Report calls for algorithmic transparency and education to fight fake news

A report commissioned by European lawmakers has called for more transparency from online platforms to help combat the spread of false information online.

It also calls for urgent investment in media and information literacy education, and strategies to empower journalists and foster a diverse and sustainable news media ecosystem.

The High-Level Expert Group (HLEG), which authored the report, was set up last November by the European Union’s executive body to help inform its response to the ‘fake news’ crisis which is currently challenging Western lawmakers to come up with an effective and proportionate response.

The HLEG favors the term ‘disinformation’ — arguing (quite rightly) that the ‘fake news’ badge does not adequately capture “the complex problems of disinformation that also involves content which blends fabricated information with facts”.

‘Fake news’ has also of course become fatally politicized (hi, Trump!), and the label is frequently erroneously applied to try to close down criticism and derail debate by undermining trust and being insulting. (Fake news really is best imagined as a self-feeding ouroboros.)

“Disinformation, as used in the Report, includes all forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit,” says the HLEG’s chair, professor Madeleine de Cock Buning, in a report forward.

“This report is just the beginning of the process and will feed the Commission reflection on a response to the phenomenon,” writes Mariya Gabriel, the EC commissioner for digital economy and society, in another forward. “Our challenge will now lie in delivering concrete options that will safeguard EU values and benefit every European citizen.”

The Commission’s next steps will be to work on coming up with those “tangible options” to better address the risks posed by disinformation being smeared around online.

Gabriel writes that it’s her intention to trigger “a free, pluralistic democratic, societal, and economic debate in Europe” which fully respects “fundamental EU values, e.g. freedom of speech, media pluralism and media freedom”.

“Given the complexity of the problem, which requires a multi-stakeholder solution, there is no single lever to achieve these ambitions and eradicate disinformation from the media ecosystem,” she adds. “Improving the ability of platforms and media to address the phenomenon requires a holistic approach, the identification of areas where changes are required, and the development of specific recommendations in these areas.”

A “multi-dimensional” approach

There is certainly no single button fix being recommended here. Nor is the group advocating for any tangible social media regulations at this point.

Rather, its 42-page report recommends a “multi-dimensional” approach to tackling online disinformation, over the short and long term — including emphasizing the importance of media literacy and education and advocating for support for traditional media industries; at the same time as warning over censorship risks and calling for more research to underpin strategies that could help combat the problem.

It does suggest a “Code of Principles” for online platforms and social networks to commit to — with increased transparency about how algorithms distribute news being one of several recommended steps.

The report lists five core “pillars” which underpin the its various “interconnected and mutually reinforcing responses” — all of which are in turn aimed at forming a holistic overarching strategy to attack the problem from multiple angles and time-scales.

These five pillars are:

  • enhance transparency of online news, involving an adequate and privacy-compliant sharing of data about the systems that enable their circulation online;
  • promote media and information literacy to counter disinformation and help users navigate the digital media environment;
  • develop tools for empowering users and journalists to tackle disinformation and foster a positive engagement with fast-evolving information technologies;
  • safeguard the diversity and sustainability of the European news media ecosystem;
  • promote continued research on the impact of disinformation in Europe to evaluate the measures taken by different actors and constantly adjust the necessary responses;

Zooming further in, the report discusses and promotes various actions — such as advocating for “clearly identifiable” disclosures for sponsored content, including for political ad purposes; and for information on payments to human influencers and the use of bot-based amplification techniques to be “made available in order for users to understand whether the apparent popularity of a given piece of online information or the apparent popularity of an influencer is the result of artificial amplification or is supported by targeted investment”.

It also promotes a strategy of battling ‘bad speech’ by expanding access to ‘more, better speech’ — promoting the idea that disinformation could be ‘diluted’ “with quality information”.

Although, on that front, a recent piece of MIT research investigating how fact-checked information spreads on Twitter, studying a decade’s worth of tweets, suggests that without some form of very specific algorithmic intervention such an approach could well struggle to triumph against human nature — as information that has been fact-checked as false was found to spread further and faster than information that had been fact-checked as true.

In short, humans find clickbait more spreadable. And that’s why, at least in part, disinformation has scaled into the horribly self-reinforcing problem it has.

A bit of algorithmic transparency

The report’s push for a degree of algorithmic accountability by calling for a little disinfecting transparency from tech platforms is perhaps its most interesting and edgy aspect. Though its suggestions here are extremely cautious.

“[P]latforms should provide transparent and relevant information on the functioning of algorithms that select and display information without prejudice to platforms IPRs [intellectual property rights],” the committee of experts writes. “Transparency of algorithms needs to be addressed with caution. Platforms are unique in the way they provide access to information depending on their technological design, and therefore measures to access information will always be reliant on the type of platform.

