Fake News and Disinformation Target Democratic Freedoms

The Association of European Journalists (AEJ) has prepared a position on countering the “fake news” phenomenon. This document is a result of a consultation with all 20 national sections of AEJ under the coordination of Irina Nedeva, President of AEJ-Bulgaria.
During the AEJ annual congress in Vilnius in November 2017, Nedeva was appointed as a special representative of the organization in the field of fake news and disinformation. AEJ’s position on the problem has been filed as a part of a public consultation, organized by the European Commission.
As a part of the Commission’s initiative, on March 12, Monday, the European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel will receive a report, prepared by a high-level working group which studies possible measures related to fake news.
Hereby we are presenting an analysis by Irina Nedeva, based on the common position of AEJ on the fake news issue and the potential mechanisms for resolving it.

The question of definition: criteria to define fake news for the purposes of scoping the problem

AEJ supports the working definition given by the European Commission so under the phenomenon of fake news we mean ‘Deliberate use of false or distorted information to influence public opinion in a harmful way’.
We also share the vision of the analysis made by Claire Wardle (First Draft) that the term fake news is “unhelpful, but without an alternative”, and we should “distinguish between deliberate spread of disinformation and unwittingly sharing misinformation”.
To be more specific: the phenomenon of the fake news includes falsehoods or attacks on reputation for partisan, political or commercial advantage, including politically motivated disinformation and material intended primarily to sow discord, hatred, or prejudice and/or to cause intentional social harm; also disinformation with the intention of engendering doubt, uncertainty or confusion about the known or verifiable facts.
Variations include defamatory and spurious claims or bogus ‘facts’ that cannot be backed up by credible sources; half-truths or malicious smears intended to incite populist displays of anger or aggression; arbitrary or vexatious allegations against individuals or entities that amount to bullying, harassment or threats of harm; minors who are targeted or subjected to such material should be protected from deception, humiliation and all forms of exploitation.
Fake news also takes the form of partial (titles like “Shock”, “Bomb” etc.) or sensational items of information or rumour that are calculated to arouse strong opinions or antipathy but cannot be fact-checked; claims made by politicians especially at times of elections or political tensions that are at variance with objectively proven evidence. It includes photographs that actually relate to other times or locations but which are falsely and deliberately attributed to current events; images and videos aimed at persuading viewers to a particular conclusion in order to deceive or to falsely influence opinions or judgements; imaginary or fantastic claims made to seem to give credence to a particular narrative.
Fact-checking can be an important tool to identify Fake News and Disinformation, as US mainstream media does with President Trump’s statements, but great care is needed to identify (and in certain conditions to remove) lies, deceptions or other falsehoods without restrictions on the legitimate right to freedom of expression, which can include statements and opinions that offend, shock or disturb.


