12 March 2018

Online media should provide more insight into their algorithms for combating fake news

Prof. mr. drs. Madeleine de Cock Buning

Facebook, Google and Twitter should provide information about how their algorithms work, to prevent the spread of disinformation and fake news.

This is stated in a report on disinformation presented by a high-level group of experts the European Union. The group, consisting of 39 members, has been investigating the measures that have to be taken at European level. The group was headed by Utrecht professor Madeleine de Cock Buning over the past three months.

Online media and social media must take responsibility

Online media and social media must take responsibility for preventing the spread of disinformation, according to the group. They have to provide insight into how their algorithms work and how it is determined what users get to see. That data must be shared with, for example, scientific researchers. Because, while fake news is "not necessarily illegal", according to the expert group, it can still harm society and civilians. "Risks include harming democratic political processes, including the integrity of elections, and causing harm to democratic values that shape public policies in a variety of sectors, such as health, science, finance and more,” the report says.

Among the key proposals are:

  • A Code of Practice for online platforms
  • Media and information literacy to be added to the school curriculum
  • Taxpayer support for demonstrably independent public service media
  • And European Centres for monitoring the growth of disinformation.

Fake news vs disinformation

The EU expert group chose not to use the term 'fake news' because as it has been “appropriated and used misleadingly by powerful actors to dismiss coverage that is simply found disagreeable”. The report states that 'disinformation' goes far beyond 'fake news'. Disinformation is defined as "all forms of false, inaccurate or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to deliberately cause public damage or gain." Although the report places a great deal of responsibility on politicians and classical media to combat disinformation, the greatest emphasis is on the role of digital platforms, such as social media.