The infodemic pandemic – how do we counter the spread of fake news?

On Thursday, 11 June 2020, at the European Dialogue on Internet Governance (EuroDIG 2020), the Insafe network of European Safer Internet Centres (SICs), represented by Sabrina Vorbau, Project Manager at European Schoolnet (EUN) and Youth Coordinator on the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) project and Joachim Kind, Head of EU Networks at the Media Authority of Rhineland-Palatinate (LMK) and spokesperson for the German Safer Internet Centre (SIC), hosted a workshop on "Social media – opportunities, rights and responsibilities", looking at the limitations and pitfalls of freedom of speech on the internet from multiple stakeholder perspectives. In this article, Liz Corbin, Deputy Media Director and Head of News at the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) shares her thoughts on the spread of fake news, with particular reference to the "infodemic" which has occurred in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. As she illustrates, fake news infects everything... but public service media is stopping the spread.

2020-06-29 Liz Corbin, European Broadcasting Union (EBU) awareness

There is no one vaccine which is going to purge the fake news infodemic – we have to act together."

"There's no better time than the current Coronavirus pandemic to be talking about fake news. It's a crucial issue because the stakes are high. At its very basic level this is about helping everyone everywhere understand what is true and what isn't. The crisis is having a profound effect on all our lives. And it's been abundantly clear that the public crave information they can trust.

"But why is trusted content so important? Surely raw facts are needed so people can see everything that's out there and make up their own minds? It's an attractive theory but, in reality, it's a myth. People aren't stupid, they realise there's huge amounts of nonsense out there and they're wondering if they should trust anything. But the problem is that when people believe nothing at all, they'll believe anything. And that is the future if we don't act now.

"If the current crisis doesn't motivate us I don't know what will. COVID-19 is a global problem. The virus doesn't know borders, nor does fake news. There is no one vaccine which is going to purge this infodemic, we have to act together.

"As the European Broadcasting Union we have been doing just that – our Members who are public service broadcasters are sharing content, advice and experience. We have brought factcheckers together to share crucial information. We share world class investigative journalism so it gets as large an audience as possible. And we've coordinated new content sharing partnerships to make sure daily COVID-19 related news is available to all.

"It costs nothing to spread fake news but costs a small fortune to counter it. Public service media do proper journalism, they are regulated, there is accountability for the important positions they hold in society.

"Social platforms also hold an incredibly influential position in society. But where is their accountability and regulation? They are no longer start-ups; they are the wealthiest companies in the world. The platforms tell us about the millions of posts and accounts they have removed and the adverts they have banned. But I still see dangerous fake news online. Unfortunately, there is no independent verification of how successful their initiatives are. How much longer is this going to be ok?

"A recent communication by the European Commission on tackling COVID-19 disinformation said there needs to be more transparency and more accountability for the platforms. The system we have at the moment which allows them to mark their own homework is just not the same as being accountable.

"We know that fact-checking IS working and playing an important role in this crisis, bringing down the biggest myths and lies. But it is only effective if we can reach the people who saw the fake news in the first place. And in that European Commission document it said that platforms have not sufficiently empowered fact-checkers during the crisis, for example by making more data available or giving due prominence to fact-checks. And yet who might be blamed for the failure to reach the audience with quality information? The platform or the public service organisation?

"I am a public service journalist so I am duty bound to say where I think public service media should be doing more. And there is one area to highlight… it's what has made platforms so successful. When we open Facebook or Twitter, YouTube or Instagram we see people like us. People who look like us, think like us, have similar life experiences. We trust these people, so that when they share fake news, our guard is down so we share it onwards.

"Despite some laudable progress in this area, our diverse world is not fully reflected in the content produced by our public service media. This is well-recognised but we must move faster. Our mandate is shrinking with every day we fail to represent all our audiences. To survive we need to be trusted. To be trusted we have to be authentic. And we can only be authentic if we really represent the experiences of the public we serve.

"In summary, high-quality, trusted news is the best antidote to this infodemic. That means:

  • reliable funding for public service journalism and for political leaders to protect it as a core pillar of democracy.
  • the freedom to be able to do our journalism without hindrance – COVID-19 should not be an excuse for governments bent on restricting freedom of access to information.
  • a requirement for the major technology platforms to prioritise real news content and for them to be accountable for the influence they have."

EBU is the world's foremost alliance of public service media, representing over a hundred organisations worldwide. Find out more about its work at www.ebu.ch.

The above article was written by Liz Corbin and is published here with permission from the author. The views expressed do not reflect those of the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) Team nor of the European Commission (EC).

Related news