When we analyse the main categories of fake news likely to cause harm to society, the existing evidence suggests that disinformation aimed at influencing voting decisions at elections, as well as environmental policies and immigration, has greater impact than  examples aimed at influencing the economic  or financial sphere. In other words,fake news targets the political and ideological field more than than economic.
According to the members of AEJ community which consists of 20 national sections from all over Europe trust in the public institutions appears to be a greater target for disinformation than any other possible targets, such as trust in public security. This suggests that the phenomenon of the so called fake news is generally aimed at the idea and practice of freedoms and democracy more than directly against security aspects of targeted states.
To outline the scope of the fake news phenomenon we should analyse the main economic, social and technology-related factors which, in the current news media landscape, contribute to the increasing spread of fake news. We also should have in mind the reading behaviour, the dependence of the advertising revenues to the infotainment type of media and the changing role of journalists, the impact of sponsored articles and advertorials.
The new characteristics that shape the news media landscape come from the speed and instant spread of information in the world wide web and more specific through the social platforms.
The acceleration of the spread of fake news through the use of algorithms, bots, trolls and other technological means of mass sharing and creating clicks on social media, taking massive ad revenues from original content producers affects deeply the audience way of consuming information.
We also see an exploitation of cheap labour for unethical goals in troll factories and at the same time the commissioning and publication of paid-for articles and disguised political advertising.
The anonymity of many media owners in parts of Eastern Europe plus effective monopolies in the media field that lead to concentration of ownership and cross ownership of media and distribution companies and media advertising companies make the whole media scene open and ready to be massively affected/infected with fake news. We also see frequent failures by Internet intermediaries and social media companies to exercise due diligence to counter fake news and unlawful content.
Producing fake news is easy, while producing quality journalism is hard, expensive and skill-intensive.
Digital display advertising and the increasingly commercialized media market accelerate the fake news phenomenon. Social media have transformed the media and journalism needs to re-tool itself and learn new skills on data, security and the growth of deliberate misinformation.
We see dangerous political instrumentalization of fake news by politicians for calculated purposes of self-promotion, together with systematically discriminatory use of resources by public authorities to favour compliant media and disadvantage critical voices, as undermining democratic values which depend on trust.
Fighting fake news is sometimes misused by authoritarian and populist leaders to control and intimidate the press and spread propaganda.
The above mentioned factors must be addressed in the search for remedies. They should include all the players efforts to expose half-truths or untrue statements, challenging the propagator. Popular headlines that resonate with readers’ opinions on the basis of false, misleading or inflammatory ‘facts’ often strengthen bigoted opinions. One counter-measure could be to ensure that corrections are to be displayed with the same impact as the original falsehood.
The public should be encouraged to view the exposure of fake news as a matter of common pubic interest.
Children at schools should be educated in critical thinking, taught methods of dissecting stories, they have to learn how to check facts and to be encouraged to expose lies without fear of reprisals even if it goes against the grain of the societies they live in. Such programmes of media education training of the youth and adults alike now appear essential to nourish a modern understanding of the uses and misuses of information in the age of social media and mass self publishing

 Dissemination mechanisms

Most commonly we come across fake news in quite different channels – social media and messaging apps are spreading information and disinformation shared by friends, family or social echo chambers, but also we could come across fake news in news aggregators including giants like Google News, Apple news, Yahoo news and Video sharing platforms (e.g. YouTube, DailyMotion, Vimeo), online blogs and online media.
When we look at the dissemination mechanisms, we see that the highest impact on the spread of fake news in the EU comes from shares online by human influencers / opinion makers, or bots (automated social media accounts). But also, especially in Eastern Europe, we notice media editorial decisions and editorials based on falsified or unproven facts and allegations. Thus the old type of propaganda mixes with the new phenomenon of fake news.
Concerning the anti-European disinformation we can notice the difference between old type of anti-Western propaganda when the West was portrayed a corrupt and declining but the alternative was presented in face the opponents of the so-called West and nowadays when the alternative is not on focus, but the main proposition of declining West is still present.
That is why we suggest three additional categories to the definition of intentional disinformation aimed at the democratic structures of the society, namely – 1) intentional disinformation aimed at changing the geopolitical reality, 2) so-called ‘active measures’ of political subversion or reputation damage by state agents or surrogates and public allegations without substance in fact and 3) smear campaigns, often on a massive scale, against critical voices and watchdog type of investigative journalism.
Over  the last two years we see that the public opinion has been impacted by fake news mostly in the areas of Political affairs (e.g. elections), Immigration policies (e.g. refugees), Minorities (e.g. religious, ethnic, sexual orientation) and less in the areas of Personal life of public figures (e.g. politicians), Showbiz and entertainment, and bank and financial services.
Evaluation of the measures already taken
If we analyse the measures that have been already taken by online platforms, news media organisations and civil society organisations to counter the spread of disinformation online we see that Pop-up messages on social media, encouraging readers to check news and sources still play an insignificant role in counter fighting fake news.
Often one could barely realise it is in action at all in spite of the fact that the social networks or media claim they do it.
Fact-checking through independent news organisations and civil society organisations (explaining why a post may be misleading) so far has proven as the best mechanism to point out fake news but it does not reach the same audience and is time and resource consuming.
Shutting down fake accounts and removal of automated social media accounts (based on the platforms’ code of conduct) as well as the mechanisms enabling readers to flag content that is misleading and/or fake could also be counterproductive and misleading. The problem is that such mechanisms depend on the same principle of majority and it is up to the trolls and organized haters to influence and change the platforms’ decisions when for instance they massively report one or other profile in the social networks. Such measures are pretty dependent on the authority which takes the decisions and could be counter effective, like, for example,  shutting down of accounts of anti-racist individuals who became targets of white supremacist groups or neo-nazies. Also in Eastern Europe we see mobilisations of groups that target civil society or minorities reporting them to Facebook and a poor decision making process by Facebook itself.
What journalists, editors and owners of media can do: remedies and counter-measures
Journalists in the AEJ have adopted various practices in our media organisations and individual output but we share the same commitment to the well-tried rules for checking information sources and their credibility. Mainly we rely on codes of practice issued by respected authorities including journalists’ unions, public service media guidelines and the Ethical Journalism Network. All the working journalists within the AEJ adhere to the traditional guidelines of checking before publication or broadcast. The key points are:
Never take story at face value — especially if it comes from an unknown or untested source.
If in doubt, leave it out and find out!
Fact-checking (human fact checkers) and peer review processes should be encouraged within media organizations and flagging by trusted flaggers is generally preferable and more reliable than flagging by users.
At the same time social media and platforms should make the automated content verification tools available to their audiences.
Awareness of the danger of fake news
The audiences in general are not sufficiently aware of the steps to take to check the veracity of news when reading and sharing news online (e.g. check sources, compare sources, check whether claims are backed by facts).
AEJ recommends to the European Commission measures and resources to strengthen the media literacy and critical thinking of the audiences.
Awareness of the issue and the danger of the fake news should be widely understood and explained.
Audiences should be made aware that they need to:

