Two shocking stories circulated in Italy in November, 2017. The first outlined how a nine-year-old Muslim girl was hospitalised after being sexually assaulted by her “husband” in the city of Padua. The second involved a prominent lawmaker and member of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party being photographed at a funeral for notorious mafia boss Salvatore Riina. These incidents had two things in common: the potential to cause mayhem in an already highly-charged, anti-immigrant, anti-establishment political debate before the national elections. And, even more alarmingly: the reality that they were both completely fabricated. As demonstrated by the outcome of the recent elections in Italy, such stories appear to feed an increasingly distorted, troubling view of the world.
Naturally, policymakers are scrambling to tackle this new phenomenon. In his New Year address, French President Emmanuel Macron said he will push through laws to clamp down on fake news, including requiring websites to disclose their funding and cap the amount of money they receive from sponsored content. Germany will also bring in new legislation, and already hands out hefty fines for social platforms that fail to remove fake news and hateful posts within 24 hours of notification. The Italian government for its part unveiled an online portal that allows people to report fake news, while Britain and the Czech Republic have launched dedicated government units to address the topic. Closer to home, Fianna Fáil have tabled new proposals that will result in fines of up to €10,000 or five years' imprisonment for the use of internet 'bots' to influence political debate.
But whose job is it to fight disinformation, if anyone’s? Should it be the responsibility of tech companies, governments or readers themselves? And how much can one actor do to address online falsehoods in the broader world of information overload?
How easy (or not) is it to spot #fakenews?
Tackling fake news is a complex issue for regulators. Some policies can backfire: qualifying a piece of news as fake, thereby giving it greater publicity, gives the news piece a boost and spreads its reach even further. And what even is #fakenews?
The term “fake news” has been applied to everything from outright fabrications to simple media reporting errors. Even ‘true’ news has been discounted at times in efforts to discredit the information. So how can governments legislate against something so difficult to define? And can government policy distinguish between ‘real’ disinformation and information it simply doesn’t like, i.e. could politicians have the power to mute information that questions its reputation?
To truly focus on counteracting fake news, it may be worth excluding sites that trade in other forms of content, such as satire, hyperpartisan opinion material and poor journalism. Either way, it’s an ill-defined concept encompassing different types of disinformation that aims to intentionally spread online and mislead the reader. And as the media becomes increasingly politicised, the words of veteran journalist and founder/director of Lie Detectors Julianne von Reppert-Bismarck ring true: “One person’s fake news might be another person’s truth.”
A pan-European approach
Julianne is a member of the newly-formed EU High-Level Expert Group established by the European Commission to tackle this phenomenon, which includes representatives from social media platforms, civil society organisations, journalism and academia. Stephen Rae, Head of Independent News and Media in Ireland, is also a member.
The proliferation of false news stories is garnering increasing attention in Brussels. In fact, just recently the European Commission launched a consultation to seek public views on a strategy to tackle #fakenews and the results have been published this week in a 50-page report. Moreover, a taskforce of 14 staff known as ‘East Stratcom’ will be allocated a reported €1.1m a year from the EU budget for 2018-2020 to upscale monitoring of Russian media and undertake data analysis to provide a more detailed understanding of the scale of misinformation.
Perhaps this pan-European approach, well-resourced with a range of experts around the table, including representatives from Google, Twitter and Facebook, could be conducive to addressing misinformation? Indeed, as social media companies increasingly find it difficult to simultaneously satisfy all governments across Member States, perhaps this is the solution.
A number of proposals are being considered by the EU, which include encouraging online platforms to invest in AI to improve the discovery and tracking of disinformation, and partnering with media, fact-checkers and civil society groups to improve monitoring and debunking of fake news. In addition, the Commission is discussing how news media can invest in tech solutions to strengthen their content verification capabilities and promote more data-based investigative journalism.
But: is it even an issue?
The University of Oxford and Reuters published the results of a study they recently conducted on the issue of fake news in Italy and France. This joint study found that false news sites had an average monthly reach of less than 1% of the online population, compared to sites by the more established press (Le Figaro, France; La Repubblica, Italy) which had an average monthly reach of 22.3% and 50.9% respectively. It also found that the total time spent consuming false news websites each month is lower than the time spent on genuine news websites. In France, fake news sites generated 10 million minutes per month compared to Le Monde’s 178 million minutes; in Italy, such fake sites see an average of 7.5 million minutes compared to 443 million minutes for La Repubblica.
Either way, fake stories are often more emotive, more compelling and more ‘clickable’ than genuine articles, and they’re increasingly more sophisticated and difficult to differentiate due to technological advances. Therefore, their appeal is unlikely to dissipate any time soon.
How to identify #fakenews
One thing is certain: now, more than ever, it is crucial to promote media literacy and critical thinking. Encouraging schoolchildren to identify suspect URLs as well as verifying news stories by reaching out to experts, is important. Another approach is to invite journalists to teach students how to be actively aware of bias in the media. The role of libraries and library databases, as well as other renowned educational institutions in enhancing media literacy amongst the public, should also be emphasised.
In general, there are some guiding principles to consider when deciphering fact versus fiction online:
- Consider the source: check the website, its mission and its contact information for anything suspicious.
- Read between the lines: beyond the sensationalist headline, what is the content of the article and are the sources credible? Often, headlines are purposely outlandish in order to garner click-throughs. If it’s particularly outrageous, it may be satire.
- Search the author: attempt to retrieve further information about the author. Are they credible? Are they even real?
- Check the date and quality: often articles and old news stories are re-posted. Reputable sources have high proofreading and grammatical standards: if there are major errors or dramatic punctuation, think twice before sharing the information.
- Ask the Experts: increasingly, fact-checking sites are being developed to counter the spiralling fake news feeds.
- Check reverse searches for sources and images: Assessing the sources and images ensures the information has been accurately applied and not altered to meet the author’s point of view. The same goes for images: in an era of Photoshop, you can’t always believe what you see.
Despite the complex, confusing and often contradictory rhetoric which defines global information and media today, one thing is for certain: fake news is here to stay. But where are we going to end up? Current proposals to address #fakenews could allow governments to define what information is “good”: could an incumbent government step in during elections and constrain the freedom of expression of its opponents? Hopefully, the EU and other platforms will insist that despite new policies being introduced, press freedom above all else will be preserved.