European perspectives: Fight against disinformation by improving standards in journalism and empowering citizens

Foto: HINA/ Tomislav Pavlek/ tp

Disinformation cannot be suppressed by only regulation and laws, it is necessary to empower the media and journalists, invest in quality and independent journalism, as well as in democratic political culture, media literacy and digital literacy of the EU citizens, concluded the Gong conference “European Perspectives: Impact of Disinformation on Health” Democracy and the Digital Environment”, which took place today as part of the project “Pro-fact: Research, education, fact-check and debunk COVID-19 related disinformation narratives in Croatia.

Dorota Głowacka, Panoptykon’s lawyer, and Jan Penfrat, European Digital Rights Network (EDRi) analyst, who have been extensively advocating for a more progressive version of the Digital Services Act over the past two years, explained that regulating large digital platforms will affect the lives of European citizens.

“Citizens will be able to understand how content generation works, they will gain insight into the inner workings of the referral system, but there is still far too few opportunities for them to influence the business models of very large online platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter…The media are hostages to big tech platforms and their content distribution. Instead of depending on the referral system, it would be better to be able to choose another service provider you trust, such as the BBC”, said Głowacka.

“This is much more than a technology problem. This is also a philosophical, psychological, and political issue. The problem is systemic. The power of the platform is in the hands of billionaires. Never before has there been a possibility for everyone in the world to freely share their content on the Internet, 24 hours a day, but this is happening on platforms. And it is the digital platforms which are directing political discussion nowadays. Instagram and Facebook were not originally intended for political advertising, and now it is the exact space where political campaigns are being run”, added Penfrat.

There is a necessity to build a framework in which citizens have the opportunity to choose content on the Internet and understand how it reaches them, who is behind it, and how to look at it critically – all the participants agreed. However, it was emphasized that with the regulation of big tech, it is necessary to build the resilience of society and democracy to the expansion of disinformation narratives.

“In countries that do not invest in media literacy, children do not see the news as a format. Many young people today do not distinguish between information transmitted by the media, or any YouTuber. Influencers are becoming new media personalities. Young people today are following the war in Ukraine on Tik Tok. The media are victims of the whole digitalization process and disinformation, but they are also participants in it. As a society, we need to choose to place importance on strengthening the independence and freedom of the media, to work on the process of the professionalization of the media. Regulation can do a lot, but it is necessary to build a democratic political culture and strengthen the media’s resilience to pressures – disinformation, fake news, economic ones…It is necessary to create capacities for social resilience, responses need to be faster, and we need to approach the problems from multiple angles, emphasised Marijana Grbeša, professor at the Faculty of Political Science in Zagreb and researcher on the Pro-fact project.

Lauri Tierala, program director of the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO), pointed out that it is precisely due to the aforementioned issues that combating disinformation is one of the priorities of the European Commission.

EDMO was founded two years ago, and there are currently 8 media hubs in the EU that bring together experts from different fields who work together to understand and suppress disinformation narratives. By the beginning of 2022, we want to cover the whole of Europe with multidisciplinary hubs, ”he said.

Maja Sever, from the Trade Union of Croatian Journalists, Karina Stasiuk-Krajewska, from the University of Social Sciences and Humanities (SWPS) and CEDMO Hub, Ieva Ivanauskaitė, DIGIRES and Delfi.lt, Ana Brakus, Faktograf, Mato Brautović, University of Dubrovnik and Pro-fact, and Dražen Hoffmann from Gong on the second panel “How to improve democracy by strengthening the media ecosystem?” focused on the role of journalists, fact-checkers, technology, and their role in the fight for the common good.

“Journalists need to be aware of what information is and why it is important for public space, and not be guided solely by what audiences show the greatest interest in. We need a new definition of journalism and of audience expectations. A classic journalist is someone who provides information, with the audience expectations being that the provided information is accurate and verified; audiences today expect navigators to help them manage in the media space. It is the job of a journalist to put things in context, ”said Karina Stasiuk-Krajewska, of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities (SWPS) and CEDMO Hub.

“The boundaries between understanding content are very blurred today. Disinformation find new methods of masking themselves into information. Therefore, in addition to strengthening the media, professionalizing journalism, and implementing media literacy, we must also ensure co-financing of journalism in the public interest”, explained Dražen Hoffmann from Gong and a member of the Pro-fact team.

“We all need to work harder, we all have a role to play – from institutions through the media to the public,” he concluded.

Grbeša warned about the anatomy of disinformation universes on digital platforms.

“Projects like Pro-fact give us an insight into the psychology of the disinformation universe and populist discourse, which is universal – elites against ordinary people. Such narratives become more intense as the topic becomes more important. We will not solve this solely through technical regulation of big tech, we need to expose narratives, which is why research and projects such as these are important”, she concluded.

The conference is organized as part of the multidisciplinary project “Pro-fact: Research, education, fact-check and debunk COVID-19 related disinformation narratives in Croatia“, led by Gong. Through research, awareness raising and capacity building, the project comprehensively approaches the social, political and health problem of the dissemination of COVID-19 disinformation campaigns, together with our partners: Faculty of Political Science in Zagreb, University of Dubrovnik, Faktograf.hr, Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing and Croatian Journalists Society (HND) and the Croatian Journalists’ Union (SNH).

The stream of the entire conference can be viewed here:

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