In mid-February, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) said "we're not just fighting an epidemic; we're fighting an infodemic", an overabundance of information of varying degrees of reliability and accuracy. This situation made it "hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it".
Tackling information disorder in a post-COVID-19 European Union: a multi-stakeholder effort?
This situation of generalised confusion brought about by the coronavirus crisis was ripe for the massive spread of misinformation and disinformation that ensued. Misinformation is defined as "false information that is spread, regardless of intent to mislead" – this phenomenon is, for example, embodied in the claim that as a consequence of the lockdown, swans and dolphins have returned to the canals of Venice, which was false, or in the various fake remedies that circulated on social media. Disinformation, on the other hand, is defined as "deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda". It is false information spread on purpose, with the intent of misleading and manipulating – for example, the claims that the virus is a biological weapon created by China.
As Liz Corbin, Deputy Media Director and Head of News for the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) put it, disinformation is "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 is not. 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".
Throughout Europe, various initiatives have risen to the challenge, though they still face many shortcomings. Tanja Pavleska, Researcher at the Laboratory for Open Systems and Networks at the Jozef Stefan Institute presented some research findings from the COMPACT project on disinformation-fighting initiatives. These revealed that most initiatives are not open to multi-stakeholder involvement. Besides, 70 per cent of these were only active at national level, forming a constellation of isolated efforts to address disinformation and lacking European coordination.
Tanja Pavleska also highlighted the large underrepresentation of certain stakeholder types; for example, only 4 out of the 146 initiatives analysed included digital rights activists. In general, the people who are directly concerned by these issues are not able to discuss them with those who are shaping the policies to tackle them. This is especially true of the inclusion of children and young people, whose conception of what false information entails differs significantly from that of adults.
Beyond that, these initiatives all face a common challenge: the lack of public awareness on information disorder. The employment of technical solutions remains very low since only 28 per cent of the initiatives use technology as part of their activities. There is, finally, a significant mismatch between research and practice: disinformation poses critical challenges, against which decision makers are eager to take swift and decisive action – the academic rhythm is poorly suited to respond to such urgent issues.
At EU level, the European Commission (EC) has also taken a series of measures to address disinformation since 2018. Paolo Cesarini, Head of Unit, Media Convergence and Social Media at the Directorate‑General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG CONNECT) presented the European Commission's approach to tackling disinformation, which began with the Action plan against disinformation presented in December 2018. Since then, the underlying approach has remained the same, relying on the same basic principles of defence of fundamental rights, freedom of expression, media pluralism and media freedom, while at the same time recognising the need to act upon certain disinformation behaviours on social media that undermine everyone's fundamental rights (that is, the right to information, and in particular to receive reliable information).
The current pandemic has indeed underlined the need for this line of work to move forward, and it has highlighted how complex the phenomenon of disinformation is. This resulted in behaviours that undermined the containment policies put in place by governments, in the resurgence of hate speech against certain ethnical groups held responsible for the pandemic, in consumer frauds, cybercrime, and more. Information disorder covers a wide variety of phenomena, and we therefore need to have a calibrated response that takes into account the degree of harm, the intent, the form of dissemination, the actors involved, and so on.
The European Commission will carry out a number of actions in the coming weeks and months, such as strengthening strategic communication within and outside the European Union; establishing mechanisms allowing Member States to better cooperate in terms of exchange of information and threat analysis; fostering increased cooperation with international partners like NATO and the G7; raising citizen awareness and supporting fact-checking and research activities; and reaffirming the accountability of online platforms. During the COVID-19 crisis, these have been reacting quite constructively, actively cooperating with the EC, taking actions such as raising the visibility of authoritative sources like the World Health Organization, demoting content fact-checked as false or misleading, and removing content harmful to individual health and public security. These efforts need to be supplemented with actions targeting the media ecosystem and providing a long-term sustainability strategy for this sector.
Finally, as reflected in the EuroDIG workshop's key messages, Paolo Cesarini highlighted "a need for the infrastructure to organise fact checking and research activities that would be available in all EU languages and would, therefore, benefit all EU countries". On that note, the European Commission launched, on Monday, 1 June 2020, the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO) project, which aims to "support the creation and work of a multidisciplinary community composed of fact-checkers, academic researchers and other relevant stakeholders" and will "collaborate with media organisations and media literacy experts to better understand and limit the phenomenon of disinformation and increase societal resilience to it".
