Denisa Chvojkova, Leonard Kamps, Lan YANG, Anna Zimniak, Margherita Contro, Marcello De Giorgi, Rituparna Banerjee, Anna Mazur, Adrianna Adamczak
When people hear about fake news they think about famous examples like Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump. However, it is not just that. An information disorder in the public discourse with significant implications on how democracies think, feel and vote for their representatives has been growing in Europe. The EU takes measures but merely scratches the surface. This blogpost shows that disinformation is a symptom of deeper underlying issues affecting contemporary societies in Europe.
The EU defines disinformation as “verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and may cause public harm.” This definition comprises two core elements: falseness and the intention to deceive. Fake news (false stories mimicking real news) is just one variation of disinformation.
A recent Eurobarometer opinion poll has found 85% of European citizens perceive disinformation as a problem in their country and 83% as a problem for democracy in general. The most prominent example of the toxicity of disinformation is its interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Moreover, disinformation is said to have changed election results in at least 18 countries.
Fake News and Disinformation in Europe
There are various examples of this epidemic playing out across Europe at the moment: false stories such as “the European Commission supports illegal immigration coming out of Hungary”, “the London Stock Exchange will move to Frankfurt to an EU exchange by 2022” or “the UK will have to hand over its armed forces and nuclear deterrent to an EU force.”
Tackling disinformation is now a policy priority, especially ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections between 23rd and 26th of May.
How the EU Tackles Online Disinformation
In June 2017, the European Parliament adopted a report containing a call for action for the European Commission to “analyse in depth the current situation and legal framework with regards to fake news”.
Since then, the most important initiatives of the European Commission have been setting up the High-Level Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation (HLG), along with launching a broad public consultation on this phenomenon. Its report resulted in the adoption of the Communication on Tackling online disinformation: a European approach.
Another type of action the EU can take more swiftly is a Code of Practice. In the Code of Practice on Disinformation, companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter promise to increase transparency and keep out bots and malicious actors across their ad platforms.
Adopting the joint communication of EU institutions, the December 2018 action plan is what the EU has come up with to protect the upcoming European elections. The document suffices to note that the EU considers fact-checking as of the greatest importance. “Credibility of Information” is one of the four principles guiding its response. The action plan states that “an independent network of fact-checkers is being developed” to address disinformation. However, what if fact-checking (which has been around way longer than the fake news debate and is booming globally) is actually not as effective a method as it seems?
For fact-checks to be of high quality, they must be impartial, non-partisan, and should apply the same standards every time. Communication scholar Lucas Graves explains that people doing fact-checks have the aim to restore honest objective journalism and defines them as a species of practical epistemologists who refuse to take sides in factual disputes.
But what does objectivity truly mean? Sociologist Michael Schudson defines it as “the belief in objectivity is a faith in ‘facts,’ a distrust in ‘values,’ and a commitment to their segregation.” According to Schudson, objective journalism rises as a set of conventions that the professional fact-checkers are trained to follow. They work as a fourth estate, apart from government and large interest groups, separating facts from values and reporting exclusively facts.
Nevertheless, there are still some contrasting opinions about this doctrine’s ability to evaluate the truth. For instance, political scientists Joseph E. Uscinsky and Ryden W. Butler claim that fact-check journalism cannot objectively evaluate the truthfulness of political claims and is consequently not accountable to the public. The experts describe the practice as unscientific and biased.
In contrast, Michelle A. Amazeen found that all fact checkers came to an agreement when claims were deceptive. She concluded that they rated claims objectively and accordingly since they almost always reached the same conclusion when coming from different range point.
Even if these fact-checks are of high quality, are they having an impact on the audience? In order to be effective, fact-checking must wipe out beliefs in misconceptions.
Experiments in the USA have found that corrections can actually increase the belief in misperceptions among certain groups. While a recent study showed that the so-called “backfire effect” was not as common as thought, it was also uncovered that fact-checking might only have “minimal effects on (…) vote choice”. Since correcting false information involves repeating false claims, fact-checking could be counter-productive and strengthen misperceptions. In other words, “fact-checking by its very nature risks perpetuating the myths it seeks to debunk.”
Fighting Disinformation with Information
All said and done, why is there a new wave of disinformation now? In today’s network economy, the fight against this epidemic has become more about blaming the game than taking actions. Can solely social media platforms be blamed for these problems? The European Union needs to set a framework to foster a “healthy” digital public space without compromising the value of the free and open internet.
Social media platforms claim to have already altered their algorithms to promote “good” content, responding to accusations that they only follow the logic of attention economy resulting in clickbait and toxic virality of information. Even though social media might accelerate the spread of disinformation, it is not the cause. The solutions will need to be based on a multi-disciplinary approach. Rumours and conspiracy theories have to be debunked with the same strategies that leverage disinformation – repetition, strong visual representations, and a powerful narrative.
The root of the problem lies deeper. The rise of disinformation is a consequence of a crisis of representation: centre parties losing voters and the public sphere being disrupted heavily. Many people lose trust in their representatives, democratic institutions and political parties, which goes hand-in-hand with growing distrust for journalism. “Alternative” media and politicians offer identities to those who feel estranged and alienated from mainstream society. People’s consumption of (dis)information is a way to reaffirm their position in the larger narrative about the world. Strategic dissemination of false information is meant to unite these people against a common enemy, fostering e.g. anti-muslim sentiments and the growing nationalism across Europe.
With such an audience, fighting disinformation with information is rather a battle half-lost. What the EU is facing in disinformation “may actually engage deeper emotional truths for members of rising movements that willfully defy reason.” Disinformation works because it strikes a chord in a political discourse that is less based on reasoning, and more on emotions, beliefs that are itself based on friend or foe notions. So today’s state of information disorder is not only a symptom of systemic problems in our information ecosystem but of societal megatrends. It cannot be “solved” with simple corrections of disinformation, because it is a constitutive element of the 21st-century societies. Mere fact-checking will not have enough impact on its target audience. Actions that need to be taken are rooted in creative ways of connecting citizens to assemble in healthier debates and reinforcing representation in democracies.