Relevance and Impact: Universalism and PSM in the age of “Information Disorder”


[Working Paper for the RIPE@2018 Conference]

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This paper seeks to contribute on debates about the universal relevance and impact of public service media, specifically in terms of (1) how disinformation and the broader information disorder adds a new dimension to the universalist mission,  (2) how it provides new opportunities to collaborate with audiences and co-creators, and (3) how it could impact media policy today.

The discussion is based on a policy brief for the Council of Europe and a related White Paper for the Central European University, Center for Media, Data and Society, on shared challenges of public service broadcasting around the world, and an overview of the role of PSB/PSM institutions in Europe in countering disinformation and distrust of audiences. It is obvious that “fake news” is not only a European phenomenon. It is also clear that public service media in different European countries differs greatly, as do manifestations and the scope of information disorder. At the same time, the issues  that emerge in the current media ecosystems in Europe illustrate broader dilemmas of universalism today for PSM organizations, as well as opportunities for new kind of universal relevance and impact.


The issue of “fake news” and disinformation have been at the center of public debates, and increasingly, of academic analyses in the past years. As media content “fake news” is nothing new.  What makes today’s context particularly challenging is that old forms of propaganda, including editorial decisions, are now combined with human influencers and opinion makers, viral online sharing, and automated content creation of disinformation.


There are several interconnected broad trends that can be said to contribute to the challenge. As societies, and individuals, we have witnessed a shift in our relationship to knowledge, that is, common ideas of objectivity and “truth” are not prominent in public debates. That is coupled with a cultural shift that is marked with distrust in elites and institutions, whether political, journalistic, or scientific. More broadly, cases of deep dissatisfaction in existing political actors, systems and structures are continuously emerging. Economic conditions of the media and communication markets are marked by fierce competition. Technological advances have fostered fragmentation among media publics, and created information habits based on algorithms, micro-segmenting, and viral content sharing usually among peers and closed groups.


“Fake news” and related phenomena are a real concern for audiences. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2018 of 37 countries over one half of the surveyed news audiences agree or strongly agree that they are concerned about what is real and fake on the internet. The Eurobarometer of March 2018 reveals that almost 40% of Europeans come across fake news every day or almost everyday. Over 80% of the respondents perceive fake news as a problem in their country and as a problem for democracy in general.


The phenomena have been recognized by organizations of public service broadcasting (PSB), and its multiplatform version, public service media (PSM). Indeed, in spring 2017, according to the survey of  21 Member organizations of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), all participants considered tackling “fake new”s a high or medium priority; over half of them were planning related activities and half of them were taking part in a global or local fact-checking initiative partnership or are considering joining one. Over half of Members surveyed were in favour of EBU launching a fact-checking initiative of some sort.


But, in many countries, also those with mature PSB tradition such as Austria, Denmark and Switzerland, the political and commercial climates are increasingly opposing the ideal and practice of public service media, often with political underpinnings but framed around the argument of funding and cost. In addition, many of fact-checking, and other initiatives tackling information disorder, are initiated and realized  from technologically-oriented civil society organizations that aim at international collaborations – not realized by PSM, initially.


There are skeptical voices that warn about the lure of established mature PSB/PSM such as the BBC, as the connections of those organizations to power elites may hinder their ability to be completely independent and address this “crisis of journalism”. This may be even more pertinent in the cases where the connection between political power and broadcasting is more direct, as in some cases of broadcasters in transition from state to public service.


Given these factors, efforts combating the multiple challenges that could be titled “information disorder” provides an interesting case to discuss the core and the limits of the relevance and impact of public service broadcasting and public service media, as the ideal we have know in the mass media era. Regaining trust in journalism, and educating the public about disinformation, could be a new, additional, mandate and remit of PSBs/PSMs. It could also showcase the ability of public service media institutions to form, and work with, in partnerships with other media companies,cultural institutions, and civil society organizations.  


Definition: What is “Fake News”, What is “Information Disorder”?

Numerous academic and applied projects have addressed multiple phenomena that are related to disinformation and its dissemination, from a variety of angles: intent and action, as well as type of content. The thinking and definitions around the various dimensions of these complex challenges reflect the authors’ expertise, and concern.


