The role of National Regulatory Authorities in tackling disinformation

Antigoni Themistokleous,
Cyprus Radio and Television Authority
Twitter: @noni_them

 

Abstract

This article discusses the critical role of National Regulatory Authorities (hereinafter NRAs) in tackling disinformation in the digital media environment. Disinformation appears nowadays in the media ecosystem at an increased level and has adverse consequences on freedom of expression, on pluralism, and on the functioning of democratic polity. Tackling disinformation becomes therefore one of the biggest challenges for policy makers and communications scholars. Without disregarding the complexities of combating disinformation in the media ecosystem, this article argues that NRAs have a vital role to efficiently and effectively tackle misinformation and to take the responsibility to ensure media pluralism, to safeguard freedom of expression and the right of citizens to information, and ultimately to protect the quality of information. The competency of NRAs to perform this task resides in the understanding of regulation in a broader context and in identifying social, cultural, and democratic perspectives that justify media regulation. Implementing media literacy programs and strengthening media literacy levels, this article argues, is a vital and critical measure in order to address disinformation. Finally, this article presents the media literacy initiative as a means to restrict disinformation, as it is implemented by the Cyprus Radio Television Authority, which is the national regulatory authority for the audiovisual media services.

 

The problem of disinformation and the need to tackle it

In the era of digital technologies and of the converged media environment individuals experience feelings of information obesity. Yet, the quality of this information overload is increasingly questionable and challenged at that level that it may not be absurd to argue that individuals experience intellectual fitness as well. It therefore seems that the society currently experiences a paradox: there is definitely more information, especially with the growth and the intensification of the use of the digital media ecosystem but this information is not always reliable or trustworthy. It is however a misconception to argue that the source or the origin of disinformation is the social media or the digital media environment. Nonetheless, it is also a fallacy not to recognize that the problem of disinformation became bigger, more serious, and more threatening to democratic polity with the expansion and development of the digital media environment.  The Nayrah testimony reminds us the former, whereas the reference of the Freedom on the net report of 2017 that online manipulation and disinformation have been used in at least 18 countries during elections in recent years reveals the latter (Freedom House, 2017). Disinformation travels faster and further on cyberspace and through the social media sites. The consequences of disinformation on the freedom of expression and on media pluralism are serious enough and their scale and impact justify the measures, the regulatory ones included, in order to tackle disinformation.

Disinformation is not a one-dimensional problem; it has different angles, including misinformation and fake news as well and involves various actors, such as political ones, news media, civil society actors. It goes further beyond fake news and it can be the tendency to mislead the public and to misguide the public in its attempt to take informed decisions. According to the High Level Expert Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation established by the European Commission disinformation includes all forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit (High Level Expert Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation, 2018). The rapid expansion of new technological platforms and the development of algorithm-driven news distribution platforms blurred the boundaries in the media ecosystem and have merged the role of content editors, of news gatekeepers, and of curators of news distributions.

The current multi-level problematic situation creates concerns due to the spread of disinformation, of misinformation and of fake news. Whilst the term ‘fake news’ refers to completely fabricated news, misinformation covers the spectrum of incorrect information, without distinguishing whether there is an intention to or not, and disinformation refers to verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public (High Level Expert Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation, 2018).  It is therefore assumed that disinformation is used to influence public opinion as it is often used by individuals or institutions following an explicit or implicit social, political or economic agenda. The failure to recognise the false information that is presented to the public creates a fertile breeding ground for misleading and guiding the public opinion to certain directions. As a matter of fact, the dissemination of disinformation threatens media pluralism and diversity and jeopardises the freedom of expression. It distorts public debate, undermines citizens’ trust in institutions and media while in some cases it destabilises democratic processes, such as elections. In this perspective, it is imperative to address the challenges posed by the dissemination of disinformation

The media are the central arena in which disinformation eventually emerges and rears its ugly face. This article argues that media regulation is located within a broader social context and supports that beyond economic objectives regulation is also justified by an appeal to social considerations of freedom, justice, and human rights. In this perspective, regulation appears as an appropriate tool to efficiently and effectively tackle disinformation. Consequently, regulation is also about the distribution of rights and the acceptable limits on rights and freedoms by controlling the abuse of these rights and freedoms with the intention to establish a sense of equality and non-discrimination in society. Particularly, in the media sector regulation seeks to balance the right to freedom of expression of media producers with the rights of media users and to protect users’ rights from unconstrained industry action (Duncan, 2014:173).  The unconstrained industry action may harm the rights and the welfare of individuals or the society. In such a case, regulation comes to protect the affected human rights of the individual, or to safeguard established policy goals, such as pluralism and freedom.

