Public empowerment and company self-regulation are key to combatting “fake news”

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A slide at the event by lawyer Mark Stephens gives tips on identifying fake news
© Mark Stephens
15 June 2017

Fabricated facts, counterfeit news and automated dissemination of disinformation can have serious consequences, a seminar of lawyers heard on Monday, 12 June, in Paris.

To address these problems, there is a need to further empower audiences and to step up self-regulation by both by Internet companies and the media, said UNESCO’s Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Guy Berger.

He was speaking on a panel at the third Annual European Media Lawyers Conference, which included media lawyers Mark Stephens (UK), Yves Dupeux (France), Jim Newton (Los Angeles Times, USA), Pia Sarma (The Times, UK), Johannes Weberling (Association of Publishing House Counsels, Germany) and Eric Chol (Courrier International, France).

Berger said that “fake news” went beyond cases of unscrupulous money-makers or pranksters engaged in circulating lies, adding that UNESCO would be concerned about the potential to disrupt elections or catalyse conflict.

The phrase pointed to the “weaponisation” of news, he stated. “Those who use the label seek to convey that there is deliberate disinformation, rather than merely misinformation,” Berger pointed out.   

He explained that “fake news” in this sense designates politically-impactful information delivered in the language of news, presented as if it were based on professional journalistic practices such as verified facts based on reliable sources.  

“The contest around who perpetrates such fakery then reinforces how disinformation in this particular form creates confusion about the nature of truth. It puts into question the authenticity of mainstream journalism, much of which indeed does need to improve its professionalism,” said Berger.

“The flood of disinformation goes hand in hand with direct attempts to incite distrust and discredit the traditional news industry as well as bully its reporters,” he noted.

In this context, said the Director, UNESCO supports both governments and the news media playing increased roles in fostering news literacy, especially in schools.

Berger cautioned against regulating social media platforms and search engines to turn them into the arbiters of genuine news. Improved self-regulatory systems were preferable to the risks of state power deciding what expressions should be defined as false.

Media self-regulation was also the best way to ensure that mainstream media news met professional standards as much as possible.

A participant at the conference proposed that while not censoring apparent disinformation, Internet companies could do better to signal and surface which online news content came from reputable media organisations. 

Another participant said that serious news media should strive to be the “lighthouse” in social media, illuminating what was rubbish as distinct from what was fact-based information and had a credible name behind it.

The conference was organised by the Media Law Resource Centre representing 120 corporate members and including more than 200 law firms worldwide that specialise in media representation.