The European Commission is stepping up efforts to battle so-called fake news, creating an expert panel and commencing a public consultation, with an eye to crafting legislation further down the road. Existing plans suggest such efforts may be more trouble than they’re worth.
The European Commission plans to tackle the alleged fake news epidemic, claiming it’s a “direct threat” to the very foundations of democratic society.
Speaking at a conference on fake news in Brussels, EU commissioner for digital economy, Mariya Gabriel, said the commission intended to set up an expert panel, to consider potential legislation, and ensure Europeans “have the skills and tools at their disposal to manage the ocean of information available online.”
”It is vital we vaccinate our society against this disease so as to maintain our democratic values and strengthen them. This phenomenon makes it possible for external actors to influence opinion in our democracies to an extent that was never before possible,” she said.
She added fake news was easily spread via Google, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, with hostile actors able to purchase 20,000 comments for US$6,000, and up to 300,000 social media followers for around US$3,000.
The commissioner is asking academia and civil society to take part in the panel, which will be launched by the start of 2018, ahead of a European Commission communication on fake news. It will take a “holistic” approach to addressing online misinformation, which will “cover all sectors” because so-called fake news is shared online in both written and audiovisual formats.
Gabriel also indicated the commission will pressure social media firms to be more transparent about what their users share — and the panel will investigate whether online platforms should introduce, or potentially increase use of, anti-fake news measures.
This could include informing users if a post was created by a robot instead of a human, or explaining to users about algorithms the platforms use to determine how they display selected content.
Gabriel’s comments are just the latest salvo in the ongoing debate about fake news in the West, and come amid a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on expanding the EU’s foreign affairs branch, the European External Action Service, to battle “interference” in Europe.
However, there is much to suggest efforts to battle fake news are perhaps destined for failure.
In a report published in September in Psychological Science, a team of academics reviewed two decades of research to better understand how best to debunk misinformation, finding eight worthwhile studies, with over 6,800 participants.
The conclusions of each suggested fighting the spread of fake information was incredibly difficult — for instance, challenging a lie almost by definition involves comprehensively acknowledging it, which can inadvertently reinforce its veracity in the minds of some individuals.
Moreover, Facebook’s much-publicized experiments in the field have failed to bear fruit — and in fact, according to individuals involved in the effort, have been a disastrous and expensive “PR campaign.”
Speaking anonymously to The Guardian, several fact checkers who work for independent news organizations and partner with Facebook said the social media giant’s approach “[wasn’t] working at all” and fake information still spread through the network rapidly.
It is apparently rare to see fact-checks actually lead to a “disputed” tag on Facebook, raising questions about how the tool was functioning — and Facebook refused to disclose to its fact checkers how often the tags were placed on articles, what effect they had on the content and what sites were most often targeted.
One source said Facebook was “basically buying good PR” by employing them, and moreover suggested relationships between media outlets and the technology corporation, some of which are paid, created a conflict of interest, making it harder for news outlets to scrutinize and criticize Facebook’s role in spreading misinformation.
Furthermore, fundamental questions about the effectiveness of tags labeling disputed stories abound — a Yale University survey found the tag had a minimal impact on whether a user believed a headline was true, and the presence of tags could make users more likely to believe other fake stories are true as they lacked the tag. The authors suggested it was possible the tag did “more harm than good.”