Category Archives: fake news

ILPC Seminar: EU Report on Fake News and Online Disinformation, 30th April 2018

 

The term “fake news” has become a prominent nomenclature in public discourse. Indeed, the idea of “fake news” has brought to the fore a number of key concerns of modern global society, including if and how social media platforms should be regulated, and more critically, the potentially subversive role of online disinformation (and its spread on such platforms) to undermine democracy and the work of democratic institutions.

 

In response to the growing concerns over “fake news” and online disinformation, the European Union established an independent High Level Expert Group in early 2018 to establish policy recommendations to counter online disinformation. In March 2018, the HLEG published a report entitled ‘A Multidimensional Approach to Disinformation’ which sets out a series of short and longer term responses and actions for various stakeholders, including media practitioners and policymakers, to consider in formulating frameworks to effectively addressing these issues. The report recognises that online disinformation is both a complex and multifaceted issue, but is also a symptom of the broader social move toward globalised digitalism.

 

The Information Law and Policy Centre (ILPC) at the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies, University of London, convened a seminar at the end of April to discuss the report of the HLEG and the phenomenon of “fake news”. The seminar forms part of the ILPC’s public seminar series where contemporary issues regarding various aspects of information law and policy are discussed and deliberated with key stakeholders and experts in the field. Held on the evening of the 30th April 2018, the seminar consisted of an expert panel of discussants from both academia and the media.

 

Chaired by ILPC Director, Dr Nóra Ni Loideain, the panel included Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford and Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and member of the HLEG, Dr Dimitris Xenos, Lecturer in Law at the University of Suffolk, Matthew Rogerson, Head of Public Policy at Guardian Media Group, and Martin Rosenbaum, Executive Producer, BBC Political Programmes.

 

After an introduction and overview of the report by the Chair, Professor Nielsen (speaking in his personal capacity) began the panel discussion by noting that “fake news” is part of a broader crisis of confidence between the public, press and democratic institutions. Professor Nielsen cautioned against the use of the term “fake news”, highlighting that it is dangerous and misleading, having been sensationalised for political use. Stressing that the HLEG has taken deliberate steps to quell the further populism of the term by not using it in reports and policy documents, he also pointed out that significant steps to redress the issue cannot take place until we have a deeper understanding of just how widespread the problem is or is not. That being said, Professor Nielsen emphasised that in addressing such issues, we must start from the principles we seek to protect, and particularly, freedom of expression and open democracy.

 

Accordingly, Professor Nielsen set out what he saw to be the six key recommendations from the HLEG’s report, noting that these recommendations come as a package to be realised and implemented together.

  • Abandon the term “fake news”;
  • Set aside funding for independent research in order to develop a better understanding of the scope and nature of the issue, noting too that little is known about the issue outside of the West and Global North countries;
  • Call for platform companies to share more data with fact checkers, albeit privacy complaint;
  • Call for public authorities at all level to share machine readable data to better enable professional journalists and fact-checkers;
  • Invest in media literacy at all levels of the population; and
  • Develop collaborative approaches between stakeholders.

 

 

Our second discussant, Dr Xenos, offered a light critique of the HLEG’s report. He agreed with the HLEG group’s focus on ‘disinformation’ relating to materials and communications that can cause ‘public harm’, and its contextual targets involving parliamentary elections and important ‘sectors, such as health, science, finance’, etc. He pointed out that as the institutions of powers (such the EU’s organs) are very often the original sources of such information that is subsequently treated by various media organisations and communicative platforms, the same standards and safeguards should apply to the communications and materials that are produced and published by the institutions. Dr Xenos referred to his contribution and the recent reports of the EU Ombudsman, involving the EU Commission, the EU Council and their very wide range of experts which highlight serious deficiencies in decision and policy-making, undermining the basic democratic safeguards which the HLEG’s report targets, such as transparency, accountability, avoidance of conflicts of interests, and access to relevant information. In this respect, Dr Xenos argues that the proposal for a fact-checking system of media communications covering decisions and policies of the institutions of power is unrealistic when such a system and safeguards do not apply to the original communications, materials and decisions of these institutions that the media may (if and when) subsequently cover. He emphasised the need for an independent academic insight that can offer analysis of events ex ante, in contrast to the traditional ex post analysis of journalism. However, Dr Xenos also said that the role of academics is undermined if appropriate research focus is lacking or there is a conflict of interest – an issue, he believes, concerns also those media organisations and platforms controlled by private corporations. In support of his claims, he referred to a recent study and its subsequent coverage by both the UK and US media. He welcomed the HLEG’ suggestions for access and analysis of platforms’ data and algorithm accountability in the dissemination of information.

