Tackling online disinformation

May 9, 2018

On 26 April 2018, the Association of Commercial Television in Europe (ACT) issued a press release that welcomes the Commission’s communication on tackling online disinformation, as a first step towards addressing the major challenges disinformation raises and its root causes.

In January 2018, the European Commission (EC) set up a High-level Expert Group (HLEG) to advise on policy initiatives to counter fake news and disinformation spread online. The communication published on 26 April 2018 is the fruit of the EC HLEG report A multi-dimensional approach to disinformation. Many ACT members were involved in its elaboration, including RTL Group representative Sonja Schwetje, Editor-in-Chief of N-TV.

Sonja Schwetje, N-TV Editor-in-Chief © Hardy Welsch

Sonja Schwetje says: “One of the key learnings of the past years has to be: don’t leave the news to the algorithms of the social networks! Algorithms are very powerful to maximise ‘user engagement’ on digital platforms. However, this also includes promoting conspiracy theories, ever more extreme viewpoints and pure disinformation. We welcome that the European Commission is addressing these fundamental problems in the business models of the digital platforms. In order to fight all forms of online disinformation RTL Group invests strongly in professional journalism. Newsroom Guidelines, journalistic training and verification tools and know-how are essential to our daily work.”

There are regulatory asymmetries between the fully regulated and editorially responsible broadcast environment and that of unregulated online environments. The Commission recognises the crucial role of platforms and particularly social media play on the topic and has rightly placed them at the heart of the communication. The volume and rapid spread of disinformation online has rightly been identified as a threat to democratic dialogue and process. Left unchecked, it leaves citizens, and particularly younger audiences exposed to online as a primary source of information, at risk of receiving and sometimes unwittingly conveying false or twisted narratives.

One simple principle: the public should expect and receive the same level of protection no matter what medium they access or are provided news from. This is the basis for preserving public trust in news.

As noted in the EC communication, the Eurobarometer on fake news and online disinformation (March 2018) had the following to say about trust in media: Respondents perceive traditional media as the most trusted source of news: radio (70 per cent), television (66 per cent) and printed newspapers and news magazines (63 per cent).” They also concluded that the least trusted sources of news are video hosting websites (27 per cent) and online social networks (26 per cent).

Broadcast news is a trusted and reliable source of information because of the model Europe has developed. Europe needs to preserve this model and extend it to new environments. Fabricated news undermines real and responsible reporting. Reporting that rests on factually based assertions and seeks integrity by reflecting the various sides of an issue. This type of reporting helps the public to form opinions in a healthy and constructive matter. Disinformation conversely seeks to segregate, split, and splinter public opinion, ultimately leading to the destruction of opinion or anyone who would seek to genuinely inform it.

Commercial broadcasters will continue providing quality journalism, identification of fake news by investing in fact checking mechanisms, verification tools for authenticity of news content and most importantly for high quality. They will also continue investing in media literacy initiatives for users and training programmes for journalists which were also recognised by the Commission as a crucial element to reinforce the resilience of our societies against disinformation.

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