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A new consensus for the post-Covid19 world: Disinformation

At the 2020 Paris Peace Forum on November 12, French President Emmanuel Macron and other world leaders launched a global discussion on forging a new consensus for the post-Covid-19 world. This discussion is continuing through an ongoing debate, with contributions from leaders and experts from around the world. Below, explore the contribution of  Jessica Cecil, Director of the Trusted News Initiative, BBC.


Disinformation online kills. That is one of the big lessons from Covid, where false cures and lies about vaccines have been rampant. It also corrodes democracy. The Capitol riots demonstrated that truth in the US – and the same is happening across the world.

Business as usual cannot clear up the problem. The key difficulty is that in the realm of so-called Fake News, the polluter doesn’t pay. In fact, spreading fake news is making certain people very rich. And there is another issue. Many organisations have been trying to clear up the mess created by disinformation, but they have not been acting on the basis of shared standards, methods and principles. The response has been incoherent.
So, what is to be done?

First, we need to establish a shared understanding of the harm caused by dabbling in spreading disinformation. ‘Bad actors’ seeking to destabilise others or make money will never be persuadable. But political leaders, especially in established democracies, must become more aware of the toxic effect they have by giving a nod and a wink to a false story. Too many have ridden on the back of fake news for their own short-term ends. They need to recognise the polluting effects of giving credence to disinformation. And if they won’t act, then others – the media, think tanks, tech platforms and others – must have the courage to call them out. That way there can be no shelter of ambiguity under which the truly malicious can hide.
Next, we find ways to ensure that telling the truth and fighting disinformation pays.

This vital conversation is already underway. Quality journalism is expensive, and it is encouraging to see that tech platforms are working with news organisations to find financial incentives to create accurate news online. But story-getting – which involves rigorous fact-checking – costs much more than making it up. Reliable news needs to be rewarded and supported even more.

Beyond this, there is a further vital – and expensive – tier of work that must happen: helping audiences themselves navigate the complicated online information landscape. Audiences need to be given the tools to spot for themselves what they can rely on and what they can’t.

For this we need news organisations and tech platforms to harness the insights of academia. How do audiences react to what they see? When are they vulnerable? We must collaborate to broaden and intensify media education – not just for children but for everyone including the elderly. We need to understand how the platforms’ own warning systems work in practice, and what that means for others.

All this is urgent and must be paid for, with a market to encourage the good. But as yet, no one is holding that discussion. This must change.

Finally, we need a framework of shared values and practices across news organisations, tech companies and other organisations. This requires building international alliances. I founded and led the Trusted News Initiative for 2 years. It is a real-time conversation between top global tech companies and news providers about disinformation and what to do about it in very specific circumstances: when there is an immediate threat to life or to democratic processes like elections.
Project Origin, pioneered by Microsoft, the BBC, CBC and the New York Times, is an attempt to create a common standard for establishing if a piece of media is authentic. It is a technology-driven solution to identifying ‘deep fakes’ – video that looks like it comes from a respectable source but which have been manipulated. At the moment it is almost impossible to spot.
This kind of international cooperation is vital. It gives a structure to difficult questions of where free speech might end and real-world harm begins. We can shore up both democracy and promote good health going forward. But we need the international collaboration and leadership. Those who can help need to step forward now.

Jessica Cecil, Director of the Trusted News Initiative, BBC


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