By Clara Jiménez Cruz, Alexios Mantzarlis, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, and Claire Wardle*
Today the EU Commission released the final report from the High Level Expert Group on Fake News, entitled “A Multi-Dimensional Approach to Disinformation”. The report, a document supported by a number of different stakeholders, including the largest technology companies, journalists, fact-checkers, academics and representatives from civil society has a number of important attributes including: important definitional work rejecting the use of the phrase ‘fake news’; an emphasis on freedom of expression as a fundamental right; a clear rejection of any attempt to censor content; a call for efforts to counter interference in elections; a commitment by tech platforms to share data; calls for investment in media and information literacy and comprehensive evaluations of these efforts; as well as cross-border research into the scale and impact of disinformation.
Most importantly, it lays out a process of continued research as threats evolve, and proposes mechanisms for ongoing review and evaluation of the recommendations outlined in the report.
The Group was announced on January 12. Its 39 members represented a wide range of different experts and stakeholders from almost all of the 28 member countries of the EU. The Group was expertly chaired by Madeleine de Cock Buning, who had the unenviable task of finding common ground among a very diverse group of viewpoints.
We are four members of the group, dedicated to fact-checking, verification and studying disinformation, hailing from Denmark, Italy, Spain and the UK.1 We do not think that the report is perfect; collaboratively editing and agreeing on a document like this in such a short span of time was always going to require compromise from everyone involved.
It is however a significant achievement.
The report is inclusive, collaborative and demands that the European Commission take concrete steps in furthering our understanding of the current information landscape, while also underlining the dangers that can arise from knee-jerk regulatory responses. As stated in the report, regulation “if deployed at all, need[s] to be based on very precise definitions addressing the causes of the disinformation problems at hand, ensure due process, as well as accountability and proportionality”.
While disinformation is clearly a problem, its scale and impact, associated agents and infrastructures of amplification have not been adequately investigated or examined. Without that evidence base, concrete interventions — beyond additional research and continued support for educational initiatives, provided they are clearly evaluated — should not be implemented.
Additionally, while most of the focus is rightly on the impact on technology of aiding the cheap and immediate creation and spread of disinformation, the report clearly states that “[d]isinformation is a multifaceted problem, does not have one single root cause, and thus does not have one single solution … the problem also involves some political actors, news media, and civil society actors.”
At a time when many political bodies seem to believe that the solution to online disinformation is one simple ‘fake news’ law away, the report clearly spells out that it is not. It urges the need for caution and is sceptical particularly of any regulation of content.
Ultimately, the report includes a number of aspects that we think will make a significant contribution to the debate, our evidence base and our capacity to intervene, including:
- A clear and unequivocal abandonment of the term “fake news,” which the European Commission was originally using. This is important because it is inadequate in explaining the complexity of the situation, and leads to confusion in the way researchers discuss the issue, it is reported on in the media, and discussed by policy-makers.
- Clearly calls for significant financial support for independent news media, fact- and source-checking, and media and information literacy, with an emphasis on independent initiatives, free from potential interference from public authorities or from technology companies who might be tempted to use such projects as public relations exercises.
- Calls for platforms to share data are including throughout the text. While the fact-checking and verification community has been calling for greater data-sharing for years, this instance is particularly significant because it has been signed by Google, Facebook and Twitter. They have now taken a public commitment to work with researchers who can independently assess the spread and impact of disinformation. The report specifically calls on major technology companies to provide data that would allow the independent assessment of efforts like Google’s fact-check tags, Facebook’s use of fact-checks as Related Articles or the downgrading of disinformation in the News Feed.
- Calls for public authorities at all EU levels to share data promptly and efficiently when it is requested by trustworthy fact-checking organisations — and correct promptly when appropriate. This recognizes that political actors and institutions have a crucial role to play in improving the accuracy of our information ecosystem..
- The creation of a network of Research Centers focused on studying disinformation across the EU. Our current knowledge based is almost entirely focused on the United States data and it’s vital that the EU have more data from cross-border studies to understand the differences and nuances in the scope, scale and impact of disinformation across the 28 Member States.
- The insistence on a collaborative approach involving all relevant stakeholders, with a structured process ahead that will document progress made and expose anyone not taking their responsibilities seriously.
The report is also only the start of a process. The part of the report that we expect will receive the most attention is the proposed Code of Practice, which includes 10 suggested principles aimed specifically at the technology companies. The High Level Group has recommended the creation of a multi-stakeholder Coalition that will ensure the implementation and continuous monitoring and review. The report lays out an ambitious timetable for this evaluation.
This report will undoubtedly be scrutinised, very likely line by line, but given the large and diverse group of participants, the report should be read as a compromise document. However as five people who are steeped in this issue and spend every day thinking deeply about disinformation, we think it provides an important starting point from which all actors involved in this problem can work together. This is in many ways more important for us than whether it is a concise and intellectually precise document.
After eighteen months of back to back conferences and discussions on this subject, it is time that we make a significant investment in independent research, media and information literacy projects and their evaluation. It is time we stopped just talking and started acting. If this report begins that process, we will hopefully look back and see this moment as an important one in the collective response to disinformation.
Download the report here.
1 Clara Jiménez Cruz is based in Spain, where she co-directs the online verification and debunking initiative Maldito Bulo in Maldita.es. Alexios Mantzarlis is the Director of the International Fact-Checking Network based at the Poynter Institute in Florida, where he manages the global fact-checking community including the verification of fact-checking organizations. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University where he and his team researchers news, media, and disinformation. Claire Wardle leads First Draft, a project of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard Kennedy School co-ordinating a global verification community, including running collaborative social monitoring and debunking projects.
* Gregoire Lemarchand from AFP was originally a signatory of this post. His name has been removed awaiting sign-off from his organization.