Although they are neither illegal nor new, fake news is today spreading at a disturbing pace and may eventually threaten the well-being of the media, the society, and democracy. That is why one should try to define and detect fake news, identify the channels through which it is financed, improve the quality of journalism education with focus on building the skills necessary for gathering information and distinguishing between verified facts and half-truths, manipulations, and propaganda. There is also a need for the detoxification of the media environment in Bulgaria because quality journalism is being penalized at the state level.
These are some of the conclusions from a panel discussion devoted to the challenges facing the European media industry which took place in Sofia and brought together Mariya Gabriel, the Bulgarian-born European commissioner for digital economy and society, representatives of the Council for Electronic Media (CEM) and organizations engaged with intellectual property rights, media managers, journalists, and experts.
Gabriel recalled she has already asked for an analysis at the EU level that should evaluate the extent to which fake news threatens the union and show whether it is possible to come up with a common response to this phenomenon. The major challenge is about defining fake news and good journalistic practices, she said.
In the spring of 2018, the European Commission plans to present a common approach and strategy for addressing fake news. To overcome this phenomenon, we need to provide transparency and diverse, high-quality information and better understand the mechanics of dissemination and the financial streams, Gabriel said. She added that politicians, media, and platforms should all engage with the problem.
As of today, there is a definition for illegal content, such as hate speech, but fake news is mostly legal and we are not talking about criminalizing it, Gabriel explained.
The commissioner stressed that freedom of expression and the right to access to information are inviolable and nobody intends to coerce people into believing or not believing into a particular news story. However, if we do not take any measures against fake news at the European level, Gabriel said, there is a risk that the situation at the national level may deviate from the accepted values.
“We are in a difficult situation with respect to trust in the media, with social media gradually accumulating greater trust than professional media,” said Christian Spahr, head of the media programme for Southeast Europe of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS). “People believe more in what they see on Facebook than in what they see in professional media.”
Producing fake news is very easy, while doing quality journalism is both hard and expensive, said Teodor Zahov, chairman of the Publishers’ Union and co-owner of the Economedia group. In his view, when there is a toxic environment at the state level that punishes quality journalism, fake news is more likely to proliferate and exert greater influence on the public opinion. He called for a detoxification of the environment to help those who do not produce fake news.
Irina Nedeva, chairwoman of the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria (AEJ-Bulgaria), pointed to fake news and propaganda as some of the major challenges in front of present-day journalists. What worries us, however, is the risk of resorting to excessive regulation which may be used to stifle free speech, she said. In her words, the big challenge is to differentiate between facts, on the one hand, and half-truths and misleading content, on the other.
Nedeva further pointed out that AEJ-Bulgaria and its partners are already thinking about ways to strengthen the role of professional journalism, boost media literacy, and set up fact-checking units in Bulgarian newsrooms.
Picture: © European Union , 2017 / Photo: Andrei Pungovschi