Open societies and robust institutions – talking points on how we can fight disinformation

Thursday February 22, I gave evidence at a hearing on “preserving democracy in the digital age” organized by the European Political Strategy Centre (the European Commission’s in-house think tank) in Brussels.


Together with four others (Anne Applebaum from the Washington Post/the LSE, Philip Howard from the Oxford Internet Institute, Philip Lelyveld from the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California and Keir Giles from Chatham House), I participated in a private briefing session with Mariya Gabriel, the European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society and various officials from a range of European institutions, followed by a public hearing.

The hearing was convened to accompany the European Commission’s ongoing public consultation on fake news and online disinformation (I am a member of the high level group working on this, but took part in the hearing in an individual capacity).

We delivered our evidence verbally in a two-hour discussion structured around questions provided by the European Political Strategy Centre — I post my talking points below as they may be of interest to others working on practical and/or policy responses to “fake news” and disinformation and thinking about the broader issues of what democracy might look like in the twenty-first century.

I have added end-notes to my talking points here (hard to do when delivering evidence verbally!) as I have tried to bring some of the available evidence to the discussion (see this open, collaborative bibliography which I help maintain), as well as outlining my personal views on what could be done.

Preserving Democracy in the Digital Age (talking points)

High-Level Policy Hearing, European Political Strategy Centre, Brussels, February 22

The Hearing will last for 2 hours and will be structured around 6 sessions: (1) self-introductions (5 minutes); (2) introductory remarks (25 minutes); (3)-(4)-(5) core questions (25-30 minutes each); (6) concluding remarks (5 minutes).

(1) Self-introductions 5’

(2) Introductory remarks – 25’ – Views on the context (max 5 minutes each)

What are your general views on global trends linked to the emergence of ‘fake news’ and related issues?

  • This hearing is about “preserving democracy in the digital age”, and before we turn to “fake news” and disinformation, I want to be clear—the main challenges to democracy in Europe today are, first, the erosions of some of the institutions (political parties, member based interest groups, news media) that have historically enabled popular government[i], and, second, some ill-intentioned political actors, including foreign states but also sadly some governments in the Europe Union, who are not committed to the fundamental values that define democratic government and open societies.[ii] We have inherited these institutions and these rights from the twentieth century and it is up to us to renew them for the twenty-first. Problems of disinformation must be understood in this context, and the most pressing question is what we collectively can do to confront these wider challenges, not only those narrowly related to disinformation.


  • “Fake news” is a poorly defined, politicized, and misleading term for a wide range of problems of disinformation.[iii] Poorly defined – unless used in narrow sense (false and fabricated, presented as news), politicized – the way it is used by politicians and understood by many citizens (poor journalism and political propaganda), misleading – much of it is neither fake nor news (but content taken out of context, other types of content including opinion, other activities like engagement, amplification, etc.)[iv]


  • Broader problems of disinformation – intentionally misleading and often false or inaccurate information produced for profit or for political purposes – must be understood in its political and media context. The political context is one of low trust in many institutions (including media and politics) and high levels of partisan polarization in many countries.[v] In this context, people don’t know who to trust and resort to motivated reasoning and self-selection. The media context is a move to an environment where people increasingly find news online via platform products and services like social media and search.[vi] In this political and media context, people (1) approach content with “generalized scepticism” and (2) don’t always recognize and remember brands behind information they use.[vii] The results is an often rambunctious public sphere. But that does not necessarily mean it is a threat to democracy. Hate speech and incitement to violence are problems that have to be confronted, but beyond that, no one ever promised our politics would be polite, our public debate genteel. We live in irreducibly diverse and often disputatious societies. The critical issue is to defend our fundamental rights and renew the institutions that help us make good use of them.


  • Narrowly defined as for-profit or politically-motivated demonstrably false news, there is much we don’t know yet, especially about visual forms of disinformation, but the research done so far suggests false news has limited reach, especially on the web, though some false news providers generate significant amounts of engagement on social media.[viii] The amount of disinformation is likely to vary from country depending on the political and commercial incentives for producing it, and the amount of credible news it competes with vary from country to country, depending on political and media context. We need to measure the actual scale and scope of the problems at hand and should be careful to not exaggerate it unnecessarily.


