'Fake news is destroying democracies': what can we do?

A man wearing a "fake news" T-shirt
A man wearing a "fake news" T-shirt
By Cristina Abellan Matamoros
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What can businesses and governments do to stop the spread of disinformation? We hear from top EU and UK policy makers at Web Summit.


Social media is like “stereoids for disinformation,” Ann Mettler, head of the European Commission’s in-house think tank has warned as the bloc prepares to fight against online manipulation during next year’s European elections.

“This (phenomenon) is very corrosive to democracies, in particular, because our political systems are based on trust, she told a panel on disinformation at the 2018 Web Summit in Lisbon.

But can social media be used to fight the spread of misinformation?

Mettler, who runs the European Political Strategy Centre, believes that social media companies have lost their opportunity to keep people better informed and so they should question where they stand in the fight against manipulation of truth since “disinformation can still make a lot of damage to democratic political systems”.

According to Mettler, society is headed to a higher level of disinformation, which she called “deep fakes” — in other words, digital and audio material that appears real but is in fact fake.

“People need to understand that the division is essentially part of a political ploy to destroy all of our democracies,” she said.

Margot James, UK Minister of State for Digital and the Creative Industries, who also attended the panel, said she would like companies to take lessons from editorial teams and apply far more editorial guidance to content circulating on their platforms.

“We also need greater transparency in terms of dissemination of their news on their platforms,” said James, adding that more control of the algorithms publishing misleading information is also needed.

What can governments do to stop the spread of lies?

John Saunders, CEO of the public relations company FleishmanHillard, suggested social media platforms shouldl take measures themselves to avoid reputational damage as the public becomes more aware of the threat from bots.

But James doesn’t believe they will go far enough to “guarantee the transparency and accountability that public democracies require”.

Governments must also step in and help with the problem. However, it is not so simple, stressed James, “we need to get our government response right” not to fall in the overregulation trap.

Ana Brnabić, Prime Minister of Serbia, agrees: “We need to be cautious of over regulation, I think that over regulation leads to closed societies and it’s not good for democracy.”

For Brnabić, education is the key to fighting the rise of disinformation.

“We need to go back teaching the kids how to think and teach analytical reasoning, how to question information and authority.”

“What I’m worried when talking about fake news is about phenomenon discouraging young people from entering politics.”

Stop the clickbait

The media also has a role to play in the fight against disinformation, stressed Saunders.

“There is an existential issue going on for journalism as well, particularly in the US, said the CEO, I’d like to see journalists talking more about facts and issues and less about their opinion.”

Mettler also agreed that the role of media should be rethought.

“The business model of media has become too much under pressure by clickbait.”


The EU top policy adviser said journalists should be given time to put out quality content and not just clickbait articles.

“Where media fails, essentially corruption will thrive because there will no longer be those who ask questions, who dig deeper, and who hold public officials accountable, so we need to take it seriously,” she said,

“This is not just another business but the backbone of our democracy,” she added.

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