In this article regulation falls under a sociological understanding and refers to the organised attempt to manage risks and to monitor the behaviour. This article does not connect media regulation only to restrictions on the behaviour of individuals (the journalists) or of corporate actors (the media businesses) but it further conceives media regulation as the governance mechanism to facilitate the construction of an environment that protects the freedom of expression and the right of the public to information and promotes media pluralism and diversity. From this perspective, media regulation translates the abstract policy issues into enforceable public interest considerations and moves beyond the limited scope and the narrow perspective of regulation as the implementation of regulatory measures seeking solely to affect the economy and the market. In general, society represents the context in which constitutionally established rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of the press prevail and require protection if in danger. In this light, NRAs have a critical role in tackling disinformation.

 

The National Regulatory Authorities in the combat against disinformation

National Regulatory Authorities (NRAs) are greatly specialised bodies with expertise on a certain regulated sectors (Majone, 1996). They are institutionally and organisationally separated from the ordinary bureaucracy (Verschuere et al., 2006), and are also constitutionally separated from and outside the direct control of elected politicians (Thatcher, 2002; Gilardi and Maggetti, 2010). These regulatory agencies became important actors in the governance during the rise of the regulatory state (Majone, 1994) and their independence is indeed one of their distinctive features. National Regulatory Authorities (NRAs) in the media environment are independent regulatory agencies established by statute and being responsible for licensing and monitoring the audiovisual media services. Whilst the functioning of independent regulatory agencies has developed during the last decades of the 20th century, regulation remains in constant evolution and needs to incorporate new policy objectives in order to be efficient and effective and to face successfully the new challenges in the regulatory realm. Self-determination of the national regulatory authorities, in terms that they judge their own interests and values (Dahl, 1989), and their autonomy, in terms of implementing their policies and transforming their own interests and values into actions without external control or constraints (Walzer, 1983; Nordlinger, 1981) underpin their competency and reinforce their authority to tackle disinformation and misinformation.

NRAs need, nonetheless, to acknowledge the complexity of the digital environment, in which regulators and the regulated sector mingle with each other so it seems that each attempt needs to engage the regulated and to ask for the cooperation between regulators and regulated in order to secure better, more effective, and more efficient regulation. Following Murray (2006), this article suggests that the role of NRAs can be transformed into a dynamic one and that they [NRAs] can be the leading actors in a symbiotic regulatory model applicable to the current digital media ecosystem. Regulators need to act in such a way as to take into account the particularities of the cyberspace; among the most distinctive and crucial ones are the fact that there are many creators and content producers; that users are simultaneously consumers and producers of information and of content; and that there is constant production and distribution of content.

In order to tackle and combat disinformation the NRAs should focus on initiatives that seek to promote media and information literacy in the digital media ecosystem. Online news consumption and a large proportionality of disinformation occur in the online environment, which remains largely an unregulated space in terms of monitoring the content that is uploaded and distributed. A means towards tackling disinformation is to provide the necessary skills and competences to the audience to distinguish disinformation and to reject it. An example is indeed the emphasis on media literacy programs. Educating the public is about to empower citizens to benefit from the opportunities offered across an array of traditional, online, and mobile service activities and also to be aware of the risks in the digital environment. Upon the Audio-Visual Media Services Directives of 2007, 2010 and 2013, EU member states and in particular the independent regulatory authorities of the audiovisual media services are required to develop programs to promote and upgrade the level of media literacy.  To this extent, the independent regulatory authorities for audiovisual media service providers in the European Union have a formal role in promoting media literacy as they were attributed by the mandate to design and coordinate the agenda for the enhancement of media literacy in the territory of their jurisdiction. The development of media literacy policy is therefore recognized as a statutory duty for the independent regulatory authorities of the audiovisual media services.

The approach to media literacy encompasses all media and orients towards the society as an entity so that every citizen may become a competent individual in the information society. The aims of media literacy policy can be twofold; firstly to foster media-related knowledge and to develop citizens’ critical judgment ability to evaluate the plethora of images and of the multiple messages they consume on a daily basis, both online and offline in order to effectively and efficiently engage with media content of all forms and not simply to consume it unquestioningly; secondly, to provide citizens with the knowledge to produce content and communicate in various contexts and for various purposes (Papaioannou and Themistokleous, 2018).

This article suggests that media literacy should be viewed in a broader context in which information and digital literacies are inseparable. It mostly emphasises that media literacy initiatives constitute a means to empower citizens to benefit from the opportunities offered across an array of traditional, online, and mobile service activities and also to be aware of the risks in the digital environment. To this extent, media literacy contributes to address the challenges posed by the dissemination of disinformation. In an era in which digital technologies have radically transformed the media and communications landscape and algorithmic journalism has been developed, media policy-making needs to ensure the interests of citizens, to protect the rights of journalists, primarily to free speech, and to safeguard the functioning of the media ecosystem in order to stimulate innovation, creativity, and the production of new content. This reality asks for the reconsideration of the traditional role of media regulation. Within this environment the need for media-literate audiences, which have competences and skills in critical thinking, in content production, and in the evaluation of the messages is increased, whereas the prospect for efficient and effective direct content regulation diminishes.

