Divina Frau-Meigs: “Content should not be censored in the fight against fake news”

, by Eurosorbonne, Josselin Petit, Noémie Chardon, Translated by Lorène Weber, Translated by Rhiannon Erdal

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Divina Frau-Meigs: “Content should not be censored in the fight against fake news”

Our partner Eurosorbonne met with Divina Frau-Meigs, professor at the Institute of the English-speaking world at the New Sorbonne University (Paris 3) and member of the recent High Level Expert Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation of the European Commission. The publication of their report gives us an occasion to discuss this growing phenomenon and the means to combat it.

What is “fake news”?

I will give you my personal definition: fake news don’t exist. In my opinion, it is a new phenomenon. But I prefer the word “disinformation” in order to set it apart from the three registers that appeared before. There was the register of the ideal of truth that journalists sought to reach, but fake news is the opposite of that. There was also the register of propaganda, of malevolence coming from a foreign country. But this register is very old and has always existed, and escalated during the Second World War – particularly used by the Nazi regime. However, NATO now considers those as “hybrid threats” whose origins cannot be clearly identified and who do not officially act on the behalf of one state in particular. The third register is the one of those who are in power. The problem is that it concerns more and more platforms hosting social media. But social media don’t claim to be “media”, even though they contribute enormously to the spreading and to the monetisation of fake news.

I would argue that there is also a new fourth register that breaks with the history of false information and justifies the expression “fake news”: this is what we could call malware. Malware is automatic and robotic interference, or artificial intelligence, used to accompany human malice, often working by taking real facts out of context.

This generates a new type of virality that now reaches beyond the audiences that were targeted before. For example, the far-right’s sceptics used to be practically the only ones to share negationist views. Today, these views are diffused to new, much larger audiences, which were not expecting to read them and whose scepticism may increase insidiously.

In which way do fake news constitute a threat to democracy?

An aspect that we don’t talk a lot about in fake news analysis is its impact on communities. It is not well measured yet, but the first studies on the subject say that it is not necessarily that important, even if these studies are based on the short term, and based only on discussion threads on Twitter and Facebook. However, in the long term, the secondary and diffuse effects raise a concern for democracies, since they are capable of creating unexpected consequences such as general suspicion.

Indeed, fake news have helped cast doubt on the quality of the institutions, the media and political actors. Of course, this doubt already existed to a smaller extent, but now it is being propagated much more intensely under pressure from misinformation. The most annoying aspect is that certain fake news use real facts, but out of context.

For example, following his first state of the union address before the American Congress, Donald Trump tweeted that his speech was the most watched in history. He was relying on a study done by an Institute of Statistics. But in reality, he omitted to point out that this study indeed highlighted that his speech was the most watched in history… but only on cable television.

And this becomes particularly dangerous when information is meant to play a role in the making of decisions and especially in voting. If the decision is based on misinformation, this might distort the election results, with lasting consequences on the elections’ integrity.

That’s why the European Union, and more precisely the European Commission, has created a High Level Expert Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation. In the run-up to the 2019 European elections, the EU feels threatened by fake news, especially with the dubious precedents of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

What can this high-level expert group do about fake news?

This group aims at bringing together different viewpoints between many different actors: researchers, journalists, platform representatives and associations from civil society. Initiated by DG Connect and overseen by Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, this process of multiparty consultation, carried out through different meetings, aims at drafting a common document to advise on policy initiatives to counter fake news and disinformation spread online, for the different actors. The report was published on 12 March.

The participants hope that this group will reach consensus, or at least clarify which agreements would be possible, whilst also pointing out disagreements. It is a catalytic process that is optimal for complex questions, when there is no single actor having all the answers. The process could even draft the basis of a future legislative proposal from the European Commission, even if, in the first place, the preferred solution for all is self-regulation, or even negotiated co-regulation. The goal is to stay in this contradictory debate that is a part of any good democratic process, without yielding to panic or censorship.

By carrying out a reflection at the EU-27 level, the message is also that we are stronger together than if every country acted separately. This allows for more credibility in the face of third countries that wish to interfere in European affairs. Sometimes, sending a slightly stronger message can be enough for the status quo to progress.

However, Europe is not homogenous. Some countries are more or less mature in putting in place independent media, whilst others are more or less affected by misinformation. Some feel more threatened, such as Central and Eastern European countries or the Baltic states, but these are often the member states where the media sometimes have difficulty doing their job.

Now that your group has just finished its work, what propositions would you recommend to fight against fake news?

I wouldn’t advise censoring content. First, because it is an impossible thing to do in a democracy, but also because what was seen as misinformation at first sight can turn out to be real information, like the “Penelope Gate” for example. And this is all the ambiguity of the project of Emmanuel Macron who wishes a law against fake news during election periods, because it is also the period in which the debate are the most intense and the criticisms the strongest.

So it is not a question of truth but rather of the reliability and responsibility of the platforms, which by the way have already anticipated. Facebook has announced the recruitment of thousands of people in order to fight against fake news. But the platforms have already reached what they could within the scope of their own initiative.

The aim is therefore to encourage them to conduct structural modifications to tackle the spreading of disinformation, especially by pushing for more transparency and responsibility, especially through a code of conduct adopted by the whole sector, with the credible threat of an investigation if the situation doesn’t get better. The idea is also to encourage them to reconfigure their algorithms, for them to favour real, quality facts, rather than emotive and sensationalist content, as well as accounts propagating fake news. It is therefore necessary to work simultaneously on the identification of websites and places where disinformation comes from, and to encourage the search for quality information.

Are there other ways to combat fake news?

(DFM): Of course. We could also encourage the GAFAM (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft), which earn a lot from news in general, to pay more taxes in the countries where they are located. This money could be used to finance quality information (which has become very expensive to produce), trainings for journalists so that they can better identify fake news, and groups in charge of tracking fake news and of producing factually supported denials. Some reference media have already started to do this, for example Le Monde with their Décodeurs and Décodex in France (enjoying financial support from Google among others).

And then, there is the education to the media, information and digital culture, both for youth and adults. The aim is to educate people as early as possible for them to develop a critical mind and acquire a scientific approach which would allow them to better analyse information on mass media (such as social media), to understand how algorithms and big data basically work, etc. The New Sorbonne University was a pioneer on these questions between 2005 and 2015, with the creation of a Master’s programme in “Computer science applications: management, education to the media, e-learning”, in an agile and cross-disciplinary perspective.

This interview was originally conducted in French by our partner Eurosorbonne.

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