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Q&A with Madeleine de Cock Buning

Q&A with Madeleine de Cock Buning

This month Policy World interviews Madeleine de Cock Buning, Chair of the the High Level Expert Group advising the EU Commission on Fake News and online disinformation and Chair of The Regulatory Authority to the Media in the Netherlands. The High Level Expert Group published a report earlier this year, and Professor De Cock Buning has been at the forefront of the debate on fake news. We asked her some questions about it.

Q. How would you describe the threat of fake news?

A. There is some evidence, based on work from the Oxford Reuters group, that fake news, and disinformation more broadly, has not had a significant direct impact so far. This is because its effect is largely limited to groups of “believers”. The largest risk from fake news is that it erodes trust in the media generally. I believe very strongly that a free, diverse and independent media underpins our democracy. If people start to think that it’s impossible to know what’s true and what isn’t, this undermines civil society.

Q. You have said that it’s everybody’s responsibility to address it – would you be able to expand on that?

A. None of the actors in this can avoid their share of responsibility. Media companies are under financial pressure and have sometimes not paid enough attention to checking facts. We also need greater transparency on sources of information. Digital media need identify the source and make this clear to the reader, and sponsored content needs to be more clearly identified. It has been suggested by some that certain sources or websites might simply be blocked. This is the wrong approach. If people feel that information and opinion is being censored then trust in media will erode even further. Client based interfaces can furthermore provide control and guidance on selecting, for example, priorities in news searches and news feeds.

Governments and regulators have an obligation to provide for a diverse and sustainable media environment, principally by ensuring there are full protections for freedom of speech and its dissemination. We hope that the EU and member states will come forward with budgets to support independent news media and media agencies, including journalist training and support for fact-checking organisations.

Q. To what extent do you think technology itself can contribute to a solution?

A. Fact-checking is important, and technology can contribute to that. I want to see effective tools made available to journalists and all other fact-checkers that want to make use of them, but we must be cautious that the fact-checking itself is independent and free from any political influence, otherwise it could worsen rather than help the problem.

Q. You said that a key response was the education of consumers/citizens?

A. Consumers are entitled to read what they want to, including fake news. The important thing is that they know what they’re reading, and have the ability to judge its reliability and authenticity. Media literacy is the key to this. To be effective this has to be done at scale and would need concerted efforts and resources to bring about. Ultimately I would need to be taught in schools, as I think it will be an essential part of being a citizen in the 21st century.

Q. Finally, some people argue that we’re overreacting to this problem, that it’s an obsession of the media and political elite, much less so for ordinary people. What is your response to this?

A. The current situation is febrile and fragile. The phrase “fake news” is thrown around as an insult by opposing and disparate groups trying to “take control” of the news agenda and get exposure for their particular interpretation of events. One paradoxical problem is that the more we talk about fake news, the more the idea takes hold that it’s impossible to know what’s true and what’s invented, what’s a fact and what’s not. As I’ve said before, democracies ultimately depend on their citizens being properly informed. If citizens don’t trust their sources of information, democracy itself is at risk.


The report of the High Level Expert Group can be found here.

  • Tuesday, 18 September 2018

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