  • More broadly, much disinformation is driven by political actors (foreign and some domestic), some of it is civil society, often in good faith (bottom-up misinformation), some of it is from some news media (clickbait, hyperpartisan opinion) – much of this may be uncomfortable and undesirable, but it is often not illegal, and it is not easily identified in an objective way – it is rarely a matter of simply being true or false, for example. When people want to fight it, we need to consider the possible negative impact of heavy-handed responses to a vaguely defined and inherently ambiguous set of problems, such as the risk of stifling free speech through regulation and the risks involved in forcing private companies to police the boundaries of acceptable speech.[ix]


  • The best response in my personal view is instead a combination of (1) protecting our open societies and (2) renewing the institutions that enable to make the most of them. Open societies are what we are fighting to preserve, they protect fundamental rights and give people the freedom to make up their own minds. Robust institutions produce credible information (private sector and public service media, and though open data initiatives and independent bodies like statistical authorities), make it easily accessible (including through platforms’ products and services), and equip people to navigate it (media and information literacy). Open societies with robust institutions will also be better positioned to withstand the coming flood of new forms of disinformation (manipulated images, video, audio editing, content fabrication powered by AI) and deal with the new ways in which disinformation will circulate (private messaging apps, voice systems, augmented/virtual reality, in addition to websites, search engines, and social media). Open societies with robust institutions will not be free of disinformation and pernicious forms of speech. But they will be able to withstand the problems they create.


(3) Core question n°1 – 30’ Assessment of the scope of fake news (max 6 minutes each)

What has caused the spread of fake news online and what evidence do we have of its impact?

  • Digital media have made it easier to publish and share any kind of information, including disinformation, we need to see the growth in the amount of disinformation circulating in our societies against the backdrop of the general exponential growth in the amount of all kinds of information circulating.[x] Peddlers of disinformation are often using the very same digital media technologies that entirely legitimate publishers and political actors use, extremist groups are exploiting the same platforms that movements like #MeToo and #NeverAgain are using. Any response to problems of disinformation need to keep in mind that the same tools and technologies that empower potentially harmful forms of disinformation also often empower entirely legitimate and benign forms of information, news, and public engagement.


  • The rise of digital technologies is part and parcel of a profound shift in our media systems and political systems and will change our democracies and societies in ways we don’t yet understand well. There are many demonstrable benefits and opportunities ahead of us, but also clear risks. How this will play out will differ from country to country depending on context. The consequences in Bulgaria and Denmark will not be the same. But at this stage, I believe we can identify at least these three impacts of the rise of digital media in my view are the following: First, they have made it easier to publish, leading to greater choice, which in turn is likely to increase the information inequality between those who will use that greater choice to seek out more information about public affairs, and those who will use it to seek out more entertainment[xi], and in highly polarized societies, also potentially increasing polarization along partisan lines.[xii] Second, contrary to fears of “filter bubbles” and the like, while there are clearly serious issues in terms of how some people find and use information online, for most people, the use of the search engines and social media that people increasingly rely on to navigate the digital media environment demonstrably lead most people to more diverse information than they seek out on their own.[xiii] Third, the rise of digital media has existentially challenged the business of news as we knew it in the 20th century, as both audiences and advertisers flock to the products and services offered by large platform companies, many news publishers have to cut costs and reinvent their business, and investment in news – especially locally, in smaller markets, and in member states with no history of robust independent media – is declining as a consequence.[xiv] In short, digital media have made it easier to access and engage with things, allowed many more to raise their voice, led to the emergence of new platform companies as gatekeepers who shape who gets heard and who not and who change the business of media, and is driving a profound institutional transformation in politics and the media that, amongst other things, makes it less profitable to produce professional journalism.


  • There is much we don’t now yet about the scale and scope of problems of “fake news” narrowly and of disinformation more broadly, but at this stage, I would suggest that the main impact of disinformation is that it may sow distrust, intensify polarization around divisive issues, undermine confidence in political institutions, media institutions, and platform companies, and increase confusion around public affairs. These are worrying risks, but we need to document them to understand them and counter them, and in doing so keep in mind that most empirical research so far suggest that “fake news” narrowly defined—as worrying as it is—still reaches only a minority of the population and even for those who consume the most of it make up only a small part of their overall news and media use. Disinformation is clearly a serious issue, and represents problems that should be confronted, but if we exaggerate its scale and scope without evidence, we do ourselves a disservice, misinform the public, and risk becoming complicit with the very information operations that we are concerned about. The Russian opposition, for example, has rightly encouraged Western liberals not to exaggerate the effect of Kremlin’s information operations, presenting those aiming to undermine our open societies and democratic institutions as “an almighty force from a James Bond saga.”[xv] Unless we actually know they are, we should not cast them as such.


