Could this EU crackdown on fake news be a gamechanger?

The preferred term for fake news now seems to be disinformation. Good enough, but is there progress in combating it? Necessary as they are, inquiries into how democratic processes in recent years were affected by fakery need to be accompanied by efforts to prevent repeats in coming electoral cycles. Stakes are high in both the US midterms and in whatever voting process – election or second referendum – helps settle the Brexit issue.

The newly released EU code of practice on disinformation shows how far debate has moved since Donald Trump in 2016 revived the old term “fake news”. At that time, to Trump’s and some other politicians’ advantage, it was particularly hard to say what was and was not encompassed by the term “fake news”. We have travelled some way since the tech giants were denying that anything was amiss, and since the words “Cambridge” and “Analytica”, used together, would have brought to mind only reference books or the like.Signatories to the code, which include Facebook, Twitter and Google, agree, among other things, that “open democratic societies depend on public debates that allow well-informed citizens to express their will through free and fair political processes”.

The code defines disinformation as “verifiably false or misleading information” that is “created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to deceive the public” and “may cause harm”. The harm includes “threats to democratic political and policymaking processes as well as public goods such as the protection of EU citizens’ health, the environment or security”.

The definition does not include misleading advertising, reporting errors, satire and parody or “clearly identified partisan news and commentary”.

Among the code’s purposes is transparency about political and issue-based advertising “with a view to enabling users to understand why they have been targeted by a given advertisement”.

The non-binding code wants “indicators of trustworthiness of content sources, media ownership and/or verified identity”, and to “dilute the visibility of disinformation by improving the findability of trustworthy content”.

The code acknowledges the freedom of expression issues inherent in fashioning workable responses to disinformation. Signatories “should not be compelled by governments, nor should they adopt voluntary policies, to delete or prevent access to otherwise lawful content solely on the basis that they are thought to be ‘false’”.

Aversion to government compulsion is sensible in this context, but why constrain voluntariness so much? Lots of misleading information is lawful. Many publishers must make judgments under tight deadlines, especially on the cusp of elections, and there are likely to be times when they feel it is right to act against what is reasonably believed to be disinformation, before it can do its harms. Transparency about the test for falsity, and how it is applied, will matter, even if the accounting has to be conducted retrospectively.

The code, which includes some best practices, has emerged from EU work undertaken over the past two years. It indicates both progress made and difficulties ahead in tackling a problem that we know can afflict a society through both new and old forms of media.