Save the facts

4 March 2021 | Posted In: #138 Autumn 2021, Archive,

Social media provides an unparalleled environment for the spreading and proliferation of disinformation. Although governments have begun to wake up to the need to regulate digital platforms — as Kathalijne Buitenweg and Richard Wouters discuss — they must adopt a more assertive approach if they are to hold the major players to account.

Public democracy is giving way to platform democracy. In a public democracy, the democratic exchange of ideas mainly takes place in the traditional media. In a platform democracy, the exchange of ideas predominantly happens on digital platforms.

The threshold for access to, and dissemination of, information has become much lower, and an increasing number of citizens are able to personally participate in the debate. They no longer need the mass media or political parties to reach out to other citizens or to mobilise themselves. But also increasing are opportunities to deliberately disseminate false representations of reality, often with political motives.

The pursuit of profit can also be a motive for disseminating disinformation. The longer social media platforms can keep us glued to our screens, the more they earn from advertisements. Accordingly, their algorithms reward extreme views that hold people’s attention for longer with a greater reach.

Dealers in disinformation take advantage of this. By using sensational headlines in social media posts, they lure people to websites and YouTube channels full of junk news and conspiracy theories. The disinformation dealers make money from the advertisements they have arranged to appear alongside the texts and videos. These advertisements often come from respectable companies that don’t realise whose coffers they are filling.

Political and commercial disinformation is often reinforced by the use of bots. These automated accounts increase the number of followers of an account and the number of interactions with its posts. As a result, these messages have a wider reach on social media. In June 2017, no less than a quarter of Twitter climate messages came from bots, according to US research. And the vast majority of these tweets and retweets denied the reality of climate change.

Propagators of disinformation know only too well that the press is their biggest opponent. In fact, the real creators of fake news and conspiracy theories are seeking to undermine citizens’ trust in the professional news media — as well as their confidence in other institutions that guard the truth, such as science, education, and the judiciary. If they succeed, we are in big trouble. A democracy cannot exist without shared facts. In the words of historian Timothy Snyder: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticise power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”

Facts are sometimes controversial, of course. That is especially true of social facts. Take a concept like ‘public safety’. A politician might say that safety is deteriorating if surveys show that more citizens feel unsafe. But is this really a fact, if at the same time the number of reported crimes is falling? It is vital that journalists, scientists, judges, and even schoolchildren are taught to critically examine facts. But there are important rules of play. For example, people who criticise someone else’s facts must substantiate their arguments. And vice versa, those who invoke facts must allow themselves to be corrected. This is how shared facts come into being. The truth comes about through dialogue.

Facts matter also in politics. In addition to values, emotions, and visions, they are an indispensable element of any political discourse or debate. Without shared facts, it becomes difficult to argue about the issues we disagree upon, let alone to make compromises. Without facts, all politics becomes rhetoric. Fact-free politics and disinformation affect voters, by making them increasingly cynical. They start to find lying politicians normal, or even admire them because they manage to get away with their lies.

Under public pressure, some platforms have taken positive steps in the fight against disinformation in recent years. YouTube, for example, now brings journalistic news to the attention of its users more often. The video platform has engaged fact-checkers in three countries. Twitter and Facebook also hire fact-checkers to combat disinformation. Accounts that repeatedly spread disinformation are punished by Facebook with a diminished reach. Still, fake news is more sensational than fact-checks.

In 2017, 50 of the biggest hoaxes on Facebook were shared or commented on 200 times more often than the fact-checks that accompanied them. This creates a snowball effect, since messages that generate a lot of reactions are shown to more users to maximise advertising revenue. The platforms’ efforts to combat disinformation are thus undermined by their own algorithms.

A goose that lays golden eggs will not be keen to put itself on a diet. This is why legislation is needed against disinformation on social media. One simple rule would help: social media users who have viewed disinformation must also view the fact-check. This rule corrects the algorithms; finding the truth takes precedence over commerce. Showing a fact-check to social media users can reduce the number of people who believe the untruth by half, according to an experiement by American researchers. It would mean that social media platforms would have to engage sufficient numbers of independent fact-checkers in order to debunk disinformation in a timely manner. In turn, the platforms must make it easy for users to submit dubious messages for fact-checking. Their own algorithms should also actively search for disinformation, including dangerous deepfakes.

Fact-checking untrue or misleading posts, coupled with reducing the reach of social media accounts that repeatedly post disinformation, is more compatible with freedom of expression than removing these posts. Bringing in independent fact-checkers — such as journalists or academic researchers — prevents the platform itself or a government from determining what is and what is not disinformation. Also, any social media user whose post is labelled as disinformation should be informed about it and given the opportunity to object to this judgment at an independent dispute settlement committee or in court.

Legislation for platform democracy is not complete without measures to strengthen journalistic media. Journalistic news helps to mitigate polarisation, filter bubbles, manipulation, and disinformation. Journalists — when acting according to their professional ethics — add nuance, puncture lies and alert us to facts and opinions that others want to keep hidden from us. A good journalist is truthful and impartial, verifies facts, uses multiple sources, rebuts, and rectifies his or her mistakes.
Most public broadcasters have editorial statutes that guarantee both their independence and journalistic ethics.

Now that social media is the main source of news for part of the population, we should start treating these platforms — at least the large ones, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — as news organisations. This does not mean they have to start practising journalism or that they are liable for their users’ posts in the same way as newspapers or broadcasters. Rather, it would mean that they bring news from a varied range of journalistic sources to the attention of their users.

The algorithms that now play on emotions and too often keep people locked into echo chambers are thus used to broaden their field of vision. The journalistic news that people see on social media, for example, can be attuned to the controversial topics that come up in their timelines. If a friend’s post about, say, vaccinations or climate change appears in your timeline, you will also be offered a news video or background article on that topic. Transparency is essential here: it must be clear how an algorithm selects news items and the list of journalistic sources used by a platform must be public.

Governments should also start thinking about providing permanent subsidies for the free press — if they do not do so already. Of course, the subsidies must be distributed by independent funds, and newspapers, magazines, and digital news media must all be eligible for them. The generous funding of independent public service broadcasting also pays off. It increases social cohesion. Broadcasters need to be given ample opportunity to reach an online audience — not only through Facebook and associates, but also through new, non-commercial platforms.

It is precisely because information spreads so easily on the internet that the importance of the free press is growing. This is the paradox of platform democracy. A market square without gatekeepers, where everyone can sell their wares, needs arbiters of quality. Journalists and fact-checkers help us to distinguish facts from fables and fabrications. That’s why our piece of advice to modern, digital citizens is this: if you can afford it, get yourself a subscription to a newspaper. (Editor’s note: particularly independent publications such as ISV.)

Source: Green European Journal

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