February 28, 2018

Editor’s note: Much of the global conversation around “fake news” has centered around the United States. Yet increasingly it seems that actions in the European Union may have a more lasting effect on the misinformation ecosystem. For that reason, every fortnight starting today, we will be summarizing press coverage on the topic from or about the EU. To give Poynter readers perspectives they may not have encountered yet, we’ll be prioritizing articles written in languages other than English.

The politics of fake news

In its yearly report on the state of information consumption, the Italian communication authority (AGCOM) wrote that 2017 was “characterised by the rise of ‘fake news’ as a structural phenomenon within the media landscape." According to a survey conducted by AGCOM, some 54 percent of Italian citizens claimed to access news through social platforms and algorithms. Interestingly, among the latter, only 24 percent defined the sources as “reliable.” In another survey, conducted by Demost, one out of two Italian citizens said they believed a story that turned out to be fake news on the internet. An analysis conducted by the Italian security service Department of Information Security (DIS) raised concerns about information biases caused by fake news agents in the context of the upcoming general election on March 4. However, the Italian Minister of the Interior, Marco Minniti, recently said that there is no concrete risk in sight.

In France, the debate surrounding Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to develop a law against fake news continues to make the headlines. On Feb. 13, the French Minister of Culture, Françoise Nyssen, announced that the law will enable public authorities to suspend the activities of media that are judged to act “under the influence of foreign powers,” and make space for a special judicial procedure aimed at identifying fake news. Some critical commentaries relative to Nyssen’s proposal can be read on Le Monde, l’express, Slate.fr and Radio France International.

Across the Channel, media reported that the UK embassy in Washington (U.S.) refused to host a session of the British cross-party Parliamentary inquiry into fake news. Some MPs had traveled to the US earlier this month to discuss the issue with business executives of Facebook and other social media platforms. According to the British press, both Downing Street and the embassy feared that a session taking place on consular grounds could have had a negative impact on the “special relationship.”

In Germany, the debate on fake news gained new momentum as the members of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) have been called to vote on the coalition deal signed with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) earlier this month. More specifically, the German tabloid Bild published two (fake) stories that blasted the credibility of both the party-referendum (allegedly, biased by false membership participation) and the leader of the SPD’s youth organisation, Kevin Kuhnert (allegedly meddling with Russia). However, shortly after, the satire magazine Titanic revealed it had acted purposely as a fake source for the tabloid. The mediatic incident spurred a wide debate on fake news in the country.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Santos Silva, wrote an intense editorial for the Brazilian newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo, warning that fake news represents a threat not only for governments, political parties and elections (for a related analysis, see Publico). Crucially, “they also undermine two other pillars of modern democracies,” namely “academic knowledge and journalism itself,” Silva wrote. Silva understands the rise of fake news as a “populist” reaction to the perceived distance between media professional and intellectuals on the one hand, and citizens on the other one.

In Austria, the connection between media professionals and fake news informed a clash between the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ) and the ORF journalist Armin Wolf. Earlier this month, Strache posted on Facebook a picture of Wolf featuring a “Pinocchio.” Beneath the picture, a message blasted the national news channel as a fake news vehicle. Later on, Strache justified his actions as “satire,” but Wolf and ORF sued the far-right politician. Last week, the vice chancellor renewed his attacks against the news channel.

Overseas, in Canada, the Minister of Democratic Institutions, Karina Gould, expressed skepticism about approaches tackling the fake news developed in France and Germany so far.

Producing and tackling fake new: the industry of fake news

Elaborate faking of videos seems set to  become the new frontier of fake news agents. The German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung discussed possible remedies to the issue based on artificial intelligence software.

The Social decision-Making Laboratory of the University of Cambridge released an online game called Bad News with the aim of creating a virtual “vaccine against fake news.” More specifically, Bad News allows users to virtually create and “spread” fake news. The idea behind the application goes that if people understand how fake news stories are produced, they will be able to spot them in real life. A similar “pedagogical tool” was developed in France under the supervision of the national Ministry of Education. It is called Infohunter.

Earlier this month, Unilever, the second biggest advertiser on platforms such as Facebook and Google, announced that that it would significantly reduce its volume of investments in online ads if tech companies do not tackle the spread of fake news and hate speech (LesEchos). According to the Italian newspaper ilSole24Ore, Unilever spent some $9 billion in advertising and marketing activities in 2017.

Debating fake news: op-eds, commentaries and academic debates

A study published on Trends in Cognitive Sciences and authored by psychologists Jay Van Bavel and Andrea Pereira (University of New York) shed a light on the reasons people believe in fake news. The research has been covered, among others, by media outlets in the US, Germany and Italy and points at a stark relation between acceptance of false information and the sharing of specific social-group identities. Another study conducted at the University of Ghent, Belgium, and published in November 2017, highlights the role played by “cognitive ability” of individuals in determining the relative exposure to fake news.

Several editorials across the continent published this month question the interpretation of fake news as a contemporary issue. For instance, an article published on the website of the Austrian radio ORF argues that between 1914 and 1918 some 1,500 movies were produced by public authorities and artists of the time with the double objective of entertaining the population and making propaganda for the national monarchy. Likewise, a piece published on Franceinfo argues that fake news is “nothing new.” The article draws on an analysis of the archives of the notorious former French prison, La Bastille. The latter reports several cases of imprisonments caused by the public release of false information by individual citizens in the 17th century. Moreover, an article published by the Italian newspaper Il secolo d’Italia claims that the first (unintentional) fake news in history might be related to the Greek epic poem "Iliad."

However, other intellectuals and activists highlighted an uncovered relationship between fake news and inequality. On the French media Rue89, Alice Coffin underscores that “the appearance of fake news and alternative facts are often targeted against minorities, such as LGBT people, migrants and foreigners.”

In other editorials, intellectuals frame fake news as a part of a wider strategy, namely political propaganda. To do so, on SudOuest, Patrick Chastenete, professor of political science at the University of Bordeaux, discusses the cases of the Brexit campaign and the 2016 U.S. elections. A more academic take on the matter can be found in the research paper Digital Deceit.

Last but not least, a wide range of commentaries across the globe focused on strategies to tackle the production and dissemination of fake news. Some old-fashioned solutions include professional journalism (El Pais) and think tanks (Formiche). However, media researcher and professor in cultural anthropology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Manfred Faßler (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), argues that educational approaches are not sufficient to tackle fake news. Faßler calls for the development of “control software” and theorizes the establishment of a “Check Ministry.” The latter should aim at verifying the truthfulness of data shared and stored within web infrastructures. A different and more market-oriented approach can be found on the pages of the Swiss newspaper Neuen Zurcher Zeitung, where the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism director of research argues that self-regulation involving tech companies will stop the spread of fake news.

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