Taking a closer look

Misinformation or disinformation: What's 'fake'​ in our news

There is increasing concern that disinformation and the spread of fake news are driving populism and undermining democracy, both in the US and closer to home. With Europeans set to go to the polls in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary and Slovenia against the backdrop of a historic debate on the future of the EU, should we be worried about who we can trust for our information?

According to the International Federation of Journalists, the first duty of a journalist is to have “respect for truth and for the right of the public to truth”.

Ethics in journalism are based on professional conduct, morality and the truth. When these fundamental principles are not adhered to, members of the public are prone to information that is unrepresentative or misleading.

Eurobarometer reports that 37% of Europeans now get their news on European political matters via the Internet. In this increasingly digital world, competition is rife, network news and newspaper editors are no longer the only gatekeepers of information and scoops are sought after. As a result, speed may take precedence over truth. When this is combined with the rise of social networks and unquestioned trust between contacts, the spread of fake news easily gains momentum.

We all have a civic responsibility to call out fake information.

Whilst there is little data on how people get their news via social media and the exact impact of filter bubbles is still an unknown, there is clearly cause for concern.

As European citizens, we all have a civic responsibility to call out fake information. But the line between fake news, slanted or biased news, propaganda and using data to make our points is often not that clear. For example, it seems to me that there is a thin line between click-bait headlines and misleading consumers or readers.

This opinion piece from Ashe Schow offers a helpful starting points on the four different types of 'fake news', which I summarise below:

  1. Made up news, which is either designed for clicks or to do political harm
  2. Satire, which was never intended to be believed
  3. Poorly-reported news, which often stems from a lack of fact-checking by the author and leads to corrections at a later date
  4. Misleading news, which is biased and designed to promote a specific narrative

So what can we do?

First and foremost, it seems wise to recall that fake news is not a new phenomenon. Throughout the years, direct communication from governments and official sources, verified accounts and public information has allowed readers to develop a media literacy, which enables them to ascertain facts from fiction.

Today, more than ever, education and vigilance seems to be the best way to encourage people to take a closer look before spreading fake news.

And here is a helpful cheat sheet from Melissa Zimdars, an associate professor of communication and media at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, who aims to help students become media literate.

This call was repeated by those at yesterday's debate in on the Future of News in the European Parliament to support media literacy, verification of images and fact-checking services.

The work being done by the EU’s East StratCom Task Force is another example of how the EU can forecast, address and respond to disinformation. The team was set up after EU Heads of State and Government stressed the need to challenge Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns in March 2015 and should be extended to address fake news in a wider context. Its awareness is increasing since the increasing attention being paid to fake news and the impact that this may have on the forthcoming EU elections.

While self regulation and awareness-raising measures are needed, this is clearly not enough, if the very values that our European Union is built on are under threat.

The European Commission is due to issue its guidance on the different types of voluntary measures adopted by online platforms to combat fake news later this year. The “code of conduct” signed by US social media groups in May in response to a rise of hate speech could be a suitable approach towards reducing the circulation of fake news on social media platforms by setting out time frames for deleting affected content.

In the meantime, it's up to each and every one of us to stay vigilant and care about what we share.

A version of this article was originally published on LinkedIn as “Misinformation or disinformation: what's 'fake'​ in our news”.

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