The EU is asking for help in its fight against fake news

Today the European Commission announced a new strategy to combat misinformation and fake news online. It’s asking for more help.

During the first of a two-day conference in Brussels, the Commission announced the launch of a public consultation and the creation of a high-level expert group to help the European Union develop a strategy to stop the spread of fake news. The resulting strategy will be presented in spring 2018, according to a press release.

“We need to find a balanced approach between the freedom of expression, media pluralism and a citizen's right to access diverse and reliable information,” said Andrus Ansip, vice president for the digital single market, in the release. “All the relevant players like online platforms or news media should play a part in the solution.”

The expert group will include academics, platforms, journalists and civil society organizations that can advise the commission on the scope of misinformation and how to create recommendations based on stakeholders’ priorities. Applications for the expert group are open until mid-December, and the group will start in January and work for several months.

The public consultation will collect views from citizens, social media platforms, journalists and government officials until February on how the EU can best help people identify verified information online.

The move, led by Digital Economy and Society Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, comes after a year of EU interest in addressing the growing threat of online misinformation. In June, the European Parliament called on the commission to analyze the extent of the fake news problem and what the EU could legally do to try and solve it. 

The issue gained traction in Europe after reports spread of fake news surrounding the U.S. and French presidential elections, as well as the Italian constitutional referendum. And while misinformation hasn’t affected every political contest, fact-checking organizations are growing and have emerged as a “new democratic institution.”

At the same time, the EU has received some praise for taking a holistic approach to addressing misinformation. Giovanni Zagni, director of the Italian fact-checking organization Pagella Politica (the website was co-founded by Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network), attended today’s meeting and told Poynter in an email that he was impressed by the representativeness of the approximately 70 stakeholders who attended.

“This first day has shown, for sure, that the EU Commission has a serious interest in addressing the issue of fake news,” he said. “The EU has demonstrated to certainly be able to put together an impressive group of representatives from a lot of academic, civic society, media and fact-checking organizations.”

Lucas Graves, a senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, also attended today’s meeting, which he said mainly served as a forum for rehashing what had already been done to tackle misinformation.

“I also had the sense that there’s a real urgency around developing meaningful policy responses to address the problem of misinformation online,” he said. “That’s reflected in the discussion at the meeting and in the fact that these kinds of meetings are taking place.”

Zagni said fact-checking was regularly cited during the two panels as one of the best tools to slow the growth of misinformation online. But the meeting was somewhat limited by its information overload, he said.

“The relatively high number of experts involved, together with the shortness of the presentations, risked to amass too much information, insights and suggestions for the audience,” he said. “It is not easy to single out one new issue, or problem, or way to tackle the fake news phenomenon that emerged today as totally new or that everybody can say to agree on.”

That said, the structure of the conference is smart, Zagni said — it’s organized around topics instead of interest groups, which helps scale down conflicts of interests and opposing viewpoints. Graves said there was considerable focus on how much technology companies like Facebook and Google should be held accountable for the fake news that spreads on their platforms.

And that highlights a growing challenge for the Commission.

“The critical question is whether the Commission will take steps to regulate platforms in a meaningful way,” he said. “We certainly heard in the room today some voices calling for the platforms to be more transparent … but we also heard a lot of people — not just the platforms — argue for caution in terms of trying to enforce policies around what are legitimate forms of expression online.”

Graves said this week’s conference is not the kind of event that concludes with a clear sense of direction, but rather several possible directions. And with a new public consultation and expert group, differences of opinion are likely to become even more apparent.

“It is clear that institutions, media outlets, civil society organizations and web giants all have very different views, interests and ultimately positions on the issue,” Zagni said.

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