The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Edward Danks, Programme Coordinator, European Institute for Asian studies
As new, digital platforms have precipitated journalistic innovation, the simultaneous rise of fake news and the spread of disinformation throughout the media has left the industry in a state of flux. The implications of this issue however, spread far beyond the undermining of new and traditional media sources. It is becoming increasingly clear that the spread of fake news has acted to undermine political institutions the world over, and as the situation worsens, people are increasingly calling for a formulated response. What this response may entail however, remains the subject of much debate.
It was this contentious subject that formed the basis of a recent event held at the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS), organised in collaboration with the University of East Anglia and EURACTIV. On May 14, EIAS welcomed a panel of academics and media experts to its Brussels offices to participate in the seminar – Formulating a Response to Fake News: Regulation and Accountability.
Before discussing regulation or accountability, it was first necessary for the event’s panellists to put the debate in context. Olivier Arifon and Alexandre Alaphillipe, of EIAS and the EUDisinfolab respectively, explained to the audience how the spread of disinformation within the media is no new phenomenon. However, whilst fake news has existed since time immemorial, as the distribution and consumption of media becomes increasingly digitalised, its reach and impact have grown.
For those spreading disinformation, the aim is for the article/information being broadcast to gain sufficient visibility and notoriety that it infiltrates mainstream media and political discourse. Through appealing to prejudices, disinformation is widely circulated as it gets shared across social media platforms. This tactic is also used by those hoping to bring marginal political issues into the limelight, a good example of this being the now infamous French “burkini-ban” of 2016. By appealing to echo chambers and relying on laissez-faire social media platforms to spread fabricated or marginal political issues, those with a vested interest in undermining political and media institutions have been able to advance their unsavoury causes.
Whilst the tactics used to disseminate disinformation can appear straightforward, its production and the reasons underlying its success are manifold and complex. From Russian troll armies and Macedonian click farms, to growth of “alternative” news sources and an apparent failing in global media literacy, anyone hoping to develop a response to fake news faces a daunting task.
In discussions about minimising the impact of fake news, conclusions often tend towards the subject of regulation. Consequently, several governments have been emboldened to enact laws regulating and even criminalising the spread of fake news and disinformation. In both Malaysia and Kenya, one can be fined or jailed for spreading disinformation. Despite its recent popularity, this approach has drawn a large volume of criticism. Amongst those who feel that this kind of governmental interference is too radical a measure were panellists Professor Ike Picone of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and Christophe Leclercq, founder of EURACTIV.
A major criticism of this regulatory response is that governmental control is not in line with freedom of expression and freedom of the press – values held dear within democratic societies. The regulation of information by, inter alia, the Malaysian and Kenyan governments is often seen as the thin end of the wedge, and it is arguable that this process may lead to an increased public appetite for controlled news sources. Regulation of fake news has been particularly advised against on an EU-level and amongst the EU’s founding members. The threat of this action lies not so much in the direct, domestic consequences of any fake news law, but through the legitimising of media regulation amongst less stable and less democratic regimes elsewhere in the world. This being the case, how can the damaging effects of fake news be hedged against whilst still guaranteeing basic political freedoms?
The answer to this question is far from simple, and much contention remains as to what the best course of action may be. With many rejecting moves towards regulation, some attribute responsibility to the social media platforms which play such a vital role in the spreading of disinformation. Whilst this may be the case, encouraging passive corporate actors to address the issue is proving problematic. One way to provoke a response from the sector may be with the threat of regulation or tighter controls. This would likely impact upon company shares, hitting them where it hurts.
Whilst panellists at the event expressed a variety of opinions regarding what may be the best way to limit the damaging effects of fake news, all agreed that any response must be multifaceted. This could involve urging social media to take more responsibility, improving media literacy, encouraging more quality content to dilute disinformation, or the construction of a media rating system in accordance with ontological journalistic codes.
One common assumption voiced throughout the event was that strong institutions across Europe – politically, socially, and within the media – are likely to be robust enough to weather the current storm of fake news and disinformation. While this may offer encouragement to many throughout the EU, the picture elsewhere in the world looks less rosy. In light of this, it is important that the European Union continues working to establish a multifaceted, proportional, and (if possible) transferable response to fake news to ensure that its corrupting influence not further undermine liberal values and manifest new global challenges.

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