For instance, the way Facebook defines phenomena around “fake news” is threefold. First, there are Information (or Influence) Operations: Actions taken by governments or organized non-state actors to distort domestic or foreign political sentiment, most frequently to achieve a strategic and/or geopolitical outcome. These operations can use a combination of methods. There are also False News: News articles that purport to be factual, but contain intentional misstatements of fact to arouse passions, attract viewership, or deceive. Finally, one can identify False Amplifiers, meaning coordinated activity by inauthentic accounts that has the intent of manipulating political discussion.


A policy brief by the London School of  Economics discusses several content categories: Alleged foreign interference in domestic elections through fake news; new ad models that open new opportunities for people to make money through the peddling of fake news; parody and satire; bad journalism; news that is ideologically opposed; and news that challenges orthodox authority. A report for the Council of Europe targeted at researchers and policy-makers discusses an information disorder framework, including:  Types of information disorder based on intent: Mis-information, as in, unintentional false content; mal-information, as in, deliberate for personal or corporate gain or misuse of private information and deliberate change of context, with intent to harm; and dis-information, as in,  false, manipulated content and context, broader social use, e.g., conspiracy theories, with false content and intent to harm. In this framework, one can also distinguish the phases of information disorder (creation, production, distribution), as well as elements: Agents  (who created the message and why?); message (what was the content?); and interpretation (how was it interpreted?).


The EU High Level Expert Group (HLEG) on Fake News and Online Disinformation discusses in its report three main aspects beyond false news. It addresses the problem of  fabricated information blended with facts, and practices that go well beyond anything resembling “news”. This category includes automated accounts networks of fake followers, fabricated or manipulated videos, targeted advertising, organized trolling, visual memes, and so on. The report also addresses an array of digital behaviour that is more about circulation of disinformation than about production of disinformation: Posting, commenting, sharing, tweeting and retweeting, and so on. There is also the dimension of stakeholders: State or non- state political actors, for-profit actors, citizens individually or in groups, and infrastructures of circulation and amplification (including news media, platforms and underlying networks, and protocols and algorithms).


A study by the European Commission, Joint Research Centre summarizes a variety of approaches as follows: The narrow approach focuses on verifiably false information. Fact-checking can expose false news items and identify the sources of these articles. This form is easy to identify and can be countered by hiring fact-checkers, tagging suspicious postings, removing false news posts, etc. The broad approach, then, pertains to deliberate attempts at distortion of news to promote ideologies, confuse, create polarization, as well as disinformation for the purpose of earning money but not to harm. While much of this can be politically motivated, these attempts can take a form of  clickbait practices and the intentional filtering of news for commercial purposes, to attract particular audiences. This approach is harder to empirically study and verify, and pertains to the economic models of news markets and variations in the quality of news.


Finally, several high-level, multi-country, multi-stakeholder efforts have addressed the question of “fake news”. They have two positions in common.  First, they shun away from the term “fake news”, a term that has become highly politicized, and point to a more complex information disorder. Second, they refer to public service broadcasting and/or public service media as one of the stakeholders that can make a difference.


Following the basic conceptualization of the phenomenon, this paper will use the term disinformation (narrow definition) when referring to content, and information disorder (broad definition), when addressing the media ecosystem and context more broadly. This basic framework works the best when discussing the issue of public service media and universality: It addresses the core dilemmas – false content and market-driven, politically contested communication environment – that are key to the relevance and impact of PSM.


Universalist Mission: Old Is New Again in Relevance and Impact

In the European context, in particular, public service broadcasting and its variant public service media are traditionally central to the media landscape in many societies. The normative characteristics assigned to PSB and PSM by key stakeholders seem quite uniform: The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the global advocacy organization for public media, the Public Media Alliance (PMA), as well as the Council of Europe and UNESCO  all note that universality in terms of content and access is one key component of public broadcasting.


In reality, PSB/PSM organizations in Europe – in terms of their relevance and impact in their respective societies – are enormously varied in terms of institutional arrangements, reach, and budgets. PSB/PSM are national projects and a recent study highlights this: For instance, in Switzerland, Germany and the United Kingdom, public media services dominate the audiovisual market. As a counter example, in Portugal and Italy, strong competition has resulted in a minor market share for both public television and public radio.


Institutional configurations in Europe range from the globally present multi-channel, multi-platform, multi-project BBC – often considered as the benchmark model for public service broadcasting – to the multiple independent organizations, defined by political-religious history, that make up the public broadcasting system in the Netherlands, to the (relatively) newly established public broadcasters in the Balkans that have not each necessarily shed the challenges of their predecessors, state media.


