. It erodes trust in institutions, and it hampers the ability of citizens to take informed decisions. It has polarized most political debates, deepened tensions in society, undermined electoral systems, and has a wider impact on European security that we may tend to think. It impairs freedom of opinion and expression, which is a key principle enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
Unfortunately, these are indeed times where conspiracy theories ones confined to the fringe, are going mainstream. It is an era where evidential argument seems to be ending and scientific consensus is dismissed. It is an era where nothing generates more engagement than lies, fear and outrage,
A recent Oxford University study found at least 70 countries have launched disinformation campaigns and despite increased efforts by internet platforms to combat disinformation, the use of false news dissemination by governments around the world is growing, We must firstly acknowledge that globally the biggest multipliers of disinformation are mostly governments, mostly not democratic or not accountable legally nor politically for pursuing such society-controlling actions. They either spread disinformation to discredit political opponents or to interfere in foreign affairs and this is concerning for all European elections.
Such online disinformation campaigns can no longer be understood to be the work of “lone hackers, or individual activists, or teenagers in the basement doing things for clickbait.” There is a new professionalism to the activity, with formal organizations that use very powerful and well organized networks to carry out these activities. This cannot be underestimated anymore.
On the other hand, we must keep in mind that access to social media is an actual support for modern day democracy. Any move by authorities to restrict access to, censor or block social media sites should be recognized as an infringement on freedom of speech and our right to information.
The protests in Maidan Square, all the protest movements in Iran’s recent history the current manifestations in Hong Kong have used technology to stay ahead of the authorities and circumvent state-controlled media. Freedom of speech and the right to protest are key elements of democracy and must be protected in order to foster an equal and fair society.
Let us look at this sentence: “In a democracy, I believe people should be able to see for themselves what politicians who they may or may not vote for are saying so they can judge your character for themselves,” Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is doubling down on his company’s decision to not take down political ads that contain false information. This statement summarizes the core of the whole debate. We cannot have a debate about disinformation without look into this. It is a matter of deontological development of the profession of all political and institutional communicators.
Where do we draw the line? Do we control the media to prevent possible disinformation, ergo somehow allowing government decides what’s true or false or do we let anybody make their decision according to what they see, risking conspiracy theories to take over society? Apart from this existential philosophical debate, what can do done by governments and institutions?
FOSTER COOPERATION BETWEEN TECH COMPANIES AND GOVERNMENTS
As an objective analyst of social platforms and trends around Europe, and as one of the people that almost ten years ago shaped and initiated the way the European Commission monitors social networks, I would like to say that we need to rebalance the narrative on disinformation and tech companies. Contrarily to what is often said, tech companies do not have the interest in spreading misinformation and they do have an interest in cooperating with international organizations and governments.
Fighting disinformation has to be a coordinated effort involving all relevant actors, from institutions to social platforms, from news media to consumers’ associations.
From the side of the institutions, two things can be done:
Increase the technological knowledge of policy makers. There is still an important gap between the institutions’ knowledge of how social media work and the knowledge needed to effectively legislate to regulate the spectrum of action of tech and media companies.
We must not fall into the tempting arms of “fashionable hating” just because it may benefit our image. Many celebrities, including prominent European and American politicians are using Facebook as a scapegoat for their own inability to address the public, labeling it as some sort “disinformation-for-profit machine.” Simply resorting to accusations, that paradoxically are often intended to get likes, views or engagement on the very platforms that are criticized, solves no issues.
What can internet companies do?
If they really want to make a difference, they should hire more monitor and work with anti-disinformation organizations, purge lies and conspiracies from their platforms.
Secondly, they should abide by standards of practice like tv, radio and newspapers do. But this needs to be enforced by institutions and still today more legislative work is needed.
In every industry, a company is liable when their product is defective. In every industry you can be sued for the harm they cause. Government can push to have social networks accountable when this happens, the power is in their hand.
INVEST IN REBUTTAL AND FACT-CHECKING
I feel that today the information vs disinformation battle is not about being smarter but being bigger. The European Commission has done a lot over the past few years and colleagues in the communication departments must continue their work to ensure that communication and monitoring are tier-one priorities rather than something that happens just after policy.
If we want social networks that grow in line with European values, we need European champions in technology.
There needs to be a European Silicon valley, not necessarily one geographic location, it can be even a digital space, where companies can grow and express their full potential with European brains, instead of let them go to Southern California or China. We are losing innovation attractiveness (the current state of artificial intelligence draws a gloomy picture in this regard) and not nurturing the possibilities we may have in technology altogether to have a real European Facebook, Google, Weibo, Whatsapp or Twitter. The only great exception is Swedish-made Spotify.
As long as we don’t have solid competitors to these information holding giants, built in a European environment, we will always be at the mercy of companies that are not built upon European values and will not be carrier and standard bearers for these values.
Children are taught to regurgitate what others tell them and to rely on digital assistants to curate the world rather than learn to navigate the informational landscape on their own. Schools no longer teach source triangulation, conflict arbitration, separating fact from opinion or even the basic concept of verification and validation. We have stopped teaching society how to think about information, leaving citizens adrift in the digital wilderness.
While technical literacy is a powerful and important skill, it is not the same as information literacy and will not help in the war against “fake news.” To truly solve the issue of disinformation we must blend technological assistance with teaching our citizens to be literate consumers of the world around them.
The next 12 months the role of social media could be determinant: British people will go to the polls soon, while online conspiracists promote the theory of great replacements. Americans will vote for president, while trolls and bots perpetuate the lies of a Hispanic invasion. After years of YouTube videos calling climate change a hoax, the US is on track to withdraw from the Paris accords. Disinformation already highly affects policy-making, and let me add, it affects it in the worst possible way. A sewer of bigotry and conspiracy theories that threaten our democracy and our planet can’t possibly be what the creators of the internet had in mind.
Today’s grand challenge of combating “fake news” requires a very human solution. It requires teaching society the basics of information literacy and how to think about the information they consume. It requires navigating the existential contradictions of today’s social media platforms obsessed with velocity and virality against verification and validation.
The only way to truly begin to combat the spread of digital falsehoods is to understand that they represent a societal rather than a technological issue and to return to the early days of the web when institutions, governments and schools taught and encouraged to question what they read online instead of taking it for granted.
This is a serious danger and something that we communicators, government officials, representatives of global organizations have the chance today to reverse. Let us not miss that chance.
Communications officer at Bruegel, The Brussels-based think-tank for international economics. Interest for international affairs, national and international politics, conflict analysis and European Union policy making.
Academic background from the University of Bologna, Maastricht University, Universiteit Antwerpen and Queen's University Belfast.
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