March 12, 2018

Europe tackles disinformation – Attention is good, political will makes the difference

©Veni Markovski
Together with 38 individual experts and representatives of companies, associations and institutions, the Paris-based press freedom watchdog Reporters without borders (RSF) participated in a High-level Expert Group (HLEG) that the EU Commission had assembled to tackle the phenomenon of so-called ‘fake news’ and disinformation. The final report of this group was received and published today in Brussels by EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel.

Reporters without Borders welcomes the elevated interest of Member States and the European Union itself to better understand and combat the phenomenon of disinformation and propaganda online. For being the only human-rights-related CSO that had been selected to contribute to the HLEG, we consider it to be our primary role to hold politicians and also other powerful stakeholders to account in their different roles related to this topic. In this regard it remains to be seen to which extent the recommendations of the group will bear fruit and RSF will monitor the following developments closely.

Behind the High-level Expert Group’s report we have seen tremendous effort, brain-power and expertise at play, concluded Christophe Deloire, RSF’s Secretary General. Now everyone expects the EU Commission to live up to its role and make use of it. An all-too soft and platform-friendly policy would not only disappoint many, but also send a dangerously wrong signal to the perpetrators of spreading falsehoods and propaganda.” Deloire added that Commissioner Gabriel had raised expectations by appointing the High-level Group and must now deliver. “Attention to this topic is good, but an expression of tangible political will is still forthcoming and makes the difference. We’ll watch closely”, he demanded.

Support in principle, but...

When the final report was put up for a vote within the HLEG last week, Reporters without Borders opted for a support in principle, but requested a dissenting statement to be included in the annex.

Large parts of the final document, to which RSF contributed substantially along with all other Members of the HLEG, are important and useful manifestations for further reference. We are particularly appreciative of the introductory section describing the problem as well as the extensive references to fundamental freedoms and values upon which Europe is built. As large parts of the public debate seem confused by terminology, causes and symptoms, the HLEG report comes as a timely and lucid, much needed statement of clarity in this regard.

First and foremost, RSF salutes the invaluable contribution of academia in this field, that should receive more support and attention when investigating the phenomenon we are only beginning to grasp fully.

Reporters without Borders, however, remains firmly opposed to the paramount recommendation of the HLEG report. According to the document, a multi-stakeholder ‘Coalition’ should be mandated to develop a ‘Code-of-Practice’ for different sectors, such as legacy media, fact-checking organizations and platforms.

Reasons for concern

Our dissent is based on the following observations and concerns:

  • Distortion of priorities – We believe that, yes, journalists and legacy media should do more to tackle disinformation, but they are not the biggest problem. We believe that independent initiatives in Civil Society, such as NGOs, fact-checking or media literacy organizations, individual activists and bloggers could do better, yes, but they are not the biggest problem either. The main leverage to limit the distribution and monetization of falsehoods, propaganda and disinformation rests with platforms in their exclusive role as information intermediaries. The so-called multi-stakeholder approach of the HLEG paper not only misses this important dimension of hierarchy, but, worse, it thus distorts the priorities and the different levels of responsibility.
  • Misunderstanding of self-regulation – The labeling of this proposal as being a self-regulatory one is inaccurate, as the planned ‘Coalition’ is supposed to work collectively and not sector by sector. Apart from the fact that in the journalistic profession a solid tradition of and practice with self-regulatory codes exists already, we don’t believe that other stakeholders should have a say in it - and the other way around of course.
  • Process without safeguards – Even though the proposal foresees the ‘Coalition’ to come as being independent and inclusive, the fundamental details, such as appointment procedures, voting mechanisms and other elements of governance, as well as the entity’s funding and mandate remain worryingly opaque. We believe that such an ad-hoc, pan-European press-council-type-of-body should be created, if at all, with greatest care and not in a rush of a few months.
  • EU is overstretching its role – We understand that the Commission might have a role as soon as co-regulatory steps are needed, but it should refrain from initiating and hosting any true self-regulatory initiatives. An EU-sponsored ‘Code of Codes’ for the whole media universe is not only unnecessary and in large parts redundant, at best, but can distract attention away from the real causes of the problem, while putting additional burden on those who are already fighting it.

As the composition of the perceived ‘Coalition’ relegates academia and Civil Society organization to a so-called ‘sounding-board’ we see our minority position and role as a watchdog marginalized even more.

Constructive approaches

On a positive note, RSF has seen a number of promising ideas and proposals being discussed in the HLEG, of which some some made it to be included in the final document, some only a bit hidden, while others remained discarded or postponed for further debate, such as:

Adequate funding for media and digital literacy projects, fact-checking initiatives, research and the sustainability of the journalistic profession as a whole seems vital. However we see the challenge in this field not only in the amounts of financial support - or rather the lack thereof, but maybe even more importantly in the interests and strings so often attached to funding. Therefore we strongly suggest to further elaborate the idea of creating an independent funding facility, where contributions from the EU, Member States, corporations - and platforms in particular - as well as philanthropy could be ‘cleared’ in order to protect beneficiaries from undue influence.

A multi-stakeholder mechanism could indeed become crucial and productive in the specific field of cross-sectorial trust and transparency indicators to be developed as a ‘whitelisting’ approach. The design of suitable criteria and their implementation, including machine-readability and related incentive schemes would however require an inclusive and transparent mechanism. RSF is actively engaged in this field and bound to launch a related initiative within the coming weeks.

The EU Commission should not lag behind Member States in the field of competition proceedings vis-a-vis platforms. While RSF is not expecting that a simple break-up of monopolies in search and social media would reduce the amounts of disinformation automatically, an indisputable market failure in online advertising might contribute to a subsequent de-monetization of quality journalism. We join consumer rights organization in mentioning a sector inquiry in this particular field to be a useful instrument for the European Commission to consider.

Last not least, RSF remains frustrated to see the European Commission and the Council of Europe (CoE) working seemingly totally detached from each others on these fundamentally important topics. The “Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers to member States on the roles and responsibilities of internet intermediaries CM/Rec(2018)2” of the Council of Europe was adopted and published last week exactly at the time, when the HLEG concluded to develop these recommendations. In parallel, also last week, the Council of Europe launched an “Expert Committee on human rights dimensions of automated data processing and different forms of artificial intelligence (MSI-AUT)”, while the EU announced a new “High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence” to be created.

From a citizen’s and European taxpayer’s point of view, but also in terms of opportunities and political leverage, these initiatives at international levels must be coordinated at least as much as the EU and the CoE expect it from other stakeholders”, said RSF’s Secretary General Christophe Deloire. Reporters without Borders calls on both organizations for an urgently needed step towards collaboration and cross-fertilization. This seems even more important in the fight against disinformation as the respective instruments of soft- and hard-power, ranging from regulation and co-regulation to standard-setting, but also the different geographical scopes of membership should and must be synchronized for a better result.