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TematicheItalia ed EuropaThe power of disinformation against modern democracies

The power of disinformation against modern democracies


Informed citizens underpin modern societies. The Internet has penetrated almost every country and so has done news consumption by users. Around four billion people use the internet in everyday life and three billion use social platforms frequently. Due to its spreading, many people have easier access to information and they could debate frequently on public issues. However, few would disagree that the last years have shown concerns regards the relationship between social media and disinformation. Indeed, fake news represents a real threat to our democracies and to information, as demonstrate some recent electoral campaigns 

Actions undertaken in Europe 

Modern societies have their core in contrast and discussions of different viewpoints. Although disinformation and fake news are not illegal, they tackle the relationship between truth and trust. Sometimes facts are no longer important if they are not driven by opinions. 
In order to tackle this issue, at the beginning of 2018, the European Commission established an independent high-level group of experts (here and in advance, the HLEG) to understand what policymakers could do against fake news and online disinformation. The final result was a report published on 12 March 2018. As defined in this Report, disinformation “includes forms of speech that fall outside already illegal forms of speech, notably defamation, hate speech, incitement to violence, etc. but can nonetheless be harmful”. Its spread has been causing by the changes in the information eco-systemthe problems regard algorithms of social media, and the loss of trust and faith in institutions, academics, governments, and regulators as well. The HLEG tried also to identify five pillars designed to solve the issue:  

  1. Strengthening transparency of online news, including proper and accurate information of data about the system used by the platform; 
  1. Spreading media and information literacy (MIL) in order to fight misleading information and help people orient in the digital environment;  
  1. Giving tools to users and journalists to develop a positive engagement with new technologies;  
  1. Securing European media pluralism;  
  1. Continuing the research on the impact of European disinformation in order to check policies and adjust them.  

The first response undertaken by the European Commission was the Code of Practice on Disinformation. Through this document, the EC tried to involve platforms and social media to address the spread of online false information. It was the first time that, on a voluntary basis, the major industries agreed to self-regulatory standards to counter fake news. First and foremost, the document tries to define what could be considered as disinformation. Recalling the words given by the HLEG, it is defined as “verifiably false or misleading information […] created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public”, which may cause public harm”, intended as “threats to democratic political and policymaking processes as well as public goods such as the protection of EU citizens’ health, the environment or security”.
Secondly, it focuses on the main purposes to effectively fight the distortion of information, starting from a generic need of safeguarding information and enhancing transparency on advertising, to more concrete actions such as closing fake accounts and regulating bots which are often confused with human interactions.  

Thirdly, it sets some commitments that signatories have to respect. This section is divided into five paragraphsspecifying different objectives:  

  1. “Scrutiny of ad placements”, in order to promote correct information with dialogues between media and fact-checkers;  
  1. “Political advertising and issue-based advertising”, in which the EU wants to guarantee fair information enabling public disclosure of political advertising; 
  1. “Integrity of services”, which aims to better control bots and Artificial Intelligence 
  1. “Empowering consumers”, which obliges signatories to partner with civil society, governments, and educational institution to work together in order to improve critical thinking in societies;  
  1. “Empowering the research community”, which asks media platforms to encourage research on false data and political ads 

The final act regarding the fight against disinformation was the Action Plan against Disinformation, presented in December 2018. It stresses on threats of misleading information coming from foreign states as the Russian Federation, it introduces a Rapid Alert System to give real-time alerts on disinformation campaigns, giving guidelines to online platforms. According to the Action Plan, they should: control the identity of the political advertiser, disable fake accounts, identify bots and categorize them.  

The only European country who has its own law against fake news is France. In order to understand the phenomenon of disinformation, there is a clear definition of what has to be considered as fake news. It has to be identified by an interim judge on three different criteria: it has to be manifestedto be disseminated deliberately on a massive scale, and to undermine peace or endanger the outcome of an election. In addition, during electoral campaigns, the text requires a duty of cooperation for online platforms, with the purpose of ensuring transparencyThe authority entrusted of checking the compliance is the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA). As written in the government’s website, it has the power to “preventsuspend and stop the broadcasts of television services that are controlled by foreign states or are influenced by these states, and which are detrimental to the country’s fundamental interests. 

Disinformation and fundamental rights  

The relationship between human rights, misinformation, and social media has always been linked to one single right: the freedom of expression, specifically related in the internet environment. Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), indeed, protects opinions and facts in the same way. However, there are specific areas in which more attention is required, and where accurate and trustworthy information are essential: truth evidence should be demanded in the field of health as well as politics, which is in the middle of open debate. 

Nevertheless, another right often tackled by disinformation campaigns is the right to political participation, defined in article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In point of fact, article 25 concerns not the only expression of opinions, but also their formation, which is a key part in a transparent and sincere election. Disinformation could, indeed, affect political behavior from short term, distorting the election day by electoral fraud and integrity, to long term, influencing political beliefs by threatening democratic institutions.  

The actual concerns on speech in online platforms mainly regard hate speech, misleading interference by bots and trollsand threats of violence. With the intention to reduce these episodes and progressively develop truthful news through social media, more efforts are essential
Firstlyplatforms have to take further actions to control what is happening on their websites. Secondly, governments should focus more on MIL, a fundamental component of critical thinking and crucial in the participation in the online public sphere. Thirdly, media pluralism should be considered as a key element in the fight against fake news, both from the media perspective and from the user’s perspective. Finally, coordination between academic research all over Europe is vital to effectively respond and monitor disinformation campaigns 

It is claimed that Thomas Jefferson once said: “information is the currency of democracy”. 
It is our duty to inject more of it in our societies. 

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