It’s easy to only „blame the foreigners”, notes Christophe Leclerq, asked to comment on the increasing waves of disinformation and ways to combat it. Fake can be diluted through quality news, however, media are facing recession times, Leclercq added.
Christophe Leclercq founded the EURACTIV Media Network, and he is now leading the think-and-do-tank Fondation EURACTIV, specialised in media policy and media innovation. He was a member of the EU’s High-Level Expert Group on disinformation in 2018 and he is currently an Advisory Board member of the recently set-up European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO).
The European Commission launched on 30th of June a call for proposals for €9 million to further strengthen its support to fact-checkers and researchers, as foreseen in the recent Joint Communication to reinforce actions against disinformation. It will extend the reach of the European Digital Media Observatory through the establishment of national fact-checking hubs. These hubs will analyse disinformation campaigns and their impact on society, promote media literacy and monitor online platforms’ policies.
Q: How would you comment on such announcement/ expected developments?
Christophe Leclercq: Given the fairly slow policy developments, it is good that efforts are made to better measure, and progress in practice. EDMO was just set-up and will play a key role to shed light on these issues, in an independent way. By way of transparency, I should mention that I am on the EDMO Advisory Board, but play no management or representation role.
In my view, national hubs will be essential, and EU funding would increase their perception of independence. So far, many fact-checking efforts were supported by US systemic platforms, which will continue but cannot be the only way.
Q: Under the recent EC joint communication Tackling COVID-19 disinformation – Getting the facts right of June 10th, free and independent media are now recognised as an essential service. Is it enough? Is it enough to have the fact-checking hubs and public statements or is disinformation itself a pandemic, which needs serious treatment? Some experts noticed that the European Commission involved in direct action to tackle disinformation, however, some priorities are still ignored. How would you comment on what is still crucially necessary?
Christophe Leclercq: Under the recent EC joint communication Tackling COVID-19 disinformation – Getting the facts right of June 10th free and independent media are now recognised as an essential service. However, little progress has yet been made on the promised Media Action Plan.
As for the general rebalancing of the information ecosystem, it depends chiefly on stronger use of competition rules, plus what will come out of the Digital Services Act. The think-do-tank I chair is now called „Fondation EURACTIV Europe’s Media lab”. Our latest view on developments asks for better coordination and speed.
Others have been even more critical: „The task of fact-checking and countering mis- and disinformation should rather be left to independent media, researchers, and civil society. But, sadly, this (…) Communication fails to properly address the support needed for independent media, researchers, and civil society in Europe” (EU DisinfoLab).
The media sector was already fragile before COVID, due to technology change and the move of most advertising to US platforms. As we are in recession, a lot of the remaining ad revenues are on hold. And as people can’t meet, the press lost its main profitable business: physical events. This is why a number of stakeholders asked for media-specific support measures.
People with knowledge of the media business recommend media funds to support quality news. Either for subsidies where they are acceptable, or for access to cheaper capital – the key to avoid falling in the hands of oligarchs. France’s „aides à la presse”, for example, use objective criteria and respect media independence.
Q: How do you see the most efficient actions to fight disinformation and misinformation, both at international level (European) and at national level?
Christophe Leclercq: Detecting and countering fake news is useful, but not sufficient. There are too many good initiatives to list here. Here, a few, though:
The EU’s rapid alert system, set up in March 2019, allows member states to alert one another on disinformation threats in real time.
Several organisations have come to identical conclusions concerning the Code of Practice. Some of them are present on the Sounding Board established at the same time as the Code of Practice. The instrument, while initiating an important dialogue and assessment period, has shown to be inadequate to address the source and drivers of disinformation propagated online as foreseen in the Sounding Board’s assessment of the Code of Practice. In the context of Covid-19, online disinformation has thrived, having a devastating impact on public health efforts. Fortunately, at the same time, the readership of quality media boomed: one can see where reliable information is found.
Q: In a public Op-Ed, on 16th of March 2018, you wrote: „Avoid censorship, dilute fake with quality news”. Meanwhile, do you think that the key institutions made key steps into this direction; can you please elaborate on this issue?
Christophe Leclerq: This is indeed my summary of our report as the High-level Expert Group on disinformation. If you take the three elements of that sentence: we did avoid censorship (not quite at national level), we make slow progress on diluting fake news, and quality content operates on a shoe-tring….
Changing the respective visibility of doubtful information and of news from quality sources is possible. Today’s algorithms, if well ‘fed’ with the right ‘signals’, can do that. Item-by-item evaluation by fact-checkers is relevant but too slow: it used to be a cottage industry and should now harness the power of big data.
