In the fight against disinformation, how far should governments go?

There has, according to the author Steven Poole, never been ‘a golden age of perfect transparency.’

Although fake news feels like a unique problem for the modern world, disinformation campaigns are as old as humankind’s desire for rule and power. Mark Antony might be thought of as the first known victim of a public disinformation campaign, after Octavian’s successful portrayal of him as a drunken womaniser.

From the political turmoil of ancient Rome, we can trace the history of disinformation right through to the present day. The proliferation of social media has exacerbated the issue, blurring the lines between fact and fiction, and creating a digital landscape in which anyone can publish opinion, and anyone can share information.

As many European governments have realised, providing political clarity in this landscape is no easy task. In 2017, a leak of Emmanuel Macron’s emails was seen as an attempt to interfere with French elections, which has since caused France to establish a new national agency to fight against foreign disinformation threats.

Similarly in Sweden, the government has reinstated its “psychological defence” unit “– an agency first set up during the Cold War that’s found renewed purpose following public concern over topics such as crime, Covid vaccinations, and immigration.

The European Union has itself funded The Central European Digital Media Observatory (CEDMO), where a team of researchers and fact-checking journalists will be developing artificial intelligence tools to detect online cases of misinformation.

CEDMO’s launch comes soon after a Eurostat survey revealed that citizens in central and eastern European countries in particular are less likely to verify information they come across online or on social media. In Germany and the Czech Republic, just 19% of respondents claimed to do so, and this figure falls to 16% in Poland; at the other end of the scale, 45% of respondents in the Netherlands say they fact-check their news.

Scandals like Cambridge Analytica’s data harvesting campaign – conducted in collaboration with Facebook – has created unease about the legitimacy of elections and referendums across the globe. It’s clear that action against disinformation needs to be taken to protect civil liberties, but striking the right balance isn’t easy: not enough action poses a threat to our democratic ideals, while too much risks attracting accusations of censorship.

This tension is why many governments believe education is the best method for tackling the issue. Rather than prescribing a set of beliefs, education provides the tools for critical thinking. This is precisely what’s happening in Finland, where information literacy has been a key component of the school curriculum since 2016.

Estonia has taken a similar approach. Its former president, Toomas Ilves, wanted the country to become “the most digitally progressive nation in Europe” following Russian disinformation attacks in 2007. As part of Ilves’ vision, internet access was declared a human right, and all pupils now learn how to code from the age of seven. There, media literacy education is now considered as vital as maths, reading and writing.

It's no surprise, then, to see Finland, Sweden, and Estonia all rank in the top five of Europe’s Media Literacy Index, with France at number 15. The UK currently sits in 10th place and, and there’s hope that the government’s Online Media Literacy Strategy will shift its position up the table. As part of this strategy, teachers, librarians and youth workers have been identified as key players in the fight against disinformation.

The presence of mis and disinformation on social media increased during the pandemic. The countries outlined here are taking measures to reduce its impact, and to better insulate themselves and their citizens against the threat. It’s interesting to see a focus on stimulating critical thinking among citizens so that they themselves can be better armed to fight the threat. But are states doing enough? If not, how far should they be allowed to go?