The freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental right for every European citizen and essential to the functioning of democratic societies. Here, also social media as a platform for a diverse conversation plays an important role. Many social media platforms have been battling the increased amount of misinformation (false information, regardless of intent to mislead) and disinformation (misleading information that is spreaded for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and may cause public harm), especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. This can be a threat to society and democracies and can cause public harm as fake news makes it more difficult for citizens to make informed decisions.
To combat misleading information, online platforms and governments are choosing more and more to take the role of moderators. Critics say, this is an interference in the freedom of speech and expression. But where to draw the line between appropriate expression of opinion, and misinformation advancing political biased agendas?
The competence for legislation for this topic lies in the hands of the Member States. The EU supports them, funds programmes and NGOs that make efforts to research, educate about fake news. It also cooperates and communicates with the social media companies.
Freedom of opinion and expression, as well as media freedom —guaranteed under the Charter of fundamental Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights — are essential to the functioning of democratic societies. The existence of free and independent media is a key aspect of democracy in the European Union (EU). Media play a key role in informing citizens about the actions of public authorities and thus stimulating public debate and critical thinking. In Europe, is subject to a wide range of rules on impartiality, pluralism, cultural diversity, harmful content, advertising and sponsored content. In contrast, on the internet, especially on social media platforms people can post everything without having to follow rules. The internet has not only increased the volume and variety of news available online but has also changed the way people access and handle news. Especially younger users use online platforms and social media as their main source of information. The existence of misleading information or conspiracy theories is not new. However, the internet has made it possible to spread fake news without a lot of expenditure to millions of people in seconds. The line between reducing freedom of speech and combating misinformation is thin. How can Member States guarantee its citizens a safe online environment while also safeguarding freedom of speech?
With COVID-19, we saw a huge amount of information and the spread of misleading or fabricated news, images and videos surrounding the pandemic (the “infodemic”). The spread of , regardless of intent to mislead, can have various social impacts. The spread of misinformation happens every day. If someone is spreading around information that is wrong but does not know it is wrong, then they are spreading misinformation.
Once spread deliberately or with an intent to weaponize it, misinformation becomes . Big online disinformation campaigns are widely used by domestic and foreign actors to show distrust and harm the democracies by hindering citizens in making informed decisions. They also often support radical and ideas and activities. As a result, this can create social tensions, with serious potential consequences for national security.
The European Union as a whole is making efforts to research, educate and raise awareness about fake news. Individually, Member States have begun to create legislation on the issue. Although most countries have similar views on the stance that misinformation and disinformation online is a problem for democracy, opinions are divided when it comes to the decision of who has to act and how. In the last years, the Member States have approached this issue differently, such as Germany, France and the UK.
The protection of fundamental rights, such as the freedom of speech and expression, through legislation, is something the Member States do on a national level. The Charter of fundamental Rights of the European Union does not provide the European Commission with the power to intervene in the area of fundamental rights. In addition, it is difficult for the EU to take action against the big tech companies such as Facebook as they have a concerning social media platforms.
Europe is not immune to misinformation and social media has proven to have a huge influence on the public opinion. In general, misinformation exploits freedom of expression and can be a danger to the integrity of democracies. Should the governments in the EU impose stricter sanctions on social media sites, censor everything or should they leave digital discourse as a completely free space of expression?
Censorship vs. Free Speech
Freedom of speech and expression is a basic Human right in Europe. However, it is difficult to draw the line between appropriate expression of opinion, and misinformation advancing political biased agendas.
The use of methods of filtering or in order to regulate content is restricting the right of free speech and expression. Some countries maintain and strongly regulate content through various methods of censorship.
There is no code of conduct when it comes to censorship: governments and platforms themselves – usually carrying out censorship – often do not reveal to what they have blocked access. If a censorship system is introduced in order to control the content online, how can users and citizens be sure that this power is not exploited?
The fast spread of Fake News
News articles and headlines with the most content spread faster than proven facts. Due to sensationalism, people tend to interact more with content that is novel, surprising or shocking.
Social Media platforms, such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter, rely on that have learned to prioritize content that has already gotten a lot of retweets and mentions, compared with content that has fewer. People commonly believe misinformation and share it without checking its validity. We have an almost unlimited access to information, making taking the time and effort to investigate whether a source is credible and factual an often forgotten step. While journalists have to do careful research, filter out rumors and add sources, digital platforms as social media allow the public to share information without these filters. Instead of doing a lot of research, people tend to click on the first link, regardless of how credible the site is. Especially among young people it is a trend to get stories first rather than to get them right focussing more on the content of social media posts than on their sources.
So do social networks have a responsibility for the safety and the truth of the news posted there?
Misinformation as a threat to society
has played an important role in providing free access to government data and information and fostering transparency. Fake news is as old as news and the digital age has provided an environment for its virulent reproduction and visibility. Typically, democratic countries have the most free and open access to media. As a result these platforms can become the playground for fake news. Differentiating between true and false information has become harder, making it more difficult for citizens to take informed decisions. Misinformation and disinformation can lead to distrust towards institutions and the politics of a country or the EU. Additionally disinformation campaigns further play into such distrust and weaponize it. For example information warfare of the Russian militar.
Most social media platforms are run through algorithms. These algorithms are created to keep users engaged and online. They are trained to understand user habits and customize users’ feeds based on past actions and interests. Also the algorithms sorting and ranking the content for the users are not able to differ between what is right and what is wrong. Additionally to these algorithms, people tend to follow like-minded social media accounts. This creates . It is easy for people to spiral down a fragmented reality online, as they continuously get confirmed in their opinions and views. In this way, social media can turn into a kind of confirmation bias machine. They isolate the people from opposing viewpoints and impair social discourse.
Media literacy initiatives
many european citizens have not adapted to the rapid evolution of information technologies. Media literacy skills are key to ensure societal resilience to misinformation. The European Commission supports these critical capacities trough:
Media literacy week: the first one was in 2019 with more than 320 events across the EU. The second edition was supposed to take place from 30 March to 5 April 2020 and is currently postponed. The goal is to raise awareness of the importance of media literacy across the EU and enable citizens to make informed decisions.
the new Creative European framework for 2021-2027: proposed to support media pluralism, quality journalism and media literacy with money
Strengthening societal resilience: to fight disinformation, a greater awareness about disinformation amongst the citizens is essential. A starting point can be a better understanding of the sources of misinformation and of the intentions, tools and objectives behind disinformation, but also specific training on how to recognize false facts. Building resilience can also include public conferences and debates with the citizens.
such as the Hackathon on COVID-19 related disinformation can bring together cross-disciplinary groups of researchers and even normal citizens to work on the task of disinformation detection.
support by the Commission for research and innovation projects that can identify manipulated digital content in order to create an online environment in which citizens can find trustworthy information
better access to data for researchers: a cooperation would be needed between independent researchers and platforms to facilitate deeper insights into disinformation strategies and the effectiveness of policy responses as especially Facebook impairs actively the access for independent observators.
Questions to think about
How can Member States guarantee its citizens a safe online environment while also safeguarding freedom of speech?
If a censorship system is introduced in order to control the content online, how can users and citizens be sure that this power is not exploited by platforms and governments?
this documentary-drama explores the dangerous human impact of social media, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.
watch time: 1 h 34 minutes
A segment from a Dutch TV Show (Zondag met Lubach, a late night political commentary show) on fake news; it is in dutch but has English subtitles
watch time: 24 minutes