  • check the sources
  • to identify and know about the owners of media outlets and websites
  • to look for the publicly announced links to the ethical code of the media
  • to see if there are references to sources and if sources are clearly identified and can be verified
  • to check if the pictures or texts have been published on the internet before and to establish their origin and to what they could be attributed.

We are an organisation formed by national sections where individual journalists are taking part voluntary. In some of our sections we have websites where we regularly post information about disinformation content. For instance, this topic is crucial for AEJ Bulgaria and we publish many articles on the topic, and recently held two conferences on Fake news ourselves – one on national and one on international level.
AEJ reccommends connecting similar activities among the network of the International AEJ where examples from Fact-checking platforms may be re-published and journalistic efforts could be combined to tackle the Fake news phenomenon. All articles posted come from known sources whose integrity we value.

 Possible future actions to improve the access to reliable information and reduce the spread of disinformation online

Concerning what should be done to reduce the spread of disinformation online AEJ proposes the following steps:

  • Creating awareness of the danger;
  • Encouraging critical reading and critical consumption of information.

The AEJ considers the issues related to fake news and online disinformation as problems that require a good level of public understanding and public media literacy, and a high level of professional and editorial skills, technical expertise and respect for journalistic ethics and fundamental rights.
A key element of the appropriate policy responses should relate to the roles, rights and responsibilities of Internet service providers, social media enterprises, relevant technology companies and the journalists.
Fake news and propaganda are some of the major challenges in front of present-day journalists.
What worries us, however, is the risk of resorting to excessive regulation which may use the acknowledged dangers of false or manipulated information as a pretext to stifle free speech.
The big challenge is to differentiate between facts, on the one hand, and half-truths and misleading content, on the other. We should also distinguish Fake news from propaganda and try to understand how they cause damage to the whole democratic structure of societies.
The AEJ, together with partner organisations among the media and NGOs are actively seeking new ways to strengthen the role of professional journalism, boost media literacy, and encourage the setting up of fact checking units within the newsrooms as a requirement for more responsible and reliable journalism.
What online platforms could do?
Online platforms could try to improve users’ access to reliable information and prevent the spread of disinformation online.
AEJ thinks that the possible steps that online platforms could undertake are the following:

