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Act now to protect our democracies from disinformation

04 May 2023
Noel Curran
Noel Curran

What is the underlying value that sits at the heart of public service media? For me, it is all about trust.

Audiences need to know they can turn to their public service broadcaster for accurate, impartial, and well-researched news and information. In over 90% of European markets, public service media news is consistently the most trusted. That trust is hard-won, and not taken for granted. It has been built up over decades, based on the foundations of independent journalism, objective commentary, fact-checking and accountability.

When it comes to social media, audiences are more cautious. In Europe, only 20% of people trust what they read on social media platforms.

Verification is a key way for audiences to understand where their news comes from on social media and, until recently, has made Twitter a compelling proposition to many media companies. Now, however, we are in the realm of ‘pay to play’, destroying audience trust that the tweets they chose to read and share are from the source they claim to be.  Broadcasters have also seen their accounts arbitrarily labelled ‘government-funded’, ‘publicly-funded’, or ‘state-affiliated’. At the same time, overt government propaganda from the likes of China and Russia have inexplicably been allowed to spread unchecked.

While Twitter has built the enviable position of punching above its weight in terms of influencing public opinion, its new inconsistencies and unfettered authority have significant implications for a public already struggling with disinformation. In a fickle online space, this confusion may well accelerate the demise of a platform that has been a go-to forum for media companies and individuals across the world.

In eroding trust and credibility, Twitter is pushing the online space in at least three directions: first, users may move to platforms with clearer rules and open to grown-up dialogue with their stakeholders. Second, alternative verification methods will emerge that the public can understand and trust. And third, regulation that is the outcome of proper and open negotiation will step in to correct outsized tech giants. We already see evidence of the first trend with trusted PSM like Swedish Radio choosing to move away from Twitter because of its diminished value. On verification, labels like the Journalism Trust Initiative that are earned and not bought will grow. And on the regulatory front, both the European Commission for the EU27 and Ofcom for the UK are ushering in far-reaching frameworks for dominant players in the online space that are designed to protect people and businesses while encouraging digital markets to grow.

Whereas the digital economy has propelled society forward in multiple positive ways and seen entrepreneurs like Elon Musk create remarkable enterprises, the concentration of authority in the hands of an individual at the head of a company that communicates with the media through emojis and without transparent rules is a real step back. Verification must be true to what it says - when people see the name of their public service broadcaster, they need to know they can trust the news being offered as independent and corroborated. Audiences need to be able to easily access trusted news and information on all platforms and have confidence in the source of that news.

The lack of transparency and accountability surrounding Twitter’s policy decisions is bad for public service broadcasters. But, more importantly, it’s bad for citizens. We must act now to protect our democracies and invite Elon Musk to recognise that rules and responsibilities apply across all areas of his entreprises including on the road, in space and equally, in the online space.

Relevant links and documents

Written by

Noel Curran

Director General