The trend of growing preference in taxpayer-generated funding by numerous governments has given governments more budgetary influence that, in many cases in Europe and beyond, can and has lead to more state-controlled content or weakened possibilities to counter challenges such as disinformation and propaganda. Some evidence seems to point to the fact that public service media may also be used to spread content bordering disinformation.


Another challenge is the relationship between public service broadcasting and the multi-platform public service media. For instance, the Council of Europe has endorsed a broad view of PSM in relation to both programming and platforms. It has concluded that PSBs should be able to diversify their services through on-demand and Internet-based services, and has called for PSM to respond positively to audience expectations of enhanced choice and control stemming from digital developments. The EU has similarly accepted a broad view of PSM.


Yet, already during the early stages of digitalization different European countries responded in a variety of ways, and a global review of state-administered and public service broadcasters showcases a broad range of different developments all around the world. Still today, due to commercial pressures in media markets, even in established public service media countries such as Denmark, Finland and Sweden, PSM organizations are facing criticism from commercial competitors for allegedly creating market distortion, especially in the digital news marketplace.  


Now, information disorder has brought another dimension to the idea of universal multi-platform access: A recent (2018) study of Yle (Finland), France Télévisions and Radio France (France), ARD and ZDF (Germany), Rai (Italy), Polskie Radio (Poland), and the BBC (United Kingdom) indicates that public service media organizations observe tensions between their strategic priorities, remit, and organisational imperatives and those of commercial platform companies. PSM organizations see social media as an important opportunity for increasing their reach, especially amongst young people and other hard-to-reach audiences. At the same time, they are wary of the platforms in the situation where a great deal of blame and responsibility of information disorder is directed to platforms. And although the global trust in the media is at all time low, the Reuters Digital News Report showcases a relatively strong and stable trust in legacy media, in particular the mature public broadcasters, while trust in online platforms and social media is sinking.


In a sense, the dilemma of disinformation and information disorder highlights the old dilemma of universal access and reach for PSM: To what extent are commercial platforms, the oft cited main enablers of viral disinformation, means of creating access? At the same time, it reinforces the idea of universal relevance and impact, in terms of potentially offering an independent, trusted source of diverse content and plurality of voices. Hence the concerns for trends for shrinking political support for universalism of PSM that the Council of Europe has described in a 2017 statement as follows: There exists an emerging trend of threats to the independence of public broadcasters or to their regulatory bodies, including political interference in the editorial line of public broadcasters, insufficient safeguards in the legislation against political bias, and the lack of appropriate funding to guarantee the independence of the public broadcasters. In addition, there are concerns about the legislation and practices with regard to the appointment, composition and dismissal of the regulatory bodies or of the management of public broadcasters.


Collaborations for Battling Information Disorder

As evident from the example of the ambivalent sentiments of many European public broadcasters regarding global commercial platforms, the nation-based public service broadcasting and public service media is facing the challenge of universalism in a global landscape. The question of information disorder highlights not only the challenge, but some opportunities. Scholars have for a while studied, and argued for, media ecologies from the perspective of de jure public service broadcasting and public service media, as well as de facto public media that are not institutionally designed and mandated to act in public service, but that do so. Their interest is in how these two broad categories of media together can create a truly vibrant and diverse democratic public sphere. Collaborations can happen in the level of individual programs, but also more broadly institutionally, or even in terms of policy-making.


Collaborations for “universally” vetterd content, that is, effective and comprehensive fact-checking, have perhaps been the most visible response by public broadcasters to the narrow definition of disinformation, that is, false content. They have engaged in different collaborative fact-checking efforts, sometimes with their (otherwise) competitors:


In Austria, ORF has joined efforts in awareness-raising with a variety of partners through the Austrian Press Agency (APA), of which it and most daily newspapers are shareholders. Some public broadcasting companies, such as Germany’s BR and Italy’s RAI, use the browser extension FactFox, a product that supports management of and replying to user comments.


In Norway, is an independent fact-checking organization, owned by the media companies VG, Dagbladet, TV 2, and public broadcaster NRK. Following this model, Swedish Television (SVT) and Swedish Radio (SR), as well as the two largest daily newspapers Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet, have started a project to collaborate on fact-checking methods and news spreading during the electoral movement. The project is expected to last until December 2018. The stakeholders have already conducted a joint training programme for journalists. The participants collaborate on the fact-checking method that is based on the guidelines from the International Fact Checking Network (IFCN).


