What actions can policy makers take to support the fight against mis- and disinformation

In the current media landscape, quality information is obscured by the cacophony of fabricated content purported to mislead and or disinform. In the midst of this new information disorder, higher education institutions, media organisations and policymakers should join forces and support society in its fight against misinformation and disinformation. The Erasmus+ funded ERUM project attempted to enshrine the insights gained in the past three years into an actionable set of recommendations for policymakers.

 

About the ERUM project

Started in 2019, the project Enhancing Research Understanding through Media (ERUM) aimed to develop a relevant transversal educational offer on the topic of “quality of information between mis- and disinformation today” for higher education students who are partaking in shaping the present and future of the information and knowledge society. Furthermore, the intention was to foster a shift in the way higher education institutions and media are collaborating vis-a-vis evidence- and research-based communication.

 

What do we talk about when we talk about dis-/misinformation?

Misinformation and disinformation are not new. On the contrary, they are century-old phenomena: one of the earliest cases of content manipulation can be traced back to Roman times when Octavian orchestrated a smear campaign at the expenses of Marc Anthony. The novelty lies in their dangerously fast-paced nature that has been favored by the current advancements in the field of communication technologies.

Nowadays, fabricating and distributing false content have never been easier. We live in the era of online social networks where readers can access a limitless wealth of information. Ever connected, they are constantly consuming content to the point that it is becoming increasingly challenging for them to distinguish between false information and legitimate factual news. No one is immune to this infodemic, not even higher education students.

 

Joining forces against dis- and misinformation

For the past 3 years, the University of Vienna, the University of Alcalá, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, the Vytautas Magnus University, the Cyprus University of Technology and the European University Foundations, within the framework of the Erasmus+ funded project, Enhancing Research Understanding through Media (ERUM), have been analysing the evolving trends on disinformation and misinformation in the academic and media landscapes, all the while stressing the need for universities and media organizations to join forces in the fight against these phenomena.

The lessons learnt, the insights gathered, and the resources produced have been transformed into a set of actionable policy recommendations which target mainly policy makers, higher education institutions and media organisations. By striving to take in the complexity of such phenomena, the recommendations present multiple level of actions that can be undertaken by the above-mentioned stakeholder groups.

 

A multi-stakeholder approach

As one of the main fora of education, universities have a responsibility towards their students to transform them into independent and critical citizens, regardless of the field of studies they decide to engage in. Furthermore, for citizens to exercise their democratic rights, it is essential that quality information and knowledge is provided. In general, this type of trusted information is provided by professional journalists, and in the case of science-related information by scientists and researchers. Additionally, Article 3 of the “Joint Declaration on Freedom of expression and fake news, disinformation and propaganda” from 2017 and Article 10 of the “European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedom” clearly state that governments play an essential role in protecting the right of freedom of expression and have the duty to promote a free, independent and diverse communications environment, including media diversity, which is a key means of addressing disinformation and propaganda.

 

What can policymakers do?

The set of recommendations, which address more specifically the policy makers, put particular emphasis on the leading role the European Commission and Member states can have in supporting and creating incentives for collaboration and knowledge sharing between media organisations and the academic community. Indeed, such collaboration could be beneficial on multiple levels: for instance, it would ensure journalists are able to disseminate certain type of information, particularly the science-related one, accurately to their audience, hence leaving little or no room for misinterpretation. Additionally, by creating more institutionalised channels to favour such knowledge exchange at a European level would allow to scale up good practices and innovative solutions in the fight against misinformation and disinformation. Strengthening cooperation between some of the above-mentioned actors was, for example, the result of the multistakeholder approach adopted by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in the development of the Spotlight on Artificial Intelligence and Freedom of Expression (SAIFE): A Policy Manual16. During the course of two years, the SAIFE project brought together more than 120 stakeholders. Hence, the OSCE played a crucial role in bridging the gap, by putting the different stakeholders involved in contact with one another who, in turn, were able to develop stronger relations and networks going well beyond the scope of the OSCE project.

The recommendations also recognize the urgency for European institutions and national governments to advise teacher training colleges to include critical media and information literacy modules. Teachers and educators cannot fulfil their role of knowledge transfer if they themselves are incapable of navigating in the current information technology environment. Finally, it should not be forgotten that quality information is a public good. Hence, it is not only the responsibility of every single person, be it author, user or reader, but also of the state itself to demonstrate a clear commitment to safeguard it, by mobilising public funds and fair and equitable government advertising to support independent quality journalism.

 

Systemic challenges require systemic solutions

In a nutshell, misinformation and disinformation are systemic challenges, they can undermine the democratic and decision-making processes, they can polarise public discourse around issues of migration, climate change, etc. As such, they can hardly be solved with a one-size-fits-all solution. Rather, they require systemic responses whereby multiple stakeholders should be actively engaged on multiple levels of the society.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Debora Lucque works as a Communication Officer at the European University Foundation, one of the partners of the Erasmus+ funded project Enhancing Research Understanding through Media (ERUM). She is the author of the policy recommendations produced in the framework of the ERUM project.