Actions to strengthen quality information and reduce the spread of disinformation online

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1 Actions to strengthen quality information and reduce the spread of disinformation online Guy Berger, Director, Freedom of Expression & Media Development Presentation at Multi-Stakeholder Conference on Fake News, November Convened by European Commission: Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology. Introduction: UNESCO is very interested in how the European Commission deals with this issue, and commends the multi-stakeholder approach being adopted. This set of remarks below addresses some of the questions posed for the third session, in particular how the European Commission and others can: 1. Help users understand sources 2. Strengthen media literacy 3. Reinforce the role of professional, independent media 4. Develop mechanisms to facilitate a pluralism of sources In elaborating on this, six points are presented below. 1. The problems of keeping a catchy term Frank la Rue, former UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and Opinion, is currently the Assistant Director General for Communication and Information (ADG) at UNESCO. He continuously emphasizes that the phrase fake news lends itself to discrediting all news. This is because: If we define news as verifiable information (in the public interest), then the combination of fake news is an oxymoron. If it is news, then it isn t fake; and if it is false, then it is not news, is our ADG s view. Thus, to keep using the term is to put a question mark over news per se, and to associate news with fakery. The term therefore serves to sow seeds of doubt, to foster relativism, and to throw individuals into atavistic reliance on gut-feel and personal networks for their assessment of what is credible. Hence, it s not surprising that both the label and often the content of fake news are weaponised today to discredit and delegitimise bona fide journalists. Women journalists in particular get a double dose of abuse. The term narrows down our notion of news Fake news tends to put the focus on facticity as the singular criterion for truthiness. Facts are indeed very important. But the absence or otherwise of facts does not distinguish information, misinformation and disinformation 1

2 A focus upon false facts just fragments a counter-strategy, reducing it to instances of fact-checking and debunking. We spend time dealing with facts that prima facie are often indeed too good to be true This kind of work is significant and necessary, but we should also be aware that it is reactive. If we are to build defences in the minds of people, as UNESCO s constitution evokes us to do, we also have to see beyond individual battles over atomised facts. The term fake news further blurs the difference between a story in the media that, for example, recounts that a political leader has presented something as supposedly true in terms of fact, and another story that assumes the claim to be true and conveys it as fact. This is not even to mention the use of the phrase fake news to designate any content that a user simply wants to dismiss. We should be cautious about reacting to a problematic concept which can signify very many things to different people. The term inhibits clear specification and analysis of what the problem really is; makes it impossible to assess the effectiveness of proposed remedies to the problem 2. An alternative conceptualisation What we are really dealing with here, literally speaking, is a particular fraudulent form of disinformation which emulates the format, language and even titles of news institutions. (It exists alongside other forms of disinformation like rumours, false claims, advertising pitches, conclusions not based on evidence and should not be conflated with such close cousins). Understanding a form of disinformation that subverts journalistic information, We are talking about attempts to weaken a key cultural heritage of democratic societies - which should of course be strongly protected. Journalism is a voluntary form of communications, subscribing to professional standards, that is different to the motives, genres, conventions and workings of: general disinformation, propaganda, advertising, jingles, poetry, chatter, sermons, pornography, notices, legal judgements, contracts, etc Journalism is a kind of communications that comes across as credible and authoritative, as a common knowledge currency, and as being done in the public interest. It is exactly these characteristics that faked news as a particular form of disinformation seeks to co-opt. This recognition is why we need to move from a focus on discrete facts to understanding the role of narrative Instead of using Fake News as a label which performs more widely than simply or innocently pointing to a simple referent, indeed as a label which also hides more than it reveals, we can begin to analyse how the use of a news format produces sense-making in ways that go far beyond the idea of just the facts, In other words, we can recognise that news works within a narrative structure that gives facts meaning, because it supplies a context and a cloak of connections and significance with a paradigm of empiricism and realism, and connotations of veracity, authenticity, and authority. 2

3 Understanding news as particular kind of narrative gives us insight into distinguishing this kind of information package from the narrative of propaganda a narrative that appeals less to the head, and more to the heart and thence to action In this way, we can pinpoint distinctive disinformation that exploits the news format, and assess its place within a wider ecosystem and we can begin to see how such imposter news synergises with propaganda. 3. The legal issue The concern with the misleading character of faked news is about these specific speech acts and their possible real-world consequences. Some such acts cross the boundary of legitimate speech, and violate existing laws such as copyright, incitement, defamation The big question is whether there is a need for further laws so as to curb the currently legal exploitations of news formats which could have consequences (eg. news that vaccinations cause autism). Several societies have introduced laws to punish the dissemination of rumours online whether in the form of news or not. A number of societies already have laws against false news The justified fear is that these restrictions serve to unjustifiably curtail legitimate speech, including both opinion and facts which could put the authorities in a critical light For Europe in particular, the example of any such new restrictions, even if applied proportionately and with legitimate purpose on this continent, needs to be considered for its symbolic effect elsewhere. It is not in Europe s interest to have the free flow of information curbed outside its borders by actors who claim justification for their disproportionate restrictions by appropriating legitimation of legal restrictions being created here. Fortunately, there are alternatives to new laws which steps, for instance, develop the role of users, news media and Internet companies to #TackleFakeNews. UNESCO is very active in these areas. 4. Alternative to new laws: empowering users about news People should have a critical appreciation of even genuine news and its claims to represent the real eg. They should know how news values favour representations of events over trends; how news gathering leans towards elite and male sources; how culture and ideology permeates news discourse. News literacy can empower users to understand news as narrative in this sense, which is a condition for them to identify fraudulent news within the narrative. This understanding also enables users to recognise shortfalls in relation to journalistic standards, and to raise the public demand for quality news... Yet, teaching news literacy in isolation would have limited effect. It needs to be part of a wider set of communications competencies: i.e. what UNESCO calls Media & Information Literacy. The overarching concept includes teaching knowledge of the rights to expression, privacy and association and what these mean online; MIL encompasses digital literacy, understanding 3

