European press agencies discuss fighting fake news


Representatives of various European news agencies met on Saturday to discuss ways of fighting the recent plague of fake news as part of an event that comprised the month-long GovTech Festival, an educational and technological project.

Opening the debate was the Secretary General of the European Alliance of News Agencies (EANA), Alex Giboi. Speaking at the event, Giboi said that the founders of the very first news agencies could never have predicted the importance that agencies would play in the future.

“It is in the context of fighting fake news that press agencies become ever more important,” said Giboi.

Michel Viatteau, a fact-checking editor at the French news agency AFP, focused on the French perspective regarding media disinformation. In his opinion, as much as 80 percent of current fake news concerned the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, added Viatteau, the same fake news had a tendency to spread to neighbouring countries.

Desiree Garcia, head of fact-checking at EFE, a Spanish press agency, reiterated Viatteau's warning that fake news was highly organised. Further, she stressed the dangers regarding false information concerning medicines and vaccines.

Stefan Voss, head of fact-checking at the German news agency DPA, pointed out the necessity of maintaining the highest level of objectivity when it came to verifying facts. According to him, the interpretation of this should be left to journalists. The DPA representative also expressed concerns over the side-effects of fake news, including the erosion of trust in authorities and democratic mechanisms.

Giboi added that, at this moment in time, it was difficult to find a medium between freedom of speech and censorship. He suggested media education as a solution that could be used to fight fake news, although he also expressed reservations that the implementation of such would take time. According to him, a society that copes better with understanding messages is less prone to manipulation.

Viatteau presented a more short-term solution when it came to verifying facts that was based on cooperation with Facebook. Using his idea, Facebook would mark content verified by AFP's fact-checking team, but would not delete it. This would help reduce the visibility and distribution of any fake content.

Underlining the essential right to express oneself as a foundation of democracy, Voss added that the DPA would not remove content from the internet so long as it was in line with the commonly-accepted standards of communication. Voss also confirmed that the dissemination of fake news had been limited due to his agency's cooperation with Facebook.

Garcia stressed the role of authorities and reliable sources, such as the World Health Organization, in fighting fake news and advocated the use of the broadest possible list of reliable sources. According to her, challenges concerning COVID-19 issues largely resulted from our limited knowledge of the disease.

Giboi expressed a hope that Artificial Intelligence, and machine learning in particular, would help fight the spread of fake news.

However, all experts agreed that each case should be scrutinised with little regard for speed of action. If 100 percent certainty could not be achieved regarding potential fake news items that had been thoroughly fact-checked, then any doubts following the publication of the verdict could dent the press agency's reputation.