Politicians in Europe are still arguing about what fake news is and what to do about it

Much of the global conversation around “fake news” has centered on the United States. Yet it increasingly seems that actions in the European Union may have a more lasting effect on the misinformation ecosystem. For that reason, this fortnightly report summarizes 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 French Constitutional Council published its opinion on the law against misinformation drafted by President Emmanuel Macron’s government earlier this year.

While recognizing the need for new legislative measures to combat the growing threat of online misinformation, the council specified that new legislation should exclusively target fake news that is “intentionally spread."

Following the council’s opinion, the French Parliament is expected to discuss the bill by June. Meanwhile, the Minister of Culture Françoise Nyssen discussed the issue of disinformation in Strasbourg together with the law’s rapporteur Bruno Studer. Both insisted that, besides regulatory measures, “media literacy will play a fundamental role” in the future of the battle against fake news.

Likewise, fending off criticism, Studer explained that “freedom of expression” remains a pivotal principle of the country's constitution.

In other news, the concept of fake news continues to be used as a tool by political forces to discredit opponents and mobilize consent. In Italy, a report published by Repubblica sheds light on the communication strategies adopted by the leading political force, the Five Star Movement (M5S) in Rome. The report highlights how fake news and fake pictures have featured in the party’s online campaigns at the local level.

Similarly political was the use of “fake news” to blast and defend the proposal by the M5S to wipe off 250 billions of public debt. But the M5S rejected the criticism and labeled as fake news any concern related to the rise of the Italian sovereign spread on financial markets.

In Switzerland, a harsh row erupted over the public information campaign that national authorities conducted over the Swiss sovereign money referendum set for June 2018. The Vollgeld Initiative, which campaigns for the abolition of private bank money creation, accused the National Bank and the Federal Assembly of sharing fake news in relation to the content of the referendum via its official vote book. National judicial authorities called for the National Bank and the Assembly to reply to the accusations.

In the UK, the chief strategist of the Vote Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings, refused to appear in front of the select Parliamentary committee that is investigating the spread of fake news. Likewise, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, turned down an invitation from the same committee to discuss the role of the social network in the victory of the Leave campaign.

Producing and tackling fake news

In Italy, the Italian Association of Medical Oncology (AIOM) launched a new website aimed at fighting fake news about cancer. The President of AIOM, Fabrizio Nicolis, claimed that about 9 million Italian citizens have been reached by fake news about healthcare in 2017. The issue of medical misinformation remains worrying. In a new study, researchers at the University of Pisa conducted a qualitative analysis of 560 videos dealing with vaccines and autism that were uploaded on YouTube between 2007 and 2017.

The Web marketing festival taking place in the Italian city of Rimini at the end of June will stage an open hackathon aimed at producing innovative ways to tackle misinformation.

In Hungary, the public broadcaster MTVA reported as a fact a satirical fake news story from Germany. According to the fake story, the city of Essen - which means “to eat” in German - decided to change its name into “Fasten” to mark the Ramadan. It is not the first time that MTVA shares fake news related to Muslims as true stories, local Hungarian journalists say.

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

A new survey conducted by Censuswide suggests that citizens have been turning towards traditional high-quality media outlets since the spread of fake news became a topic of public interest. According to the results of the study, 75 percent of respondents reach out to “credible” sources because of the presence of disinformation online. Moreover, 26 percent associate “fake news” with“social media platforms.”

On Corriere della Sera, Federico Fubini argues that the diffusion of fake news is an inevitable part of the business model of social media companies such as Facebook. Besides mere financial profit maximization, the potential ability of a given content to engage users - something fake news is particularly good at - enters the decision-making process of algorithms on how to allocate sponsored content. Social media platforms are ultimately interested in the rise of user engagement because the latter drives the future appetite of advertisers, Fubini writes. However, a new survey conducted by Ifop among French advertisers reveals that many of the latter do not consider social media platforms safe environment for their activities anymore.

In a long editorial published in Der Tagesspiegel, Norbert Schneider defends the role of public broadcasters in societies that are challenged by disinformation. Public broadcasters “play a role which is similar to the one priests used to have at the end of the Middle Age, just before the appearance of the scientific method.” With the key difference that public broadcaster companies have to be run under “complete transparency." They need to deliver the essential service of determining “what news is relevant” and “needs to be publicly debated." Schneider also stresses that public broadcasters need to take care of their own truthfulness in the eyes of the general public, but citizens must realize that public information is an essential public good.

Fact checks

In France, several far-right parties claimed that today 20 million Muslims live in the country. AFP dismissed the numbers backed by research that points to a maximum number of 6 million.  

Following the resignation of Marina Cifuentes, the regional president of the metropolitan area of Madrid and member of the Popular Party (PP), over an alleged case of theft, Spanish PM, Mariano Rajoy (PP), defended the record of the regional administration on television. Rajoy said that employment in the region had reached record numbers. El Objetivo proved Rajoy to be wrong.

The Norwegian PM Erna Solberg argued that between 2014 and 2016 the income of farmers in the country rose by 20 percent. Faktisk confirmed Solberg’s statement. It noted, however, that in the two following years their income fell. The fact check shows how politicians cherry-pick statistics at their convenience.

During the negotiations leading to the formation of a new government in Italy, the leader of the right-wing party the League, Matteo Salvini, attacked the European Commission’s proposal for the new EU Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). Salvini said that the latter would cause more taxes for Italian citizens and fewer resources for farmers, local administrations and families. Nevertheless, LaVoce found little evidence to support Salvini’s grim outlook.

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