  • Rank information from reliable sources higher and predominantly display it in search results or news feeds.
  • Provide buttons next to each article that allow users to investigate or compare sources.
  • Provide greater remuneration to media organisations that produce reliable information online
  • Fact-checking through independent news organisations and civil society organisations (explaining why a post may be misleading
  • Mechanisms to display in prominent position information from different sources representing similar viewpoints (e.g. “related articles” button)
  • Fact-checking billboards
  • Reliable sites where disinformation is debunked
  • Warnings to readers that a post or article has been flagged/disputed staff that constantly monitor online material.
  • Monitoring the shared content
  • Open algorithms to scrutiny
  • Adapting algorithms so as to identify possible fake news content but with sufficient human editorial oversight
  • Preventing misuse or undue interference with freedom of opinion and expression .
  • Training humans to filter/flag disinformation in clear-cut cases
  • Inform users when certain content has been generated or spread by a bot rather than a human being
  • Inform users about the criteria and/or algorithms used to display content to them (why they see certain content).
  • Employ fact-checkers at the online platform.

 What advertisers could do?

We also believe that mechanisms to block sponsored content from accounts that regularly post fake news should be considered as well as to encourage the advertisers not to advertise in websites and media that spread fake news.
This also means rising the awareness and sensibility of the product oriented industries because advertising their products on sites and media that distribute fake news also undermines their integrity and confidence in their business.
What news media organisations could do?
News media organizations could help audiences reach reliable information and prevent the spread of disinformation online. All they have to do is to be professional and ethical at the same time by:

  • Doing their job with adequate respect for accuracy, integrity and humanity
  • Double checking with two or three independent sources as in old school professional journalism
  • Investing more in new forms of journalism (i.e. data-based investigative journalism) to offer reliable and attractive narratives
  • Sticking to clarity in the use of language and source citation when it is possible without losing the protection of anonymity for some sources which could be vital for professional investigative journalism.
  • Using of background links when needed for transparency
  • Linking to existing fact-checking results on the reported topic or related topics
  • Updating their information
  • Pointing out what is for sure and what is not sure in the information
  • Using references to the public sources, institutions, scientific authorities.
  • Pointing out the common sense discrepancies and following logical principles
  • Editors should require critical reading of the online forums and good moderation of the interaction between the media and its readers, listeners and audience
  • Carefully mark what is a citizen generated content /user generated content (UGC) and what has been checked out and proven
  • Editors should avoid plagiarism and uncritical copy/pasting of articles without verification of the origin of content (an often case in some Eastern European online and print media)
  • Disclaimers on the content coming from third parties
  • Avoiding hidden advertising content – avoiding Advertorials  (advertising messages “disguised” as editorial positions or opinions)
  • Careful editing
  • Clearly marking when the content has been updated
  • Proofreading
  • Apologizing  when information had to be corrected
  • Media organisations could also have a fact-checking section on their websites where the names of investigators could be mentioned
  • More attention and resources for fact-checking in response to the flood of fake news
  • Increasing cooperation with other media organisations
  • Helping readers develop media literacy skills to approach online news critically
  • Helping readers assess information when and where they read it (e.g. links to sources)
  • Supporting civil society organisations and participative platforms (for instance using the model of Wikipedia/Wikinews) to improve monitoring and debunking of fake news
  • Investing in technological solutions to strengthen their content verification capabilities, in particular for user-generated content, in order not to contribute to the proliferation of fake news.

What civil organisations could do?
To do their job with due diligence and trust, practice necessary transparency and support the media and online platforms with expertise.
Journalistic organisations like the AEJ have the capacity to contribute to wider efforts to spread information about disinformation and to inform both journalists and audiences/users about the ways we could ensure less noise and less harm in the communication channels.
In cases like AEJ it could combine national/local and EU perspective. Provided with for instance EU funding such organizations could really make a difference.
Funding and investments are needed more in humans than in machines and more for better quality journalism and professional trainings.
Journalistic organizations like AEJ could also work for media literacy campaigns and could develop activities not only for the journalists but also for the audiences – how to distinguish informational content, how to check the news, how to know whom to trust etc.

