Fighting fake news, protecting free speech: Global perspectives on combatting online misinformation

19 Dec 2017 16:45h - 18:15h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the 12th Internet Governance Forum]

The session discussed how to balance freedom of expression while combatting fake news, by drawing from experiences in America, the Arab world and the Ukraine. The moderator, Mr James Tager, Free Expression Programmes Manager at PEN America, framed the debate around two issues – the definition of fake news, and the labelling of content that leaders disagree with as ’fake news’.

Ms Dunja Mijatovic, former OSE representative on the freedom of the media, gave an overview of the problem. She reminded participants that there had been a propaganda influx with the invention of every media, giving examples of the printing press in 1439, and radio and television in the 20th century. She noted current trends in combating fake news, one of which was legal means, for instance through state institutions and the shiftting of judicial roles to intermediaries. However, Mijatovic was of the view that pluralism and education were more effective means for responding to fake news, and called for a human rights approach.

Dr Rasha Abdulla, Professor of journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo, noted that the Internet gives everyone the opportunity to be a broadcaster, therefore creating more sources of information. She proposed two parameters for defining fake news – intent and consequence. She linked authoritarianism and the poor quality of education to the proliferation of fake news, and elaborated on how some Arab states owned the means of production, dissemination (media ownership) and information control – arresting those with dissenting views, using censorship as a means of ’protection’, national security and emergency laws, and shutting down websites etc.

Mr Yehven Fedchenko, Director of the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kyiv, Ukraine, introduced his organisation,, a fact-checking project aimed at refuting fake news and misinformation in and about Ukraine. The aim of the project is to highlight the role of real media and to promote digital literacy. It was inspired by instances during the war in the Ukraine in 2014, where narratives were also weaponised, leading to the erosion of trust among people.

Mr Ashif Rabi, a Bangladeshi blogger, social activist, and former TV show host, shared his experience with a news story that was intentionally presented falsely. This affected his family negatively and he realised that journalists had a role in combating fake news. He outlined what he saw the role of different actors as, and the role of governments was to educate.

Mr Andreas Vlachos, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Sheffield and Chief Research Scientist for Factmata, explained how they were using artificial intelligence to create and strengthen fact-checking tools. He highlighted some challenges, including differentiating between facts and opinions, and understanding different languages.

Mr Paolo Cesarini, head of the unit at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Competition, defined fake news as an information disorder where citizens were not necessarily aware of the mechanisms through which fake news was created and distributed. He noted several technical challenges, including algorithmic decision making in news distribution online, and the presence of filter bubbles that perpetuate bias. Economic factors included consumer habits where many young people accessed news mainly from the Internet and through referral patterns. This has resulted in the shrinking of revenues for traditional media, as advertising  goes digital. Social factors included- VUCA- volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

As a policy maker, it was therefore difficult to balance the regulation of fake news with the promotion of freedom of expression.

Cesarini therefore asked for a distinction to be made between misinformation and disinformation.

In giving a way forward, he proposed transparency of mechanisms, the circulation of informational rights, and the transparency of algorithms used for data or personal data.

He also suggested greater support for technological innovation.

During the interactive part of the session,  the audience raised questions which included filter bubbles and their effect on polarisation, the personalisation of news and micro targeting, and the presence of fake news, even in liberal democracies. The panellists suggested that users be further educated , for example, on differentiating between quality media and poor media. They also emphasised on the importance of plurality in getting users to develop a more critical approach to news.

By Grace Mutung’u