Countering disinformation with smart standards: The Council of Europe perspective
The digital transformation has created important opportunities for accessing information and for communication including across borders. These new possibilities have profoundly changed the nature of publication, generally in favour of freedom of expression, making it much easier to publish or access material. Today social media double as our news sources “search engines”. They direct our pathways to information, blogs and vlogs, entertain and inform us, and we debate through comment sections of media portals and discussion forums.
In this overwhelming flood of online news and information, very few publications undergo a rigorous process of selection and extraction of relevant, accurate and reliable information,worthy of public attention. Large technology companies have assumed a major role in terms of distribution of media and other content. However, their “gatekeeping” of information does not respect the same principles followed by traditional publishers of news and media content.
The new “social media distribution” business model favours monetisation through digital advertising rather than the pursuit of public interest. That said, it must also be acknowledged that the nature of online platforms simply does not allow for the same level of scrutiny of content than the more traditional means of information and communication.
As a result, on most online platforms facts are mixed with opinions, verified stories with hearsay and unreliable information, and quality journalistic content can be found next to manipulative propagandist pieces, misinformation and disinformation.
The internet has, and continues to transform the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms as set out in international instruments such as the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention). Recognising the internet’s many benefits for democracy, the Council of Europe, in its pan-European standard-setting role, has throughout more than two decades created a rich body of internet governance principles and guidelines, following the objective that human rights should apply equally both offline and online. Specific standards are provided on areas such as the internet freedom, human rights of internet users, the roles and responsibilities of internet intermediaries, network neutrality, search engines, or social networking services.
However, recent developments regarding the quality of information available to us have created serious challenges for democracy. They have also raised questions as to whether we are still able to effectively exercise our human rights online, for example the right to receive information protected by Article 10 of the Convention, which provides the right to freedom of expression and information.
Fabrications, manipulation and outright lies are certainly not a new phenomenon, but modern digital technologies have facilitated something totally new, both in scale and impact: “information pollution at a global scale”, as noted in the Council of Europe’s 2017 report “Information Disorder: Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policy making”.
The report revealed a complex pattern of motivations for creating, disseminating and consuming compromised content, be it misinformation (false information without the intent to harm), disinformation (false information intended to cause harm) or mal-information (private genuine information disclosed to cause harm). In addition to articulating these different types of information disorder, the report also addressed various techniques used to amplify the impact of such messages, and the platforms hosting and reproducing it. The report also provided a set of recommendations for various relevant stakeholders.
Information disorder is associated with a decline in trust in information and the media, which has been seized upon by populist and antidemocratic movements as an opportunity to further their divisive agendas, attack and discredit journalists, manipulate the news, and silence independent voices. The Information Disorder Report also brought to light evidence that people are more likely to share untrue news, usually with exaggerated and emotional headlines – clickbait – specifically designed to attract a large number of users.
All this has led the media industry, civil society organisations, online platforms and governments to consider urgent responses that encourage ethics and verification of online content. These include various forms of automated moderation of content and the introduction of co-regulatory structures to ensure oversight of the platforms. The Council of Europe, for its part, is taking a pro-active role in ensuring that any new frameworks will protect and promote human rights, the rule of law and democracy.
The Council of Europe is currently developing a legal framework for countering the risk of the manipulation of information through automated systems, and in particular through microtargeting techniques. Such a framework appears necessary for the people to remain free to form their opinions and to take decisions independently of automated systems.
To this end, our Organisation adopted a Declaration on the manipulative capabilities of algorithmic processes, and we are in the process of elaborating a Recommendation on human rights impacts of algorithmic systems. This work will be enhanced, in the near future, by a legal framework addressing the development, design and application of artificial intelligence(AI) systems. For instance, effective mechanisms should be put in place to prevent abuse of AI for offensive cyber operations, including mass disinformation campaigns.
The Council of Europe further aims to enable the media to produce quality news – and hopefully towards restoring the trust of their audiences – not only, but also as a means of responding to disinformation. In this regard, a financially sustainable media environment has a much better chance of delivering quality news and information than one hampered by massive cost cutting and layoffs. A declaration was adopted in February 2019 in support of financial empowerment of the media, to be followed by a comprehensive Recommendation on promoting a favourable environment for quality journalism.
This recommendation is to provide the media industry with guidelines on how to enhance quality and audience engagement, and to clarify some basic principles of the relationship between the media and online platforms that disseminate their content. The instrument will furthermore focus on the importance of critical thinking for countering disinformation by promoting media and information literacy to enable individuals to recognise and value quality sources of information. The aim is to increase not only the availability and findability of quality content on all platforms, but also the demand for such content.
Finally, in addition to these general standards, there are certain sectors where disinformation campaigns can cause major damage, and where sector-tailored policy responses are necessary. For example, the Council of Europe is preparing a review of the existing guidelines on electoral campaigning and communication.
In this endeavour, the Council of Europe is consistently pursuing a multi-stakeholder approach that includes a wide range of actors, including other international organisations such as OSCE. In addition to regular exchanges at different levels, OSCE representatives contribute to expert groups that develop our Organisation’s standard-setting instruments, thereby taking steps towards coherence in international policymaking that are to be welcomed and reinforced in the future.
The challenges are global, and they are profound. Meeting them will require close and effective co-operation between all stakeholders.
Jan Kleijssen is Director, Information Society – Action against Crime Directorate, Council of Europe