(4) Core question n°2 – 30’ Suggestions on how to address fake news (max 6 minutes)

Based on your professional experience and research, which initiatives do you believe are necessary to tackle fake news online and its related issues?

  • From my point of view, we need to focus on the greater good – we want to (1) protect open societies that guarantee our fundamental rights (and sadly some politicians represent a major threat here) and (2) develop robust institutions that enable us to make good use of our rights. That is at the core of what it means to preserve—let’s say renew—democracy in the digital age. Responses to “fake news” and disinformation should start from these first principles. What can we do, then? I’d suggest three areas, one where we should act with great caution, one where we can pursue specific, narrowly defined targeted responses next, and then a set of broader recommendations to strengthen the institutions that will help open societies resist disinformation.


  • First, caution: because “fake news” and disinformation is hard to define clearly and objectively, we should be very careful with vaguely worded legislation, leaving it to judges (or even worse, the executive branch) to decide what may or may not constitute “fake news”, just as we should be cautious with political attempts to outsource the policing of free speech to private companies by forcing them to decide what does and does not constitute legal forms of speech – these types of initiatives are a potential threat to the very open societies we are trying to protect, and both free speech advocates like Article 19 and the UN coalition on platform responsibility have rightly warned against such measures.[xvi] As recognized by the OSCE-coordinated “Joint declaration on freedom of expression and “fake news”, disinformation and propaganda”, free speech protections includes information and ideas that may shock, offend and disturb.[xvii] It is important to consider whether proposed cures are sometimes worse than the disease, a disease which we will know little about because of the dearth of independent, evidence-based, publicly available research.


  • Second, targeted responses: direct interventions in my view should be used to address clearly and narrowly defined problems – in some cases this is primarily a question of enforcement of existing regulations. It is already illegal in many countries for foreign governments to meddle with the political process, just as hate speech and the like is already illegal. Where there is evidence of wrong doing, we need document it, publicize it, and prosecute it on the basis of existing regulation. In other cases, it is about putting constant public pressure on advertisers, ad tech companies, and platform companies to take neutral, unbiased, and transparent steps to reduce the economic incentives to produce false and fabricated potentially harmful disinformation and to constantly monitor and consider the social and political implications of their products and services. Enabling this will necessitate new steps to increase algorithmic accountability, ensure an appropriate level of transparency, and make more data available to third parties. Here, platform companies need to embrace the wider democratic responsibilities that come with their prominence and power.


  • Third, strengthening our institutions: This involves
    • Protecting news and media against governments using political/economic pressures to control them, against organized crime and extremist groups, and against politically-mandated privatization of the policing of free speech. All European Union member states have signed the Council of Europe recommendation the protection of journalism and safety of journalists and other media actors, but so far only Malta has begun to implement the recommendation.[xviii]
    • Creating an enabling environment for news media by reforming existing forms of indirect and in some cases direct support for private sector media (VAT exemptions, state aid/subsides) so they reward the future, not the past, support genuinely independent public service media and ensure they have autonomy and funding to deliver on their remit using all appropriate tools, enable non-profit journalism by streamlining regulation to ease the creation of non-profit news organizations and incentivize supporting them, by making support available for R&D and innovation, and ensuring transparency around media ownership and funding. Strong independent news media, both private sector and public service, demonstrably help produce a more informed citizenry that will be better able to resist disinformation, and policy makers need to create an enabling environment for such news media.[xix] Even in countries with strong, independent public service media, the vast majority of investment in professional journalism comes from private sector news media and it is critically important that policymakers support the industry as it reinvents its business for a digital age.[xx]
    • Creating an enabling environment for journalism by investing in training, life-long learning, up-skilling and by protecting journalists against defamation/libel suits aiming to silence them, as well as by enabling journalists and other third parties through “freedom of information” legislation and open data initiatives, plus support for individual innovation and entrepreneurship.
    • Invest in media and information literacy efforts for citizens at all stages of life.


(5) Core question n°3 – 25’ Assessment of the European Union’s efforts to tackle fake news (max 5 minutes each)

Do you believe the European Commission’s initiatives to tackle fake news online and related issues are sufficient?

