Report of High Level Expert Group on “Fake News”: A good first step, more work is needed

In mid March, the European Commission published the final report of the High Level Expert Group (HLEG) on Fake News, “A Multi-Dimensional Approach to Disinformation”. The group was established in early January of this year, and comprised a range of experts and stakeholders from the technology industry, broadcasters, the fact checking community, academics, consumer groups, and journalists. The group was expertly chaired by Dr Madeleine De Cock Buning of Utrecht University, specialised in Intellectual Property, Copyright and Media and Communication Law.

I represented Mozilla in the HLEG, in close cooperation with Katharina Borchert, our Chief Innovation Officer, who spearheads the Mozilla Information and Trust Initiative. Mozilla’s engagement in this High Level Expert Group complements our efforts to develop products, research, and communities to battle information pollution and so-called “fake news” online.

The HLEG was assigned an ambitious task of advising the Commission on “scoping the phenomenon of fake news, defining the roles and responsibilities of relevant stakeholders, grasping the international dimension, taking stock of the positions at stake, and formulating recommendations.” The added challenge was that this was to be done in under two months with only four in-person meetings.

This final report is the result of intense discussion with the HLEG members, and we managed to produce a document that can constructively contribute to the dialogue and further understanding of disinformation in the EU. It’s not perfect, but thanks to our Chair’s diligent work to find agreement amongst different stakeholders in the group, I’m satisfied with the outcome.

What became obvious after the very first convening of the HLEG is that we would not be able to “solve” disinformation. With that necessary dose of humility, we managed to set out a good starting point for further cooperation of all stakeholders to counter the spread of disinformation. Here are some of the key highlights:

Call it “disinformation” not “fake news”
The report stresses the need to abandon the harmful term “fake news”. In addition to being overly broad, it has become weaponised to undermine trust in the media. The report focuses on disinformation, which is defined as “false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit” (Pg. 10).

Investing in digital literacy and trust building is crucial
Life-long education, empowerment, training, and trust building are key competencies that can lead to greater social resilience against disinformation. This isn’t just a matter for individuals using technology and consuming news – it matters just as much, and indifferent ways, to journalists and content creators.

Moreover, key to this is the recognition that media literacy extends beyond understanding the technical workings of the internet; equally crucial are methods to encourage critical thinking (see Pg. 25-27).

More (EU) research is needed
A lot of the data, and many promising initiatives in this space (such as the Credibility Coalition or the Trust Project), are primarily US based. The report encourages that public authorities, both on the EU and national level, support the development of a network of independent European Centres for (academic) research on disinformation. The purposes of which will facilitate more thorough understanding of the impact, scale, and the amplification methods, to evaluate the measures taken by different actors, and to constantly adjust the necessary responses (more on Pg. 5).

No one wants a “Ministry of Truth” (in either government or Silicon Valley)
The solutions explored in the report are of a non-legislative nature. This is in large part because the HLEG wanted to avoid knee-jerk reactions from governments who might risk adopting new laws and regulations with very little understanding of the essence, scope, and severity of the problem.

The report also acknowledges that pressuring private companies to determine what type of legal content is to be considered truthful, acceptable, or “quality” news, is equally troubling. Ultimately, the report outlines that interventions must be targeted, tailored, and based on a precise understanding of the problem(s) we are trying to solve (more on Pg. 32 & 35).

Commitment to continue this important work through a Coalition
As properly addressing the issue of disinformation cannot be meaningfully done in such a short time, the group proposed that this work should continue through a multistakeholder Coalition. The Coalition will consist of practitioners and experts where the roles and responsibilities of the various stakeholders – with a particular focus on platforms – will be fleshed out with a view to establishing a Code of Practice. The report presents 10 principles for the platforms which will serve as a basis for further elaboration (find them on Pg. 32 of the report). The principles include the need to adapt advertising and sponsored content policies, to enable privacy-compliant access to fact checking and research communities, and to make advanced settings and controls more readily available to users to empower them to customise their online experience.

You can find the full report here, and for full disclosure purposes, the minutes of the four in-person meetings (1, 2, 3, and 4). We thank everyone involved and look forward to continuing our work to tackle disinformation in Europe and across the globe.