“It is acknowledged however that, more information on the working of algorithms would enable users to better understand why they get the information that they get via platform services, and would help newsrooms to better market their services online. As a first step platforms should create contact desks where media outlets can get such information.”

The HLEG’s is itself made up of 39 members — billed as representing a range of industry and stakeholder points of view “from the civil society, social media platforms, news media organisations, journalists and academia”.

And, yes, staffers from Facebook, Google and Twitter are listed as members — so the major social media tech platforms and disinformation spreaders are directly involved in shaping these recommendations. (See the end of this post for the full list of people/organizations in the HLEG.)

A Twitter spokesman confirmed the company has been engaged with the process from the beginning but declined to provide a statement in response to the report. At the time of writing requests for comment from Facebook and Google had not been answered.

The presence of powerful tech platforms in the Commission’s advisor body on this issue may explain why the group’s suggestions on algorithmic accountability comes across as rather dilute.

Though you could say that at least the importance of increased transparency is being affirmed — even by social media’s giants.

But are platforms the real problem?

One of the HLEG’s members, European consumer advocacy organization BEUC, voted against the report — arguing the group had missed an opportunity to push for a sector inquiry to investigate the link between advertising revenue policies of platforms and the dissemination of disinformation.

And this criticism does seem to have some substance. As, for all the report’s discussion of possible ways to support a pluralistic news media ecosystem, the unspoken elephant in the room is that Facebook and Google are gobbling up the majority of digital advertising profits.

Facebook very deliberately made news distribution its business — even if it’s dialing back that approach now, in the face of a backlash.

In a critical statement, Monique Goyens, director general of BEUC, said: “This report contains many useful recommendations but fails to touch upon one of the core causes of fake news. Disinformation is spreading too easily online. Evidence of the role of behavioral advertising in the dissemination of fake news is piling up. Platforms such as Google or Facebook massively benefit from users reading and sharing fake news articles which contain advertisements. But this expert group choose to ignore this business model. This is head-in-the-sand politics.”

Giving another assessment, academic Paul Bernal, IT, IP and media law lecturer at the UEA School of Law in the UK, and not himself a member of the HLEG, also argues the report comes up short — by failing to robustly interrogate the role of platform power in the spread of disinformation.

His view is that “the whole idea of ‘sharing’ as a mantra” is inherently linked to disinformation’s power online.

“[The report] is a start, but it misses some fundamental issues. The point about promoting media and information literacy is the biggest and most important one — I don’t think it can be emphasized enough, but it needs to be broader than it immediately appears. People need to understand not only when ‘news’ is misinformation, but to understand the way it is spread,” Bernal told TechCrunch.

“That means questioning the role of social media — and here I don’t think the High Level Group has been brave enough. Their recommendations don’t even mention addressing this, and I find myself wondering why.

“From my own research, the biggest single factor in the current problem is the way that news is distributed — Facebook, Google and Twitter in particular.”

“We need to find a way to help people to wean themselves off using Facebook as a source of news — the very nature of Facebook means that misinformation will be spread, and politically motivated misinformation in particular,” he added. “Unless this is addressed, almost everything else is just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.”

Beyond filter bubbles

But Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, who says she was involved with the HLEG’s work (her colleague at the Institute, Rasmus Nielsen, is also a member of the group), played down the notion that the report is not robust enough in probing how social media platforms are accelerating the problem of disinformation — flagging its call for increased transparency and for strategies to create “a media ecosystem that is more diverse and is more sustainable”.

Though she added: “I can see, however, how one of the common critiques would be that the social networks themselves need to do more.”

She went on to suggest that negative results following Germany’s decision to push for a social media hate speech law — which requires valid takedowns to be executed within 24 hours and includes a regime of penalties that can scale up to €50M — may have influenced the group’s decision to push for a far more light-touch approach.

The Commission itself has warned it could draw up EU-wide legislation to regulate platforms over hate speech. Though, for now, it’s been pursuing a voluntary Code of Conduct approach. (It has also been turning up the heat over terrorist content specifically.)

“[In Germany social media platforms] have an incentive to delete content really generously because there are heavy fines if they fail to take down content,” said Neudert, criticizing the regulation. “[Another] catch is that there is no legal oversight involved. So now you have, basically, social networks making decisions that used to be with courts and that often used to be a matter of months and months of weighing different legal [considerations].”

“That also just really clearly showed that once you are thinking about regulation, it is really important that regulators as well as tech companies, and as well as the media system, are really working together here. Because we are at a point where we have very complex systems, we have very complex levers, we have a lot of information… So it is a delicate topic, really, and I think there’s no catch-all regulation where we can get rid of all the fake news.”

Also today, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, published an open letter warning that disinformation threatens the social utility of the web, and making the case for a direct causal link between a few “powerful” big tech platforms and false information being accelerated damagingly online.

