Engaging with the giant social media companies to agree and then enforce a new code of practice on fake news , or “disinformation”, will be the central focus of a new EU fake news initiative this week. The European Commission “communication” to ministers and MEPs eschews suggestions of legislation in favour of a system of loose voluntary self-regulation suggested by a recent high-level advisory group which had brought together academics, the tech industry, journalists and representatives of civil society.
Should that prove unsuccessful, however, the commission may propose legislation. The commission report is critical of the social media companies who "have by and large failed to ensure sufficient transparency on political advertising and sponsored content" and on "the use of strategic dissemination techniques such as paid human influencers and/or robots to market messages". And, with an unstated nod to Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, it says that there are "serious doubts that platforms have sufficiently protected their users against unauthorised use of their personal data".
Threat to democracy
The cross-border nature of the challenges – which, the report says, are a threat to democracy, erode trust in institutions, and pose a threat to freedom of information and media plurality – makes action crucial at European level.
“There are no quick fixes” but “inaction is not an option,” says the report. The commission promises to immediately convene “a multi-stakeholder forum” on disinformation to provide a framework for co-operation involving, among others, online platforms and advertisers to draft a code of conduct whose implementation will be monitored by the commission and those stakeholders.
Between 2011 and 2014, news publishers' total print revenues decreased by €13.45 billion and digital revenues rose by €3.98 billion
The report does not, however, suggest any teeth or means of enforcement. Among the principles that the commission hopes to see embraced by online platforms and advertisers are new means of separately labelling sponsored and factual material, an enhancement of the access by trusted factcheckers to platforms to enable them to track the sources of disinformation and analyse the algorithms used to promote stories, and the rigorous implementation of new EU data protection legislation.
Citizens, the report says, should be empowered “with indicators of the trustworthiness of content sources and with easy access to different news sources representing alternative viewpoints. There should be a “clear marking system and rules for bots to ensure their activities cannot be confused with human interactions”. The report also warns that the traditional news industry is being squeezed out by the social media advance.
“Between 2011 and 2014, news publishers’ total print revenues decreased by €13.45 billion and digital revenues rose by €3.98 billion, a net revenue loss of €9.47 billion,” the commission says. The report says “there is a need to rebalance the relation between media and online platforms”.
“This will be facilitated by a swift approval of the EU copyright reform, which will ensure the right to a fairer distribution of revenues between right holders and platforms, helping in particular news media and journalists to monetise their content.”
The commission will also provide guidance to member states about how they can assist the news industry nationally without breaking state aid rules. It will also propose the scaling-up of initiatives in the next budget round “to support media freedom and pluralism, quality news media and journalism”.