 

Responding to Dr Xenos, Dr Ni Loideain noted that the report consistently emphasised the need for evidence-based decision- and policy-making.

 

Following from Dr Xenos’ remarks, Matt Rogerson from the Guardian Media Group emphasised the critical role online disinformation can play in determining the outcome of elections. Matt noted that current politics are marginal, with over a hundred constituencies won or lost with a swing vote of under 10%, which Facebook, for example, can greatly influence, given the high numbers of people who gain their news updates only from this source. Matt noted, too, how in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, tech companies are becoming increasingly hesitant to be open about their policies and activities. Matt further highlighted that the knowledge and understanding of citizens of the various news agencies and news brands varies, pointing to a study which demonstrated how citizens had a greater trust for the news items offered in certain broadsheet newspapers as opposed to particular tabloid presses.

 

Recognising, therefore, that there is strong media diversity and pluralism of news brands at present, Matt spoke of how this must be preserved and protected. One important issue, Matt noted, was the need for stronger visual queues on platforms such as Facebook, so users could readily distinguish between the branding of the Guardian news items, in comparison to other less-trusted news sources. Matt also raised concerns about the impact of programmatic digital advertising, which effectively decouples brand advertising from the context in which it is seen via online platforms, reducing the accountability of the advertiser as a result.

 

In terms of how to create trust between news organisations and the wider public, Matt drew our attention to the importance of diversity within media houses and social media platforms. Highlighting the lack of gender and ethnic diversity within the tech industry, as well as the related monopoly of Silicon Valley companies over the industry as a whole, Matt noted how the effect of this meant that there was little competition between platforms to raise standards and do the right thing by society. Matt recommended revisiting competition regulation to drive competition and diversity.

 

Martin Rosenbaum from the BBC and speaking in his personal capacity was the final discussant to offer their response on the report. Martin echoed the sentiments of Matt and Professor Nielsen in cautioning against downplaying the issue of disinformation and the effect it can have on society. Martin made note of the fact that disinformation can occur in various forms, including users sharing information despite not knowing or caring whether it is true or otherwise. Moreover, Martin emphasised how disinformation more broadly can foster a lack of trust in trusted news agencies and public institutions by generating, as Professor Nielsen spoke of too, a general crisis of truth.

 

Martin additionally mentioned how the ready consumption and splurge of news users receive on Facebook represents a divorce between the source of the information (for example, the BBC) and the way in which it is distributed and reaches the consumer. Martin explained how this works to undermine the trustworthy-ness of certain kinds of media and information.

 

In speaking of mechanisms through which to counter disinformation, Martin noted the BBC’s code on journalism that is accurate, fair and impartial, which underlies its position as one of the most trustworthy news sources globally. He further noted how the BBC has put in place various accountability mechanisms to handle complaints effectively. Martin additionally spoke of the need for media literacy and involving younger generations in news-making, reporting, and spotting “fake news”.

 

Responding to the claims made earlier by Dr Xenos, Martin assuaged that specialist journalists are most often best placed to fact-check news stories. And lastly, Martin also pointed out how chat apps were also complicit in the dissemination of “fake news” items, and that these platforms were much harder to regulate and monitor in terms of the content they handle.

 

Following from Martin’s contribution, the discussion opened up and various questions were posed to the panel regarding the scope and definition of disinformation and how this issue overlaps the fundamental principle of freedom of expression. There was a broad consensus to steer away from unnecessary government regulation that may impact upon free speech. Other issues raised included the tension between the call for open data and data sharing and the coming into effect of the GDRP this month.

Dr Rachel Adams, ILPC Early Career Researcher

LSE Experts on T3: Omar Al-Ghazzi

This post is re-posted from the LSE Media Policy Project Blog.

As part of a series of interviews with LSE Faculty on themes related to the Truth, Trust and Technology Commission, Dr Omar Al-Ghazzi  talks to LSE MSc student Ariel Riera on ‘echo chambers’ in the context of North Africa and the Middle East.

AR: The spread of misinformation through social media is a main focus of the Commission. Are there similar processes in the Middle East and in the North Africa region?

OA: Questions about trust, divisions within society, and authoritarian use of information or what could be called propaganda are very prevalent in the Middle East and North Africa. So in a way a lot of the issues at hand are not really new if we think about communication processes globally. Much of the attention that misinformation has been getting is in relation to Trump and Brexit. But Syria, for instance, is actually a very productive context to think through these questions, because with the uprising and the war, there was basically an information blackout where no independent journalist could go into the country. This created an environment where witnesses and citizen journalists and activists fill that gap. So it is now a cliché to say that the war in Syria is actually the most documented war. But all that information has not led to a narrative that people understand in relation to what’s happening. And that has to do with trust in digital media and the kind of narratives that the government disseminates. The echo chamber effect in the way people access information from online sources they agree with is also as prevalent in the Middle East as it is globally.