In contrast to his assessment, the report’s weakness in speaking directly to any link between big tech platforms and disinformation does look pretty gaping.

Asked about this, Neudert agreed the topic is being “talked about in the EU”, though she said it’s being discussed more within the context of antitrust.

She also claimed there’s a growing body of research “debunking the idea that we have filter bubbles”, and counter-suggesting that online influence sources are in fact “more diverse”.

“I oftentimes do feel like I live in my own personal social bubble or echo chamber. However research does suggest otherwise — it does suggest that there’s, on the one hand, much more information that we’re getting, and also much more diverse information that we’re getting,” she claimed.

“I’m not so sure if your Facebook or if your Twitter is actually a gatekeeper of information,” she added. “I think your Facebook and your Twitter on some hand still, more or less, give you all of the information you have on the Internet.

“Where it gets more problematic is then if you also have algorithms on top of it that are promoting some issue to make them appear larger over the Internet — to make them appear at the very top of the news feed.”

She gave the example — also called out recently in an article by academic and techno-sociologist, Zeynep Tufecki — of YouTube’s problematic recommendation algorithms, which have been accused of having a quasi-radicalizing effect because they are choosing ever more extreme content to surface in their mission to keep viewers engaged.

“This is where I think this argument is becoming powerful,” Neudert told TechCrunch. “It is not something where the truth is already dictated and where it is set in stone. A lot of the outcomes are really emerging.

“The other part of course is you can have many, many different and diverse opinions — but there’s also things to be said about what are the effects of information being presented in whatever kind of format, providing it with credibility, and people trusting that kind of information.”

Being able to distinguish between fact and fiction on social media is “such a pressing problem”, she added.

Less trusted sources

One tangible result of that pressing fact or fiction problem that’s also being highlighted by the Commission today in a related piece of work — its latest Eurobarometer survey — is the erosion of consumer trust in tech platforms.

The majority of respondents to this EC survey viewed traditional media as the most trusted source of news (radio 70%, TV 66%, print 63%) vs online sources being the least trusted (26% and 27%, respectively for news and video hosting websites).

So there seem to be some pretty clear trust risks, at least, for tech platforms becoming synonymous with online disinformation.

The vast majority of Eurobarometer survey respondents (83%) also said they viewed fake news as a danger to democracy — whatever fake news meant to them in the moment they were being asked for their views on it. And those figures could certainly be read — or spun — as support for new regulations. So again, platforms do need to worry about public opinion.

Discussing potential technology-based responses to help combat disinformation, Neudert’s view is that automated fact-checking tools and bot detectors are “getting better” — and even “getting useful” when combined with the work of human checkers.

“For the next couple of years that to me looks like the lowest fruitful approach,” she said, advocating for such tools as an alternative and proportionate strategy (vs the stick of a new legal regime) for working across the vast scale of online content that needs moderation without risking the pitfall of chilling censorship.

“I do think that this combination of technology to drive attention to patterns of problems, and to larger trends of problem areas, and that then combined with human oversight, human detection, human debunking, right now is an important alley to go to,” she said.

But to achieve gains there she conceded that access to platforms’ metadata will be crucial — access that, it must also be said, is most certainly not the rule right now; and which has also frequently not been forthcoming, even when platforms were reasonably pressed regarding specific concerns.

Despite the closed door historical arrogance of platforms to access requests, Neudert nevertheless argues for “flexibility” now and “more dialogue and “more openness”, rather than heavy-handed German-style content laws.

But she also cautions that online disinformation is likely to get worse in the short term, with AI now being actively deployed in the potentially lucrative business of creating fakes, such as Adobe’s experiments with its VoCo speech editing tool.

Wider industry pushes to engineer better conversational systems to enhance products like voice assistants are also fueling developments here.

“My worry is also that there are a lot of people who have a lot of interest in putting money towards [systems that can create plausible fakes],” she said. “A lot of money is being devoted to artificial intelligence getting better and better and it can be used for the one side but it can also be used for the other side.

“I do hope with the technology developing and getting better we also have a simultaneous movement of research to debunk what is a fake, what is not a fake.”

On the lesser known anti-fake tech front she said interesting things are happening too, flagging a tool that can analyze videos to determine whether a human in a clip has “a real pulse” and “real breathing”, for example.

“There is a lot of super interesting things that can be done around that,” she added. “But I hope that kind of research also gets the money and gets the attention that it needs because maybe it is not something that is as easily monetizable as, say, deepfake software.”

One thing is becoming crystal clear about disinformation: This is a human problem.

Perhaps the oldest and most human problem there is. It’s just that now we’re having to confront these unpleasant and inconvenient fundamental truths about our nature writ very large indeed — not just acted out online but also accelerated by the digital sphere.


Below is the full list of members of the Commission’s HLEG: