Dangers of the global digital transformation reach headlines more often than they did ten years ago. Some of the major problems are the risks surrounding disinformation online. Consider Russia’s alleged manipulation of the 2016 elections in the US as an example, or large social media pages encouraging climate change denialism. We are living in an ‘infodemic’, where false information is rapidly spreading online for all sorts of purposes. An important question arising from this issue is whether dealing with disinformation should be dependent on governmental regulation, and if so, what tools governments have that won’t violate constitutional rights. Our fundamental rights are what make our societies democratic and must be protected at all times. But do those fundamental rights also apply to information that mislead individuals into making wrong decisions? Information that poses a threat to the functioning of our democracy as a whole?
The Ministry of Interior and Kingdom Relations in the Netherlands has looked into the subject and has intensively researched combatting disinformation on the internet. This research resulted in an extensive report, indicating theoretical principles that are crucial to the question of whether (and how) governmental regulation should prevent disinformation. First, it is the freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the power of independent journalism that initially obstruct direct governmental intervention. Subjecting all media to constant governmental control and censorship is by no means a proper solution. A multifaceted media landscape is inherent to a healthy democratic society. But how is disinformation supposed to be fought when governments have to take these principles into consideration? In this article, I will describe and briefly explain the most important pieces of advice on this matter.
First of all, it is of the utmost importance to tackle the lawlessness of the digital world on a global scale. Not only for the sake of preventing the spread of disinformation. The global digital transformation has several risks and threats that should be addressed as soon as possible. Multilateral treaties ensure interstate responsibilities regarding online political manipulation as well as other risks that come with disinformation. In these circumstances, voters have less worries about having a rigged democratic process.
In addition, it is time for governments to join forces with platforms that are known for providing wrongdoers with the digital landscape. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for example. Fortunately, these tech-giants have shown an increased willingness to cooperate with regulators, making visible changes to their policies. After all, those corporations possess the means to tackle disinformation directly. However, emphasis must be placed on the limitation of those responsibilities and capacities. There should be no ability to monopolize the truth. In that case, everything that would seem untrue or incorrect to Facebook’s hired content analysts would be deleted. This is not only a misfit to our legal system, but it has also proven to be very difficult to distinguish correct from incorrect information online – it is mostly a mix of both. The implementation of an intelligent flagging system can make a tremendous difference. By doing so, questionable posts and accounts can be marked, so that a user is notified and advised to check an additional source on the matter. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can play a big role in this.
Also, addressing the current journalistic establishment would be a step in the right direction. The ‘legitimate’ news sources should, and now more than ever, feel the duty to correctly inform the public. These media platforms should be stimulated or incentivized to reach out to the people as a trusted source of information. The larger, established news corporations are still too much hiding behind paid subscription deals. This is somewhat understandable, considering their continuity was widely questioned over the last decade. Nevertheless, it makes legitimate sources of information less accessible for verification.
The last and, in my opinion, most promising piece of advice is the improvement of media literacy and digital knowledge of the people. Not just the regulator but the individual should improve its ability to handle online information and prevent disinformation from becoming an even bigger issue. It is Jean-Jacques Rousseau who once said: ‘nature never deceives us; it is we who deceive ourselves.’ Local governments and schools should be formally tasked with educating people on verifying or fact-checking news sources, especially on social media.
In short, governmental regulation of disinformation should never overrule the protection of our constitutional rights. Even so, it is of great importance to consider disinformation as a serious threat to the functioning of our democracy. Addressing the lawlessness of cyberspace should be part of the political agenda, and not only because it makes disinformation possible. The flagging system is a useful tool for creating awareness and to familiarize the public with illegitimate sources, but it is not the only way. In the end, it is the audience that should be digitally savvy to prevent being misled online. Unfortunately, AI also makes spreaders of disinformation better at what they do, so it is safe to say that we still have a long way to go.