4 free services online; knowing how advertising works to elicit desire, information security, intercultural competencies, counter-speech capacities, etc. Why there s a need for wider MIL We have to put news literacy into the bigger picture because because disinformation posing as news does not become shared or have impact in a vacuum of other communications (and without the role of drivers like pleasure, a cause or a grievance). Users especially young people who are forming their identities - need to be empowered to recognize and understand how all narratives including news, entertainment and propaganda - presume identities. We need to be empowered to identify how our participating in narratives (receiving, producing, and sharing) is performative in terms of cultivating our sense of belonging and who we are A new and pressing life-skill In short, users need the skills to recognize and understand how they continuously traverse a mesh of narratives each of which presumes identities for understanding who they are, where they are (on the Internet with its particular characteristics for instance), and how to act effectively to be masters of their own identity and knowledge and not be objects of manipulation. In this way, users can grasp how communication shapes societies and how today, we are what we share. This goes wider and deeper than news into what the writer Michael K Spicer calls persuasion and addiction architectures. And it goes to the future of digital creations that will make it ever harder to detect manipulation in video and voice recordings, and to the use of Artificial Intelligence to perfectly customise bogus news to resonate with what drives us. It is for these reasons that UNESCO operates a campaign called #MILclicks encouraging users to use the Net wisely. The Organisation has built an international network of some 400 organisations, called GAPMIL the global alliance for partnerships in MIL. This is also why UNESCO has developed useful resources such as a Country Readiness MIL assessment kit; Policy guidelines for education ministries; and a curriculum for teachers training colleges. It is why we partner with the European Union to promote MIL in places like South Eastern Europe, Turkey and Jordan. 5. Alternative to new laws: On the professional media side When news narratives fail to be inclusive of diverse realities, views and identities they lose credibility. Fraudulent exploitation of news takes advantage of these shortfalls, which result from eg. elite-centric coverage, and reportage that fails to meet professional standards of news gathering and balance; Disinformation in general exploits disenchantment with experts including those held aloft by the media whose interpretations do not resonate with experience on the ground (eg. Those who cite declining national unemployment figures which do not, however, ring true to the lived experience of those individuals still in unemployment). The antidote to this: News institutions have to improve their missions and related professional standards Better quality journalism 4

5 News institutions need to continuously be refreshed on their professional standards, so that their use of the news narrative mobilises facts to represent realities beyond the usual targets, and provides informed comment in the public interest (rather than the interests of owners, advertisers, politicians) For members of the public who feel injured by journalism, redress mechanisms need strengthening press councils in particular if we are to strengthen the appeal and trustworthiness of journalism. This is why UNESCO works with the European Union to support press councils to transition to the digital age. This experience has great value for the para-editorial aspects of Internet intermediaries who have a lot to learn from the news media in terms of self-regulation. Particularly if algorithms increasingly identify and remove imposter news, the Internet companies need to do a lot to beef up the opportunity for individuals to appeal the take-down of legitimate news and views. 6. Alternative: Further on the intermediaries side Today, we face media pluralism gone mad each individual with his/her own customised news feed and search results. Amidst plenty, algorithms are reducing our experience of diversity by reinforcing echo chambers and filter bubbles. This experience is cosy and convenient, but it : - risks individuals losing the pleasure of serendipity - risks boring the many individuals who like to face challenges even if only to reinforce their worldview. So, companies need to see if instead of blindly following the market of individual prejudice and preference, they could not also make money by leading the market. In other words, they should explore the business case for social inclusion of diversity in news and views in each individualised service. 7. Conclusion Recognised in the global agenda today is Sustainable Development Goal 16.10: Public access to information and fundamental freedoms. This is not only a target to achieve, but an enabler of other targets eg. Achieving gender equality, combatting climate change. Public access to information is not compatible with a toxic information environment, and one clouded by the slippery ideological phrase of Fake News. We can t achieve public access to information when public can be taken for a ride by disinformation. We can t achieve public access to information when journalism is not self-regulating for highest standards. We also cannot have real public access to information without Internet companies recognizing the value of supplying inclusive narratives, rather than creating individualized bubbles based on the narrow and ultimately, narcissistic, customisation. If we want to, as the hashtag for this conference puts it, #TackleFakeNews, then we need stepped up and comprehensive Media and Information Literacy that educates about the power of narrative. We need 5

6 reinforced self-regulation among the genuine providers of news; and we need changes in the way that Internet leaders see their business models. And these three together are mutually reinforcing elements of a holistic solution that can work in the European Union as well as more broadly. 6

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