May 9, 2018

FakEU is a fortnightly roundup of press coverage on misinformation from or about the EU.

The politics of fake news

At the end of April, the European Commission (EC) released a Communication outlining its strategy to tackle the spread of misinformation online.

The document says that four principles should guide future policies and the behaviour of media and social media platforms:

  • Improving transparency on the origin of information.

  • Promoting diversity of information.

  • Enhancing the credibility of media sources.

  • Fashioning inclusive solutions that comprehend all relevant stakeholders.

The Commission wrote it will set up “a multistakeholder forum on disinformation” aimed at defining “an EU-wide Code of Practice on Disinformation” by July 2018 and launch a study to analyze the potential “applicability of EU rules” with reference “to the identification of online sponsored content.” Also, the EC will promote the “creation of an independent European network of fact-checkers” and launch a “European online platform on disinformation.”

The Communication is the latest step taken by Brussels after a high-level expert group it set up delivered a report on the matter in March (Disclosure: the International Fact-Checking Network was represented in that group). The EC has also conducted a Eurobarometer survey and an open consultation process. A new report providing an update on the actions and results of EU institutions and assessing the needs for concrete regulation will be published in December 2018.

In Spain, representatives of Podemos abandoned the study group on misinformation that was set up by the Defence Committee in Parliament. The radical leftist party questioned the legitimacy of a committee tasked with defence matters to steer the discussion on fundamental rights like speech and access to online information. It also warned about the risks of censorship.

In the U.K., Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson called for the armed forces to open up their ranks to “journalistic-minded” personnel to fight misinformation at a geopolitical level. Williamson’s remarks came after Great Britain and Russia embarked on a row over chemical attacks in the city of Douma, in Syria, and in Salisbury earlier this year. Talking about journalistic skills, Williamson said: “They are more relevant today than anything else, having those skills, whether it be journalists, those people with amazing cyber and IT skills, those people with the ability to really understand about getting messages across.”

In yet another example of the term “fake news” being misused, top managers of the Austrian national health insurance funds rejected government accusations of undeserved privileges by calling them ”fake news.”

The Belgian Minister for the Digital Agenda, Alexander De Croo, announced new initiatives against misinformation. A national expert group composed by journalists and scholars is expected to suggest some solutions by June 25. In parallel, the government launched a website to inform citizens about the threat and called for a public debate to take place in Brussels on May 17. The website also allows users to upvote and downvote some proposals from the government. In line with the EU, De Croo advocates a balanced approach protecting the freedom of speech and spurring measures against disinformation.

Producing and tackling fake news

On World Press Freedom Day, Reporters without Borders (RSF) launched a new video campaign against misinformation, comparing the counterfeiting of products to the faking of news. The victim, according to RSF, is democracy.

The Italian National Institute of Health (Istituto Superiore di Sanità) partnered up with the news agency Adnkronos to fight disinformation in the healthcare sector. In Italy, the issue of misinformation related to healthcare topics such as vaccination has been particularly relevant over the past months and during the latest political elections.  

Amid mounting social protest against French President Emmanuel Macron’s reform policies, rumours of a student in coma spread on social networks after the national police cleared a school building from protesters in the city of Tolbiac. After five days, the story was eventually dismissed as unfounded. It appears that protesters released false information to the media.  

In the U.K., a young citizen of Italian origins formerly working in the investment management sector was found guilty of digital harassment. The young man uploaded fake porn photos of a colleague online. Although the issue of fake porn has recently been raised mostly in relation to celebrities, the case highlights it is a threat for ordinary citizens as well.

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

Adrian Lobe, on Neuen Zürcher Zeitung, blasts attempts by EU governments and others to legislate against fake news. Drawing upon the reflections of philosophers and novelists such as W.F. Nietzsche, Steffen Dietzsch and Mario Vargas Llosa, Lobe claims that the act of lying is core to our humanity. The “rhetorical art of dissimulation” is part of the individual freedoms we all should strive to protect in a democracy, Lobe says, warning of the risk of a “moral dictatorship.”

During a discussion organized by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, S&D MEP Bern Lange and founder and journalist Karolin Schwarz debated the need to limit the creation of fake accounts on social media networks. Whereas Lange claimed that they are partially responsible for the spread of fake news, Schwarz argued that pseudonym are essential tools for professionals and activists to protect themselves from harassment.  

On The Conversation, Jackie Harrison from the University of Sheffield claims that quality journalism is a “civil necessity” and that it has always been forced to cope with the challenge of misinformation. Across the media sphere, “the co-existence of what is desirable and undesirable is inevitable,” she writes. So why did quality journalism survive? Harrison explains that at the end of the day readers are looking for information that allows obtaining a “fair-minded and comprehensive” understanding of events.

Fact checks

In Denmark, Tjekdet verified claims by the Danish Finance Minister, Kristian Jensen, that the country is a world champion in renewable energy. Looking at Eurostat data, the newsroom dismissed the minister’s statement: Denmark appears to be only ninth in an EU-wide league table measuring the shares of renewable energy consumption in the Member States.

In Italy, Pagella Politica fact-checked the president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, who claimed that the EU Parliament and his Cabinet drastically decreased administrative costs of the institution. Fact-checkers did not find enough evidence to confirm Tajani’s statements.

In France, Les Décodeurs published a visuals-heavy investigation on President Emmanuel Macron’s track record with the key promises he had made during last year’s campaign.

The Ferret confirmed that some 30 percent of children in the U.K. are born into relative poverty. As far as absolute poverty is concerned, the number stands at 27 percent, which is the lowest on record since 1994-95.

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