Fake news: a monster in the forest, or a pig in a pond?
“Fake News” has been recently chosen as “Anglicism of the year” for 2016 in Germany. According to AP report, this word combination filled a gap in German vocabulary that could not entirely be filled without the word ‘fake.’
Germany, with the made-up stories of immigrants raping an ethnic Russian girl in Berlin and statements by the populist AfD party about the intended use of “social bots” in its election campaign, is nevertheless not the only country where fake news have flourished over the past years. Fabricated stories during the 2016 US Presidential campaign of Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton being a paedophile; Russian state media reports of crucified babies during the conflict in Eastern Ukraine; fake Aleppo photos used by senior diplomats at UN meetings – these are just several examples of how war, conflict and political competition create a burgeoning milieu for mass dissemination of propaganda, factually wrong news and other “alternative facts”.
Fake news is rapidly reproduced on social media, mostly without editorial control. The sources of fake news are obscure and often anonymous, and its distribution automatic, through social bots. Therefore, readers have little ability to verify or contest their content. Publishing corrections and deleting original articles are of little help – once the fake news is out, it is virtually impossible to prevent it from spreading widely.
The fake news phenomenon is problematic in several aspects: it is linked to cybercrime, when accounts are hacked to publish unauthorized information; creating fake social media accounts compromises freedom of expression; publishing fake news as advertisements undermines journalistic ethics. It would not be an exaggeration to say that fake news is therefore a potential threat to democracy.
What can be done to counter the production and spread of fake news?
In Europe, where most cases of fake news currently relate to immigration and refugee influx, new initiatives are discussed in Italy, Germany, France, the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden, the UK, as well as in the European Commission and the European Parliament.
Proposals broadly include voluntary action by social media platforms to facilitate reporting and deleting fake news, often in combination with measures against hate speech. Facebook, which came under heavy criticism for allowing circulation of fake news during the election period, has started using voluntary third-party fact checkers who tag stories as false. The tag, however, does not prevent the fake story from being shared or deleted, and there are questions about how effective and sustainable the mechanism is, especially given the inevitable time lag between the time of publication and the moment the story is flagged as false.
Human-checking and flagging of whole sites is another option: a Le Monde-initiated web application Decodex ranks news sites as “fake”, “real” or “satire”. To use it, however, one must be aware of the problem, in the first place, be conscious enough to download the app, and trust the judgment of the checkers.
Teaching children about fake news is an approach actively used in Scandinavia: “verify the sources and don’t believe anything you don’t know” is, for instance, a motto of a campaign by a Swedish magazine Bamse. It published a fake news issue where Little Hop, a postman, spread the rumour throughout the forest, about a monster he met, all to discover later that it was a pig swimming in a pond.
Legislation, including fines on social media which do not sufficiently tackle fake news and hate speech, and setting up fact-checking government agencies are other ways of addressing the problem that European leaders are considering.
Whatever the approach is, the key is to maintain the balance between safeguarding freedom of expression and tackling fake news. Is the story direct disinformation, or whether its content is just dubious, contestable or uncomfortable? Checking and verifying fake news is a right approach, but state censorship is unacceptable under any circumstances.
The Council of Europe, with its expertise in cybercrime, Internet governance and countering hate speech, has been working to address the problem of fake news at the level of its 47 member States. It seeks to extend its Budapest Cybercrime Convention to allow security services to investigate crimes through access to servers, the “cloud”, through obtaining subscriber information for accounts and websites affected by criminal activities. The Council of Europe’s No Hate Speech Movement develops counter- and alternative narratives which could challenge and replace fake news, amidst the current anti-immigrant hysteria on the Internet. Promoting internet media literacy in education to raise awareness of hate speech and fake news among children and young people is meant to develop their critical thinking skills and help them feel that Internet is a safe place.
Uniting for a better and safer Internet is the theme of the Action Day organised by the No Hate Speech Movement on 7 February 2017. We invite you to discuss with your peers what young people can do to make the Internet better; to submit your stories about cyberbullying, fake news or hate speech and how to overcome them, for our blog, support the Thunderclap action of the Safer Internet Day and give visibility to your actions with hashtags #nohatespeech and #SID2017!
Join the Action Day United for Better Internet, and make it safer and more reliable for you and your friends!