The challenge in an era of misinformation and disinformation

Elfa Ýr Gylfadóttir. Photo: Mogens Blicher Bjerregård

By Elfa Ýr Gylfadóttir (Iceland)

Knowledge is only a mouse-click away for the majority of the general public. The human kind has never had such access to information as with modern communication technology. The general public can both find and disseminate information in an easy and accessible way. Even though this technology provides us with many advantages and opportunities, there are also serious challenges.

As frequently reported in the media, the information is not all true, accurate, objective and impartial. It has even been said that despite the easy access to knowledge, we as a human kind, are now living in the era of misinformation or disinformation. Oxford Dictionaries even selected the word “post-truth” as 2016’s international word of the year.

Information can be misleading or influenced by certain beliefs; it can contain incorrect assumptions that are based on misleading facts (misinformation). In other cases, information is fundamentally false (disinformation). In both instances, it might be in the interest of those providing the information to distort and distract the general public.

The role of independent and professional journalism

The history of the press and democracy is closely linked. It is the role of the media to educate, inform and provide a forum for democratic debate. This is the kind of media that serves the public interest and hence democracy, instead of pursuing particular interests. Democracy in any state depends on independent and professional media.

Professional journalists do not all work for private or public broadcasters, community media or the printed or electronic press. The definition of media actors has expanded as a result of new forms of media in the digital age. It is therefore important to include others who may contribute to the public debate by disseminating accurate and fair information. These actors also perform journalistic activities and fulfil the functions of public watchdog.

20th Century ethical rules and standards for media

After press freedom was secured in the Nordics as in most of Europe and the United States, the public were given the access to news and information from various sources. The diversity of sources became an important pillar for media pluralism. During the 20th Century, ethical codes and journalistic standards were set to ensure that the media holds their responsibilities. It was considered important that media companies not only exercise their rights, but also fulfill certain responsibilities because of their power to set the news agenda and to influence the public opinions.

In Europe, self-regulatory systems were established usually by journalists. The code of ethics was meant to ensure truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness as well as public accountability in the media. Furthermore, Press Councils as we know them in most of the Nordic countries were established as industry-wide self-regulation bodies.

National public broadcasters were established in most countries in Europe in the 1920’s and 1930’s. When television broadcasting began in Western Europe, they were regarded as an extension of radio and hence became the responsibility of national radio broadcasting institutions. Public service broadcasters were national institutions, operating in a national context. They shared a similar ideology and were usually owned by the state. But they differed from each other in terms of structure and cultural characteristics.

Public service broadcasters being used for propaganda

During the World War II, public service media had a different role, depending on the position of the country during the war. Propaganda during the WWII included both misinformation and disinformation in a large scale and some public broadcasters in Europe were used for propaganda purposes.

Having learned from the lesson during the war, it became obvious that high ethical standards and accountability in public service broadcasters and the press pave for the foundation of independent and democratic media.

This model survived in the Nordic Countries and Western Europe until satellite television was introduced to the general public during the last decades of the 20th Century, the monopoly of the public service broadcasters was also abolished. However, that did not diminish the cultural and democratic role of public service broadcasters. They are still considered to be of most important for a diverse media landscape, contributing to cultural diversity and social cohesion.

A number of commercial broadcasters emerged in the 1980s adding to the pluralism of content and diversity in the media. However, they also have to follow principles, in many ways similar to the public service broadcasters. In most cases, it became the role of the media regulators to ensure that these principles were followed by commercial broadcasters.

Media in the United States

Media has for historical reasons developed differently in the United States than that in Europe. Private commercial radio and television networks were established and clear obligations were imposed on them until the end of the last century.

Before passing the Communications Act of 1934, a debate took place whether to include public service media in the U.S. with the purpose of educating and informing the general public with certain objectives in mind. When the Act was passed, the commercial networks were put in the forefront at the expense of public service broadcasters.

Decades later, a law was passed to establish the role of public service media. When president Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Broadcasting Act in 1967, he described its purpose as:

“It announces to the world that our nation wants more than just material wealth; our nation wants more than a ‘chicken in every pot.’ We in America have an appetite for excellence, too. While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man’s spirit. That is the purpose of this act.”

Public service media marginalised

However, the law put real constrains on public service broadcasters, which left them little room for manoeuvre. Thus, they never became a real competition to the commercial networks, resulting in the fact that they became marginalised. Public service broadcasters became almost entirely decentralized instead of and operated by the government although they received some government support. More importantly, public service broadcasters in the U.S never got the resources and the budget to compete with commercial media, resulting in low audience share and marginal impact in public debate.