  • Before turning to the question of what the European Commission specifically can do, it is important to underline that individual member states will have to lead on much of this and to reiterate that because disinformation and broader issues around the future of our democracies are shared issues, we need shared responses, involving all major stakeholders—political actors, news media, platform companies, civil society organizations.


  • The main things the European Commission can do in my view include
    • First, if we want to preserve and renew our democracies for the digital age, it is critically important to keep up pressure on those member state governments who do not respect fundamental rights and are using political and economic pressure to undermine independent media.
    • Second, investing money and political capital in helping renew our democratic institutions for the digital age (and encouraging member states to do the same). When it comes to news, that means supporting private sector media in their transition from analogue to digital media companies, pushing for public service media to be genuinely independent of government and have autonomy to pursue their remit with adequate funding and using appropriate means, providing support for professional journalists in terms of training, continuing education, up-skilling, and basic protection from interference including strategic and spurious lawsuits, making public data openly available for fact-checkers and other independent third parties, and making sure that platform companies that provide fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory access to infrastructures for free expression are protected from those who would push them to actively distort public debate. Similarly, support media and information literacy programmes for citizen across the union at all stages of life.
    • Third, investing in timely and accessible evidence-based independent research to inform policy- and decision making as we combat disinformation and renew our democracies for the digital age. We fundamentally know very little about the scale and scope of disinformation problems in Europe. If we want evidence-based policy making, including policy making that consider the likely efficiency and potential negative impact of responses being considered, it is critically important that we have independence, evidence-based research to draw on. To my knowledge, there was not a single publicly available independently conducted study trying to measure the reach of “fake news” and online disinformation in Europe till February 2018[xxi] – and despite this dearth of evidence, many are already talking about potentially very heavy-handed interventions that risk having serious negative consequences for freedom of speech. We don’t do public health policy without evidence, and it scares me we are developing policy that concerns fundamental rights and free media without first developing some sort of meaningful evidence. The European Commission directly and through member states and other stakeholders can make a significant difference in this area by supporting and enabling timely independent, evidence-based research on scale and scope as well as similar independent, evidence-based evaluation of the efficiency of steps taken by different actors.
    • Fourth, continually encouraging multi-stakeholder processes in pursuit of shared responses to shared problems and continually reviewing progress and keeping up the pressure on those actors who refuse to take responsibility for their wider, public role, or who do little to lift it.


(6) Concluding remarks – 5’ Speakers’ main ‘take-aways’ (max 1 minute each)

In a nutshell, what is your main message to the European Commission regarding what should (or should not) be done about fake news and disinformation online?

  • We must keep the main goal in mind – renewing our democracies for the digital age. That involves protecting open societies and evolving the institutions that help citizens make the most of them. Digital media are fundamentally transforming our democracies, in beneficial as well as in disturbing ways, but we need to remember that the main threat to democracy remains ill-intentioned politicians undermining fundamental rights and robust institutions. To preserve European democracies, we need to protect them against would-be autocrats and those who are seeking to undermine the institutions—political, legal, and media—that help citizens hold power to account.


  • When we respond to problems of disinformation we should therefore
    • (1) be cautious before we consider responses that either through vague legislating regulating speech or through politically-mandated private policing of acceptable discourse risk undermining freedom of expression and the right to receive and impart information and views without interference from public authorities, as these are among the very fundamental rights we are fighting to protect
    • (2) develop narrow, targeted responses to specific problems of disinformation, including countering foreign states meddling with our political processes and pressuring advertisers, ad tech companies, and platform companies to develop neutral and transparent measures to make false and fabricated information less profitable and less prominent and help surface credible and trustworthy content, and,
    • (3) perhaps most importantly (though this is also long-term and will be hard work), invest in re-inventing the institutions that enable popular government, when it comes to news and information, by supporting private sector news media, genuinely independent public service media, making public data openly available to independent fact-checkers and other third parties, protecting those platform companies that provide fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory access to open and permissive infrastructures for free expression from those who would force them to restrict public debate, and invest in media and information literacy.


  • Our parents’ generations build Europe into kinder and gentler forms of democratic societies from the ruins of empires, Fascism, and Communism. We are not the descendants of fearful men and women. If we protect our open societies and strengthen the institutions that enable us to make the most of it, we can renew our democracies for the digital age. We should aspire to nothing less.