Overcoming the dilemma between tackling information pollution and preserving freedom of expression on social media
However, policies fighting misinformation and disinformation are far from consensual since they present the risk of undermining freedom of expression. Dr Nertil Bërdufi, Assistant Professor at the University College Beder and Founder and Director of the Beder Legal Clinic, highlighted this tension by discussing the "anti-defamation package" adopted by legislators in Albania in December 2019, after the spread of disinformation related to the 2019 Tirana earthquake on social media caused mass panic among the population. Many civil society organisations had strongly opposed these new measures, which authorise heavy fines on online media and give additional powers to government media regulators. By their detractors, these laws were deemed unconstitutional and in violation of freedom of expression. This position was echoed by President Ilir Meta, who vetoed the laws on the ground that they "could place Albania on the brink of authoritarianism".
As Dr Nertil Bërdufi put it, "censorship threatens the work of journalists and whistleblowers who are crucial in exposing the truth to the public. Rather than taking the easy way out and censoring content through authoritarian solutions, tangible solutions towards transparency, integrity and self-regulation could be sought. Any government safeguards should guarantee due process and proportionality of the sanctions. While finding solutions for disinformation and misinformation on the internet, we should keep in mind that freedom of expression and freedom of speech are the main values of our democratic societies."
If state regulation of misinformation and disinformation is deemed problematic, should such controls be exerted by social media companies? Then again, the question is highly controversial, as recently illustrated by a post from US President Donald Trump questioning the reliability of mail-in voting, which was posted both on his Twitter and Facebook pages. While the first platform added a fact-check link to it, the second did not take any action against it. According to Guido Bülow, Head of News Partnerships at Facebook, all content uploaded to the platform is eligible to be fact-checked – thanks to a collaboration between the social media giant and the International Fact-Checking Network – except for content directly created by politicians, the reason being that the company believes that private companies should not interfere in the political discourse between elected officials and the people they represent. However, Facebook is reconsidering this approach since, on Friday, 26 June 2020, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that political speech that promotes hate speech and misinformation will remain on the platform, but will be labelled as harmful, but newsworthy.
Maybe the best way to reconcile the two contradictory objectives that are the fight against disinformation and the preservation of freedom of expression would be to focus more efforts and resources on educating children and young people to media literacy, digital citizenship and critical thinking. The EuroDIG workshop's key messages indeed emphasised that media literacy "is crucial in fighting misinformation. It is very important to educate and empower people to spot misinformation and make informed decisions on whom to trust". In that regard, the Insafe network of European Safer Internet Centres (SICs) offers a wealth of educational resources on the topics of disinformation and media literacy for children of various age groups, and in a variety of European languages. For example:
- To respond to the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories related to the coronavirus pandemic, the German SIC created an infosheet on the topic, available in English and German.
- As part of its "#checkyourfacts – Don't believe everything you see on the internet!" awareness campaign on online disinformation, the Luxembourgish SIC produced a guide to disinformation to be used with children aged 7 and above, and a thematic dossier (Dis)Inform: sense and nonsense to be used with young people aged 13 and above, both available in French and German, as well as a training concept for teachers and educators in English.
- The Irish SIC launched Connected – An Introduction to Digital Media Literacy, a comprehensive resource to be used with young people aged 13-18, aiming to improve their understanding of news, information and problems of false information. They also produced a short animated video for the same age group, Explained: What Is False Information?, describing the complex phenomena behind the generic term of "fake news".
- The Dutch SIC produced MediaMasters, available in Dutch, a serious game about online media literacy for schools to be used with students aged 10-12. An alternative version of this resource is also available for children and young people with special educational needs. The Dutch SIC also created the MediaDiamond brochures, a practical conversation starter for parents and professionals to help children aged 0-18 grow up in a media literate way.
These resources and others, gathered in the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) Resource Gallery, can be used by teachers and educators, but also by wider education professionals, as well as parents and carers.
A full recording and transcript of the EuroDIG workshop on which this article is based can be found on the official EuroDIG wiki. Supplementary opinion pieces by Liz Corbin, Deputy Media Director and Head of News for the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), Tanja Pavleska, Researcher at the Laboratory for Open Systems and Networks at the Jozef Stefan Institute, and Dr Nertil Bërdufi, Assistant Professor at the University College Beder and Founder and Director of the Beder Legal Clinic are available on the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) portal.
For more information, see the full June 2020 edition of the BIK bulletin. Alternatively, read past editions of the BIK bulletin for coverage of a range of topical issues, and visit the BIK portal regularly for the latest news and resources.