It is heavily debated in the United States whether the deregulation of the broadcasting market and the abolishment of the fairness doctrine created opportunities for more biased broadcasting. Whatever the reason is, conservative and progressive radio talks and more biased news programmes started to emerge in the U.S. market at the end of 20th Century. News broadcasters in the United States can be inaccurate and both editorially and ideologically biased. Regulatory requirement for accuracy and impartiality is very limited.

Public service broadcasters in the U.S never got the resources and the budget to compete with commercial media, resulting in low audience share and marginal impact in the public debate.

It is also important to keep in mind that although the press in the United States has followed ethical principles in journalism for decades, there has never been a wide self-regulation mechanism in place, such as the Nordic Press Councils, to enforce those principles and to hold the press accountable.

Article 10 or First Amendment, between Europe and America

Freedom of speech is ensured in the First Amendment in the United States Constitution.  It is interpreted in a very different way by U.S. courts in comparison to Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which also provides the rights to freedom of expression and information. Freedom of expression according to Article 10 is subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society”. These restrictions are outlined in the case law of the European Court of Human Rights.

Such restrictions usually include endangering national security, hate speech, protection of children and youth, and agitating for violence. Needless to say, freedom of speech in the U.S. also has certain restrictions found in the U.S. case law. However, some restrictions on freedom of expression in some European countries might be considered unconstitutional in the United States.

For the purpose of simplification, it could be argued that the concept of freedom of speech in the United States constitutes a marketplace of ideas. The marketplace of ideas holds that the truth will emerge from the competition of ideas in a free, transparent and public discourse. It concludes that ideas and ideologies will be culled according to their superiority or inferiority and widespread acceptance among the population.

Painfully aware of the power of propaganda

On the contrary, the concept of freedom of expression in Europe is based on the history of a continent which was devastated after two world wars. Europeans were unfortunately painfully aware of the power of propaganda and what certain type of expression could lead to.

From a policy standpoint, Europeans believe that certain expressions can be so harmful that there is a need for restriction. Historically, it is therefore understandable that Holocaust denial is punishable in Germany. It is also understandable for historical reasons that the dissemination of means of propaganda of Unconstitutional Organisations is prohibited as well as the use of symbols of Unconstitutional Organisations (items such as the Swastika or clothing of the socialist youth movement).

From an Icelandic perspective, being at the border of Europe and America, it can be argued that Iceland has some important features taken from both systems.

Regulation and accountability thus develops differently depending on the underlying ideology that nations have about the nature of the media and how people form their ideas. From an Icelandic perspective, being at the border of Europe and America, it can be argued that Iceland has some important features taken from both systems.

Iceland between two continents, and two concepts of freedom of expression: The First Amendment to the Unites States Constitution and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Illustration: Ole Rode Jensen.

The role and impact of social and internet media

Can it have an impact on the global media market because of how different countries interpret freedom of expression and how they ensure the rights and responsibilities of news dissemination? Yes, it most certainly can.

Increasing number of people are getting their news from social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. People search for news and information on platforms like Google. These companies are usually based in the United States where freedom of expression and the accountability of dissemination of news and information have historically been interpreted in a very different way than that in the Nordics. Furthermore, information and news on the Internet can spread much easier and faster than traditional media. So the questions arise are: Who can be held accountable for content in the new media market? And how can accountability be ensured?

The rhetoric of the marketplace of ideas

It has frequently been pointed out in the Nordic media that it is in the interest of the big American companies to fight against harmful speech with counter narratives, following the rhetoric of the marketplace of ideas. This increases the traffic on their sites and generates  more income.

Meanwhile, what has been called “fake news” is spreading on a global scale in an alarming speed, impacting the opinions and views of the general public. At the same time, professional media operating according to ethical journalistic principles is frequently called “Lügenpresse” (lying press). The word derives from Nazi Germany when it was used for printed press and the mass media at large.

An explosion of fake fact-checking

As a means to counter incorrect information, a number of professional media entities are operating fact-checking sites with the aim to inform the public in an accurate and impartial manner. At the same time, there has been an explosion of fake fact-checking sites. It seems that there is no end to the battle of truth vs. fake news, and preventing misinformation and disinformation from spreading on the Internet.

It does not seem like the truth is emerging from the competition of ideas in a free, transparent and public discourse. The discussion about “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” is an evidence of such a scepticism. We are even faced with the fact that descriptive terms like “fake news” or “alternative facts” are exhausted and have lost their meaning in the public debate.

No solution has yet been found to solve the challenge. What is clear, however, is that the need for independent and professional journalism is greater than ever. Unfortunately, all members of our society do not believe that professional and independent media is accurate and impartial. This fact undermines social cohesion and the shared principles of what our society is based on.

We have to find a viable solution to this challenge. What is at stake is democracy.




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