 What the public authorities could do to counter the spread of fake news, and at what level (global, EU, national/regional) should such actions be taken?

It is very important the public authorities which operate with public taxpayers’ money on national, regional or european level, not be mislead by the politicians who instead of countering disinformation, will be doing more to defending their personal or party-political interests.

  • Public (taxpayers) money should not be granted to media outlets that spread disinformation just because they have big ratings or reach in audience
  • Education, advertising by government bodies for sensibilisation on the danger of fake news, cooperation between countries, fact-finding bodies to get more media exposure so that regular citizens know where to find them need to be established
  • Politicians must be held accountable for making half-truth statements especially before elections
  • Government-sponsored advertising campaigns, politicians and civil servants must held accountable when propagating half-truths, companies should be encouraged to use the truth as a means of advertising their products, civilians to be made aware of forums where they can question doubtful information and have it fact-checked
  • Invest in educating and empowering users for better assessing and using online information. Support and fund civil society organisations to improve monitoring and debunking of fake news.
  • Encourage the development of new forms of cooperation with media outlets, fact-checkers and civil society organisations to implement new approaches to counter fake news.
  • Further limit advertisement revenues from state/municipal compagnies or European communication programs flowing to websites publishing fake news.
  • Support civil society organisations and participative platforms (for instance using the model of Wikipedia/Wikinews) to improve monitoring and debunking of fake news.

 A new body to monitor/regulate?

The elephant in the room is the question whether an independent observatory/website/agency (linking platforms, news media organisations and fact-checking organisations) could help to track disinformation and emerging fake narratives, improve debunking and facilitate the exposure of different sources of information online? What, if any, will be the added value of such an institution?
AEJ thinks that the public would benefit from an independent observatory that acts as a knowledge centre, gathering studies and providing general advice on how to tackle disinformation online instead of doing hard state regulation.
Depending on the resources, and only under the condition of an existing ability of a state to follow the rule of law and ability to guarantee a true independence of this body aligning with highest European values and principles it could also have activities such as the  following:

  • Monitoring popular social media publications
  • Requesting and correspondingly funding organizations that deal with fact-checking to check facts and issue public warnings against platforms, public authorities, etc. that certain of their actions/publications/statements must be marked as disinformation.
  • Monitoring popular social media publications, investigating the facts and developing counter-narratives when needed
  • Collection of factual information (and possibly consumer ratings) for each source in order to create a factual picture of the activity and reputation of each source.

All of this is possible, however, only in one Ideal state (Plato) and in the premise of the idea of Еternal peace (Immanuel Kant) and under the observance of all international and European conventions guaranteeing the rule of law and human rights.
Otherwise, it is better for public authorities that allocate public financial resources in European democracies to support professional journalism, public education, media literacy and critical thinking. The other option is to create incentives for IT companies and businesses to comply with the rules because the attack on trust in democratic institutions can cut off the branch of all players in the еra of accelerated information and deliberate disinformation campaigns.
By Irina Nedeva
Photo: commons.wikimedia.org / CC BY-SA 2.0
References and some useful readings:
“Fake news. It’s complicated” – article by Claire Wardle (First Draft)
We want to point out the analysis made by Llewellyn King who is an American journalist within The White House chronicles, contributor to Huffington post and a goof friend of AEJ International titled: “The ‘Fake’ Accusation Is Offering Comfort and Cover to Dictators”
Reuters Institute research:
The political danger of misusing the Fake news for the sake of political parties agenda:
Anything written by Johan Bäckman e.g.
as well as this organisation:
Co-opting discontent: Russian propaganda in the Bulgarian media:
https://granta.com/why-were-post-fact/ Peter Pomerantsev

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