Within this environment, the NRAs of audiovisual media services have an expanded role as they are called to implement media literacy policies. In this regard, the adoption of media literacy policies reflects a change in the role of regulators of audiovisual media services and exemplifies the evolvement of the relevant regulatory framework towards a widening role for the regulators in the sector. NRAs have a pivotal role in educating the audiences to critically engage with the media and to exercise effective choice and judgments. To this extent media regulation is not a tool of repression but it seeks to create educated and literate audiences and to empower them, among others, to successfully face the challenges due to the dissemination of disinformation.

The implementation of media literacy education is indeed an example of the shifting emphases regarding media governance and the change in the role of regulators of audiovisual media services. Regulators are obviously no longer simply in charge of applying media legislation with a focus, inter alia, on the protection of minors, the enhancement of democratic principles and prevention of discrimination but they are rather expected to have a pivotal role in providing the audiences with the essential skills and competences to engage with media, to exercise effective choice and judgement, and ultimately to protect and empower themselves (Papaioannou and Themistokleous, 2018). These shifting requirements of regulators and media governance as a whole will only be further propelled by the convergent media global culture. Media literacy policy does not suggest the replacement of statutory regulation, it rather highlights the dire necessity of media users to take greater responsibility for their media consumption and to effectively and constructively engage with media, positioned within policy support. This needs to be viewed as a fundamental element of the regulatory toolkit in the audiovisual media services and to complement the current statutory regulation of the sector.

 

An example of media literacy initiative implemented by the NRA of the audiovisual media services in Cyprus

The independent regulatory authority responsible for monitoring the audiovisual media services in Cyprus, namely the Cyprus Radio Television Authority, designed and implemented media literacy programs in an attempt to educate High School students to recognize disinformation and fake news. The initiative of the NRA of Cyprus constitutes an example of how national regulatory authorities can operate in order to tackle disinformation and the distribution of fake news through media literacy initiatives. It considers the development of a number of different workshops, one of which focuses on the negative consequences of disinformation and emphasizes the importance of evaluating the information and of assessing media content that we consume. The rationale behind this initiative is that media literacy contributes towards developing critical thinking and active participation in media culture. The aim is to give youth greater freedom by empowering them with the essential knowledge and competence to access, analyse, critically evaluate and create media content.

The workshop designed for the High School students concentrates on the critical evaluation of the content disseminated through the various forms of mass media, and mainly through social media and online sites. Various examples of media content (articles) are provided to students who are asked to evaluate the truthfulness, the veracity, and the credibility of the content. A number of criteria against which the content is critically examined and evaluated are also given to students. These assessment criteria that define newsworthiness and the credibility of news and of news sources are discussed. Moreover, the workshop introduces the concept of responsible use of internet and of online search engines, especially in an era in which algorithmic journalism has been developed and is in use. In the final activity of the workshop, students play the online game of Bad News and through their experience realise the easiness of building a persona and of dropping all pretence of ethics and ultimately of disseminating disinformation. At the same time they understand their own susceptibility and vulnerability to follow certain information unless they have developed critical thinking towards the content and the messages they find online and in traditional media. By the end of the workshop, it is expected that students comprehend the significance of assessing the credibility and reliability of news and information that is distributed in the public sphere; they become more familiar with the assessment criteria regarding the credibility of online news stories; and they recognize the necessity to implement these assessment criteria in order to evaluate the truthfulness, the reliability and credibility of the media content and the sources. It is also anticipated that students understand the importance of distinguishing between news reporting and commenting and make a distinction between accurate and misleading information. The importance of sources’ and information’s cross-verification also comes to the surface and is discussed.

 

Conclusion

The role and the responsibilities of NRAs in tackling disinformation suggests that the spectrum of activities of independent regulators is not limited to market supervision and to technical regulatory functions but that it also pertains to the key social role of these agencies to promote democratic polity and to foster the critical thinking of media literate audiences. Provided that censorship is definitely not a solution to the problem of disinformation the efforts should be focused on other aspects. Media literacy seems to be a promising means to tackle disinformation. Users of digital media need to acquire deep understanding of how search results appear on their screens, how social media feeds work and make certain options more visible than others and to get the skills and competences to edit and evaluate their own search results. Individuals should be empowered to navigate the digital media environment.  This seems to be a rather long-term solution but it guarantees the best possible results.

 

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