AR: And in these countries, who are the perpetrators of fake news and misinformation and what are the channels?

OA: It is a complicated question because if we talk about the war in Syria, the communication environment is much more complex than the binary division between fake and real. For instance, I am interested in the reporting on the ground in areas that are seeing or witnessing war and conflict. I will give you an example. Now in the suburbs of Damascus, where there is a battle between rebels and the government, there are several cases of children and teenagers doing the reporting. So how should this be picked up by news organisations, and what are the consequences? CNN recently called one of the teenagers based in Eastern Ghouta, Muhammed Najem, a ‘combat reporter’. What are the ethical considerations of that? Does that encourage that teenager to take for instance more risks to get to that footage? How is what he produces objective if first he has obviously no journalism training as a very young person and second he is in a very violent context where his obvious interest lies in his own survival and in getting attention about his and his community’s suffering. He has a voice that he wants to be heard and which should be heard. But why is the expectation, if he is dubbed a ‘combat report’, that what he produces should be objective news reporting?

Beyond this example of the complex picture in war reporting, I think the Middle East region also teaches us that when there is a lack of trust in institutions of any country in the world, when there is division in society about a national sense of belonging, about what it means to be a patriot or a traitor, that would produce mistrust in the media. Basically, a fractured political environment engenders lack of trust in media, and engenders that debate around fake or real. So there is a layer beyond the fakeness and realness that’s really about social cohesion and political identity.

AR: Nationalist politicians all over the world have found in social media a way to bypass mainstream media and appeal directly to voters. What techniques do they use to do this?

OA: Perhaps in the Middle East you don’t find an example of a stream of consciousness relayed live on Twitter like the case is with President Trump, but, like elsewhere in the world, politicians are on Twitter and even foreign policy is often communicated there. Also, a lot of narratives that feed into conflicts, like the Arab-Israeli conflict, take shape on social media. So without looking at social media you certainly don’t get the full picture even of the geopolitics in the region. Without social media, one would not grasp how government positions get internalised by people and how people contribute- whether by feeding into government policies, or maybe resisting them as well.

AR: Based on your observations in North Africa and the Middle East, can mistrust or even distrust of mainstream media outlets be a healthy instinct? For example, if mainstream media is a place where only one voice is heard.

OA: Even though a lot of the media are politicised in the Arab world because they are government owned, people have access to media other than their own governments because of a common regional cultural affiliation, a shared language and the nature of the regional media environment. So actually people in the Arab world are sophisticated media users because they have access to a wide array of media outlets. Of course, there are outlets that are controlled by governments wherever one may be situated and things vary between different countries, but audiences can access pan-Arab news media such as Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Al Mayadeen. They have access to a wide array of online news platforms as well as broadcast news. So you really have a lot of choices. If you are a very informed audience member you would watch one news outlet to know, let’s say, what the Iranian position on a certain event is, and then you watch a Saudi funded channel to see the Saudi. But of course, most people don’t do that because you know they just access the media that offers the perspective they already agree with.

We have to remember that in the context of the Middle East there is a lot of different conflicts, there is war, which obviously heightens the emotions of people and their allegiances and whatever their worldview is. So we are also talking about the context that, because of what is happening on the ground, people feel strongly about their political positioning which feeds into the echo chamber effect.

AR: You wrote that, at least linked to the Arab Spring, there was a ‘diversity of acts referred to as citizen journalism’. What differentiates these practices from the journalism within established media?

OA: Basically, in relation to the 2011 Arab uprisings, there were a lot of academic and journalistic approaches that talked about how these uprisings were Facebook or Twitter revolutions, or only theorising digital media practices through the lens of citizen journalism. But I argued that we cannot privilege one lens to look at what digital media does on the political level because a lot of people use digital media, from terrorist organisations to activists on the ground to government agents. So one cannot privilege a particular use of digital media and focus on that and make claims about digital media generally, when actually the picture is much more complicated and needs to be sorted out more.

Of course the proliferation of smartphones and social media offered ordinary people the opportunity to have their own output, to produce witness videos or write opinions. It is a very different media ecology because of that. However, we cannot take for granted how social media is used by different actors. In social science we have to think about issues of class, literacy, the urban rural divide, the political system, the media system. And, within that complexity, locate particular practices of social media rather than make blanket statements about social media doing something to politics generally and universally.

Dr Omar Al-Ghazzi is Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. He completed his PhD at the Annenberg School for Communication, the University of Pennsylvania, and holds MAs in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania and American University and a BA in Communication Arts from the Lebanese American University.