One should assess sources, not negatively by censoring any, but positively: highlighting the most credible ones. Algorithms are good at generating loads of relevant advertising, they can also promote relevant content quality. The conceptual link between fact-checking (and generally, media self-regulation) and diluting fake-news exists: Trust Indicators. „Trustworthiness indicators” were committed under the Code of Practice. But they should be multiple, diverse, and independent from systemic platforms.
Q: Is fake-news faking its own meaning? Moreover, the term as such fake-newsis not academically accepted as it creates confusion and the European Commission prefers to use different terminology, using disinformation and misinformation. Why the terminology is important? Do you think that people realize the importance of the exact meaning, the importance of facts? (First Draft News uses even more categories, based on the falseness and on the intention of harm First Draft News suggests also the use of the term malinformation)
Christophe Leclercq: In the High Level Expert Group on disinformation, we spent a lot of time on definitions, even renaming our group’s name which was indeed about fake news. As a very minor academic myself (Associate Professor at Université libre de Bruxelles), I will not contribute new terminology on this.
Disinformation is the right concept, and fake news will continue to be used as short-hand.
Where I think definition work is required is on future policies, for example the definitions of systemic platforms, and the policies to keep them in order, notably asymmetric regulation (level-playing field is often an excuse for doing nothing) and ex-ante competition analysis.
Q: Key institutions from the European Union accuse waves of disinformation, with different sources, and, for the first time in the public speech, the European officials in Brussels accuses China. Websites and initiatives of debunking reveal thousand of cases (over 8,900 disinformation cases can be found only in the EUvsDisinfo database, mostly linked to pro-Kremlin propaganda). Are those enough proof that there is an active strategy on spreading misrepresentation about the West? How far can that process go, thinking that the reality, at some point, will speak for itself? (Or maybe it will not?!) Is it enough to have public statements or is disinformation itself a pandemic, which needs serious treatment?
Christophe Leclercq: Russia’s actions in the field of online propaganda and fake news have long been in the crosshairs of the Commission, particularly the activities of Russia’s Internet Research Agency. Indeed the scope of disinformation now extends to China.
But it’s easy to only „blame the foreigners”. Disinformation and populism go hand-in-hand, on a domestic basis. This is a key factor for Brexit, and for worries in Italy and several Central European countries.
In all these cases – outside or domestic disinformation campaigns, the main drive is to divide, to break the consensus on shared values. European integration suffers, but that is not new, now what is at stake is democracy itself.
Q: Combating disinformation – whose responsibility shall be? Is it the duty of the key European & national institutions? Is it everybody’s responsibility? Everybody seems to be accusing fake-news, but at the same time, is massively distributing it, if not even producing it…
Christophe Leclercq: Here is a good quote, I think, from EU disinfoLab: „The task of fact-checking and countering mis- and disinformation should rather be left to independent media, researchers, and civil society. But, sadly, this [COVID-19 disinformation] Communication fails to properly address the support needed for independent media, researchers, and civil society in Europe”.
Overall, combating disinformation takes efforts at all levels, from media literacy at State schools to the work of competition officials at the European Commission.
Education is key, but we cannot wait for its effects. User flagging sounds good, but is notoriously ineffective. So, one should influence the platform’s algorithms.
Q: Any comments you would like to add, which were not referred to in the previous questions
Christophe Leclercq: Maybe two more calls for actions. First, we established the need for coordinated action in several areas. At the European level, I am surprised that the Project Group of Commissioner for Media and Audiovisual has met only once, in February.
Commissioner Breton promised an Action Plan for this year, and will need input from his colleagues, notably on fundamental rights, innovation, education and chiefly: competition.
Secondly, why not move from negative fighting back fake news to positive promotion of quality content? There, the public service can play a role as catalyst, as enabler, as regulator. But it is media companies that should get their acts together also cooperating across borders. The crisis forces faster change: here is an opportunity. Valuing each others’ content and data would also help negotiations with the dominant platforms.
 Wardle, Claire, 2019, Disinformation, misinformation and malinformation, available online at <https://firstdraftnews.org/latest/information-disorder-the-techniques-we-saw-in-2016-have-evolved>, as accessed 12.06.2020.>
 defined as deliberate publication of private information for personal or corporate public interest
 Wardle, Claire, 2019, Disinformation, misinformation and malinformation, available online at <https://firstdraftnews.org/latest/information-disorder-the-techniques-we-saw-in-2016-have-evolved>, as accessed 12.06.2020. Claire Wardle, First Draft News Research Director noted in 2017, citing Danah Boyd, „we are at war”. „An information war. We certainly should worry about people (including journalists) unwittingly sharing misinformation, but far more concerning are the systematic disinformation campaigns.