[i] E.g. Mair, Peter. 2006. “Ruling the Void.” New Left Review, II, , no. 42: 25–51.

[ii] Diamond, Larry. 2015. “Facing up to the Democratic Recession.” Journal of Democracy 26 (1): 141–155.

[iii] Wardle, Claire, and Hossein Derakhshan. 2017. Information Disorder: Toward an Interdisciplinary Framework for Research and Policy Making. Report to the Council of Europe.

[iv] Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis, and Lucas Graves. 2017. ““News You Don’t Believe”: Audience Perspectives on Fake News.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

[v] Newman, Nic, Richard Fletcher, Antonis Kalogeropoulos, David A. L Levy, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2017. “Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

[vi] Newman, Nic, Richard Fletcher, Antonis Kalogeropoulos, David A. L Levy, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2017. “Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

[vii] Fletcher, Richard, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2017. “Navigating News on Social Media: A Four-Country Mixed-Methods Analysis.” Paper presented at the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco, and Kalogeropoulos, Antonis, and Nic Newman. 2017. “‘I Saw the News on Facebook’: Brand Attribution When Accessing News from Distributed Environments.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

[viii] This is what we found in France and Italy, see Fletcher, Richard, Alessio Cornia, Lucas Graves, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2018. “Measuring the Reach of ‘Fake News’ and Online Disinformation in Europe.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. This is in line with findings from the United States, see e.g. Allcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow. 2017. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” Working Paper 23089. National Bureau of Economic Research and Guess, Andrew, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler. 2018. “Selective Exposure to Misinformation: Evidence from the Consumption of Fake News during the 2016 US Presidential Campaign.”

[ix] Belli, Luca, David Erdos, Maryant Fernández Pérez, Pedro Augusto P. Francisco, Krzysztof Garstka, Judith Herzog, Krisztina Huszti-Orban, et al. 2017. Platform Regulations: How Platforms Are Regulated and How They Regulate Us. FGV Direito Rio.

[x] Neuman, W. Russell, Yong Jin Park, and Elliot Panek. 2012. “Tracking the Flow of Information into the Home: An Empirical Assessment of the Digital Revolution in the U.S. from 1960–2005.” International Journal of Communication 6: 1022–41.

[xi] Prior, Markus. 2007. Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[xii] Stroud, Natalie Jomini. 2011. Niche News: The Politics of News Choice. New York: Oxford University Press.

[xiii] See e.g. Borgesius, Frederik J. Zuiderveen, Damian Trilling, Judith Möller, Balázs Bodó, Claes H. de Vreese, and Natali Helberger. 2016. “Should We Worry about Filter Bubbles?” Internet Policy Review, March, Flaxman, Seth, Sharad Goel, and Justin M. Rao. 2016. “Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Online News Consumption.” Public Opinion Quarterly 80 (S1): 298–320, Fletcher, Richard, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2017. “Are People Incidentally Exposed to News on Social Media? A Comparative Analysis.” New Media & Society, August, 1461444817724170.

[xiv] Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis, Alessio Cornia, and Antonis Kalogeropoulos. 2016. “Challenges and Opportunities for News Media and Journalism in an Increasingly Digital, Mobile, and Social Media Environment.” Commissioned Report for the Council of Europe. Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.


[xvi] See e.g. statement by Article 19 and Belli, Luca, David Erdos, Maryant Fernández Pérez, Pedro Augusto P. Francisco, Krzysztof Garstka, Judith Herzog, Krisztina Huszti-Orban, et al. 2017. Platform Regulations: How Platforms Are Regulated and How They Regulate Us. FGV Direito Rio.

[xvii] Joint declaration here.

[xviii] See recommendations here.

[xix] Aalberg, Toril, and James Curran, eds. 2012. How Media Inform Democracy: A Comparative Approach. Routledge New Developments in Communication and Society. New York: Routledge.

[xx] Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis. 2016. “The Business of News.” In The SAGE Handbook of Digital Journalism, edited by Tamara Witschge, Chris W. Anderson, David Domingo, and Alfred Hermida, 51–67. Los Angeles: SAGE.

[xxi] Fletcher, Richard, Alessio Cornia, Lucas Graves, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2018. “Measuring the Reach of ‘Fake News’ and Online Disinformation in Europe.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.


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