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How governments around the world are combating the disinformation crisis: A WAN-IFRA report

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Disinformation is spreading like an epidemic. According to Reuters Institute’s Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions 2019, new crises spread every week “like a game of whack-a-mole.”

While the phenomenon is not new—the internet and online platforms inadvertently enable the rapid spread of disinformation by making the process of production and dissemination almost effortless. All one needs is a device with an internet connection.

In recent years, the online spread of disinformation has raised serious concerns worldwide. The risk for democracy, the threat for fundamental rights and the reduced role of traditional channels of information are only some of the dangers that have emerged…..

Tackling disinformation around the world: a new policy report from WAN-IFRA

Disinformation has led to riots and public lynchings in some countries, as well as used to influence elections by vested interests. It has also affected the perceived credibility of media, leading to lowering of trust levels among the public. As such, it’s a serious threat that needs to be tackled quickly and effectively.

Countries around the world are making efforts to curb disinformation through regulations. WAN-IFRA’s latest report “Tackling disinformation around the world” gives an overview of the measures undertaken by governments across the world to combat this crisis.

Proposals are fragmented and often unsatisfactory

The report analyzes regulatory response across the Americas, Africa and the Middle East, Europe and Oceania. According to the authors, “The proposals are fragmented and often unsatisfactory. Although proposals around the world seem to share the same objective (i.e., to fight the spread of disinformation), there is no unique regulatory solution and the results often raise serious concerns for freedom of expression.”

For example, in July 2018, Egypt adopted an anti-fake news law for regulating social-media channels that exceed specific thresholds of popularity. The law is applicable to media outlets as well as users (Facebook and Twitters users, bloggers and website owners) that have more than 5,000 followers. It does not define fake news—only states the powers assigned to the government for dealing with it.

It has led to harsh outcomes like in the case of a woman with an infant son who was charged for “‘spreading false news’ with intent to topple the Egyptian regime in May 2018.

These charges were the result of a Facebook video she published criticizing the prevalence of sexual harassment in Egypt. The woman was given a suspended sentenced of two years in prison and a fine of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (around €500) for spreading fake news.

Two main trends

The WAN-IFRA report identifies two main trends—”First, some countries have criminalized the spread of disinformation by sanctioning users and/or social media platforms for failure to comply with domestic legislation.

“Second, other countries have chosen not to intervene in the information market, instead publishing reports promoting media literacy and forming task forces and working groups to analyze the risk of disinformation.”

In Canada, a new bill has been proposed for preventing foreign influence through social media. It requires online companies to increase the degree of transparency with regards to their policies on disinformation and advertising. The US’ Honest Ads Act has similar objectives. While California adopted a law in September 2018 to support media literacy in public schools.

In 2018, the EU appointed a 39-member team “to put forward possible options to counter disinformation spread online and to help develop a comprehensive EU strategy for tackling disinformation.”

The Commission proposed an approach and objectives for “shaping a more transparent, trustworthy and accountable online ecosystem by forcing platforms to take action, fostering education and media literacy, and supporting quality journalism.”

To achieve these objectives, in September 2018, representatives of online platforms, leading social networks, advertisers and advertising industry voluntarily agreed to follow a self-regulatory Code of Practice. The EU will be monitoring the Code of Practice and will assess the measures taken by the end of 2019.

Democracies across the world feel the need for regulation

The report states that the nature of steps taken by governments around the world is “strictly connected to the level of freedom of expression and information granted in a country.”

It adds, “Established democracies have proved to be very cautious in taking steps to regulate misinformation, arguably for concerns over preserving democratic values and civil liberties. Anti-disinformation laws are especially widespread in Africa and in Asia, where they tend to pursue increased surveillance over online activities and generally hinder the population’s freedom online.”

In conclusion, the authors note that it can be “safe to say that democracies at all stages of development feel that disinformation threatens their systems, and it needs to be regulated.”

For in-depth details, download the full WAN-IFRA report, Tackling disinformation around the world