FakEU: Europe's anti-fake news efforts get pushback

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

The politics of fake news

After the European Union’s high-level expert group on fake news presented its report to the press in early March, El Pais reported that Brussels won’t undertake specific legislative action against fake news. On the contrary, the experts suggested that co- and self-regulation with — and by — the media sector are more effective tools to fight the spread of misinformation (Euractiv). Similar views were outlined in a different context by London Mayor Sadiq Khan as he spoke to a crowd at a South by Southwest (SXSW) conference.

Nevertheless, over the past few weeks, EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel faced pressure again over the issue amid the outbreak of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. In a letter addressed to Gabriel, Julian King, the EU commissioner for security, called for a plan to counter the spread of fake news and digital propaganda via social networks.

Meanwhile, a group of lawyers from the Paris-based HEC institute and New York University filed a complaint with the European Ombudsman. The target of the legal action is the European External Action Service’s (EEAS) East Stratcom Disinformation Review, which catalogs articles that the EU believes to be Russian misinformation or propaganda. The lawyers claim that the recommendations set out by EUvsDisinfo are in violation of, among other rights, EU laws on freedom of expression (Le Monde). However, 16 international affair analysts took the side of the European service in an op-ed published on EUobserver.

In other news, in Spain, the socialist party (PSOE) suggested expanding the reach of a bill on private data protection — which is being discussed in Parliamentary committees — to regulate the diffusion of fake news on social media platforms. The bill on data protection would become a fully fledged law on digital rights. This would require social media platforms to execute specific “protocols” when fake news is detected on their websites.

In France, a new survey conducted by BVA reveals public attitudes toward traditional media outlets and fake news. According to the study, 76 percent of French citizens back the idea of an independent authority on false news  (French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development). However, only 34 percent agree that the fight against fake news should take the shape of national or European laws. Moreover, respondents seem to trust journalists more than the state when it comes to fighting misinformation, the research said. Nevertheless, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French minister of foreign affairs, warned once again about the influence of Russia-linked media outlets such as Sputnik or Russia Today on national public opinion.

In other news, on April 3, the Senate discussed the contours of an upcoming bill on fake news. Thierry Paul Valette, founder of the “National equality movement”, launched an online petition to halt this legislative intervention.

Meanwhile, the 2018 media literacy index of the Open Society Institute revealed that the Balkan countries are the most sensitive to the spread of fake news. Direct state control and business interests are hindering a positive development of the media sector. In Italy, the fact-checking website Butac.it was temporarily shut down by the police after a debunked doctor sued the newsroom for libel (Rai).

Producing and tackling fake news

Reporters without Borders (RSF), Agence France Presse (AFP), the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and the Global Editors Network (GEN) announced a new self-regulatory initiative against misinformation: the Journalism Trust Initiative. The project leaders set up an open consultation process aimed at defining high-level standards for journalism and, consequently, at labeling quality media outlets.

In the U.K., the BBC laid out its annual plan for 2018-19. As part of a more comprehensive discussion of its priorities and strategic activities, the U.K. public broadcaster announced that its staff would provide mentoring to students in national schools. The idea is to help young people filter out false information from real news.

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

In a podcast, the director of the Swiss Federal Statistical Office (BFS), Georges-Simon Ulrich, and the director of the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (Paris21), Johannes Jütting, discuss the role of public statistical authorities and research centers in a world plagued by fake news and hoaxes. Whereas Ulrich claims that critical readership remains a cornerstone of healthy public debates, Jütting underscores the importance of methodological skills to provide timely and transparent data to the public debate.  

On The Conversation, Lisa Fazio of Vanderbilt University outlines the pitfalls related to the way humans process information to explain the spread of fake news. Fazio shows how psychological traits lead men and women to fall for misinformation systematically. Fact-checkers are crucial actors in this context, Fazio writes.

Branko Milanovic of the City University of New York describes the public debate about fake news as “hysterical.” According to the economist, the spread of fake news is just a symptom of the decreasing influence of American media outlets within the global public sphere. Milanovic questions whether there is any specific risk involved in the proliferation of fake news.   

Writing for the Italian website Vita, Marco Dotti of the University of Pavia argues that the travails of journalism spurred the success of fake news. More specifically, as the profession shifted from being the “testimony” of a specific worldview to an absolute search for objectivity, fake news gained relevance as an “alternative” truth.

Fact checks from around Europe

Faktograf analyzed a recent statement released by Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, who said the “sentiment toward the EU in the country” has changed over the past few years. The fact-checkers confirm that Euroscepticism is on the rise in Croatia.   

Les Décodeurs looked at the implications of French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s claim that, thanks to the upcoming constitutional reform, the number of MPs in the Parliament would shrink by 30 percent. According to their analysis, France would be the EU country with fewer deputies per inhabitant.   

German fact-checkers from Correctiv blasted some media outlets that falsely claimed U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May was threatening nuclear war against Russia as retaliation for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter.

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