Bled panel on fake news notes democracy being undermined

Participants of the panel on fake news at the Bled Strategic Forum agreed that a multifaceted and cooperative response is needed to a phenomenon that is quickly changing the media landscape and undermining democratic processes.

Ms Ingrid Brodnig, Austria’s Digital Champion and author of the book Lies on the Internet, argued that blatantly false news were just the tip of the iceberg of a “new ecosystem” whose dimensions were for instance revealed at the Constitutional change referendum in Italy last year, where five of the ten most successful media stories in the campaign proved “completely made up”.

Ms Gabriella Cseh, Public Policy Director for CEE at Facebook, who argued that fake news was not a “Facebook problem” but a societal problem that needed to be tackled by all stakeholders, indicated the most popular social platform on the internet was going about the issue with a technical approach – for instance by identifying fake accounts – as opposed to by way of comparing content, as this could lead to the slippery slope of censorship.

Mr Peter Kropsch, President and CEO of German Press Agency, noted that Facebook had interfered in the business model of the media and their public. “To say it frankly, it is an economic model, it is about money,” he said, arguing that seeing Facebook as merely a technical platform was oversimplified, since it had unleashed developments that had never been anticipated and were not under control.

Mr Nabil Wakim, Director of Editorial Innovation at Le Monde, welcomed Facebook’s efforts to work with media to detect fake news, but noted this was producing limited results. He instead argued for the promotion of real news stories, stories that mattered and for building trust between journalists and readers. Wakim moreover argued in favour of helping users better navigate the internet, which can be a dangerous place.

Mr Teodor Marjanović, commentator on foreign policy at Hospodarske noviny in the Czech Republic, on the other hand does not believe media outlets are in a position where they could keep up with fact checking. He proposed an intervention by the state, like in the Czech Republic, where an Interior Ministry body is already working against Russian propaganda in the country. Mr Marjanović welcomed the strategies outlined in the debate, but urged doing something in the short-term, since meddling by organised players like Russia can completely undermine the democratic process.

Mr Florian Nehm, head of Corporate Sustainability and EU Affairs at Axel Springer SE, disagreed, arguing against truth ministries and in favour of fact checking teams. An important part of this is financial, which is why he is in favour of the European Commission-proposed concept of “exclusive copyright” that says anyone who uses journalistic content needs the permission of the producer.

The commercial use of “snippets” by Facebook as well as its refusal to accept editorial responsibility were also notable topics in the debate, which was moderated by journalist and columnist Mr Lenart J. Kučič.

Ms Brodnig pointed to the psychological phenomena that make people prone to fake news – people want to believe what fits their world view, they are susceptible to fear and anger – and all this is exploited. She noted that the motivated biased reasoning phenomenon was especially problematic in countries with a polarised two-party system, like the US.

Mr Matthew d’Ancona, columnist at Guardian, London Evening Standard, International New York Times, and GQ, highlighted the loss of trust in the authorities and the transformed information ecology. He had great hope for social media, but these have also “encourage people to cluster and hover in their comfort zones”.

“This is absolutely at the heart of the fake news, post-truth plane,” he said, stressing that “the algorithms are designed to give you more of what you like already”. He said realising the scope and speed of these changes was key.

Ms Melita Župevc, a former Slovenian MP and journalist, however remains and optimist, feeling that people will resort back to “good old trusted brands…old sources of information”. Nevertheless, Župevc could not say with certainty whether people will be ready to pay for these old sources, which touched on the issue of the dissolution of existing business models for the media.

The closing remarks on what is at stake in this transition heard Mr Kropsch speaking of a threat to democracy as we know it. “We don’t have a crisis of journalism…we have a crisis of financing this journalism…I think the remedy is in finding solutions with those who earn money without content and maybe in regulations at EU or state level that will allow media to flourish.”

Source: Slovenian Press Agency