Perhaps the most well-known multi-stakeholder collaboration is First Draft, hosted at Harvard University. The project has over 40 members including commercial as well as public service media around the world (e.g., ADF, BBC, France Télévisions, ZDF, Deutsche Welle, as well as Eurovision), not-for-profit journalism organizations such as Global Voices and ProPublica, and platforms from Facebook to Twitter. In addition to its collaborative fact-checking efforts (most notably around the French elections, with a project called CrossCheck), and its contributions to analyses of the complex phenomena around information disorder (including the aforementioned report for research and policy, commissioned by the Council of Europe), its latest contribution is a free online course for journalists and the general public on identifying misinformation.


The efforts by the European Broadcasting Union are, by nature of the organization, collaborations. They range from its core activities such as the Eurovision News Exchange, to business innovation including big data, to journalism training and toolkits, to workshops and other events, to research, and to specific policy advocacy for support of quality media to counter disinformation. Recent projects include innovative collaborative fact-checking and a collaborative governance initiative: In 2017, the EBU created a co-operative system of verification of user generated contents that works in a networked way with various members’ newsrooms but also with other quality news partners, decentralising fact-checking process. A new collaborative initiative to combat disinformation online  is the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI), launched in April by the European Broadcasting Union, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Agence France Presse (AFP), and the Global Editors Network (GEN). The JTI is designed to promote journalism by adherence to an agreed set of trust and transparency standards to be developed and implemented. This will happen by means of the so-called Workshop Agreement of the European Centre of Standardization (CEN), which was opened in April 2018, for the participation of media outlets, professional associations and unions, self-regulatory entities like press councils and regulatory bodies, as well as digital platforms, advertisers and consumer interest representatives.


Collaboration to achieve relevance and impact in fact-checking against disinformation is echoed in the broader quest to curb and counteract information disorder.  The European Commission multi-stakeholder High Level Expert Group included the participation of public service broadcasters via the EBU, and in late April 2018, the EBU published its own Position Paper: ‘Fake News’ and the Information Disorder, advocating for a holistic, multi-stakeholder approach to the phenomenon.


Potential Impact in Media Policy

The European Commission is not the only entity convening multi-stakeholder policy efforts on curbing disinformation and information disorder. For instance, apart from national efforts, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Representative on Freedom of the Media, the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, produced a “Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and ‘Fake News’, Disinformation and Propaganda”. The Nordic Council of Ministers convened its own high-level group of key experts and launched a booklet to create a debate on how to counter fakes and build trust in words and facts.


While these multi-stakeholder policy documents mention public service media, they do not give specific recommendations for PSB or PSM. The core five actions recommended by the EU HLEG are about enhancing transparency of online news, promoting media and information literacy to counter disinformation; developing tools for empowering users and journalists;  tackling disinformation and fostering a positive engagement with fast-evolving information technologies; safeguarding the diversity and sustainability of the European news media ecosystem, and promoting continued research on the impact of disinformation in Europe to evaluate the measures taken. One could argue that all these recommendations could be practical realizations of an universalist policy of public service remit.


At the same time, given the global-local contexts, and a multitude of pressure on public service media, today’s situation is seen by many as a watershed for media and communication policies and regulation: Can policies reframe media audiences and communication technology users as citizens, with rights? Can they help to restore citizens’ trust in media and potential of free speech? There is a great fear of overreach by policy-making that would open doors to censorship, or, at the minimum, diminish journalistic integrity and autonomy. Strong journalistic self-governance codes exist, and consequently, some fear that pan-European efforts such as the Code of Conduct suggested in the EU HLEG report are potentially harmful: “An EU-sponsored ‘Code of Codes’ for the whole media universe is not only unnecessary and in large parts redundant, at best, but can distract attention away from the real causes of the problem, while putting additional burden on those who are already fighting it.”

Many citizens, however, seem to expect governments to implement some governance measures. The responsibility for information disorder, according to the most respondents of the Reuters Digital News Report, rests with both publishers and platforms. here is some public appetite for government intervention to stop fake news, especially in Europe (60%) and Asia. Those with higher levels of news literacy tend to prefer newspapers brands over TV, and use social media for news very differently from the wider population. They are also more cautious about interventions by governments to deal with misinformation. Similar views emerge from the recent Eurobarometer. In respondents’ view, journalists, national authorities, and the press and broadcasting management should be those mainly responsible for stopping the spread of “fake news”.


Some specific policy ideas, if not measures, are in the works. The Council of Europe is currently (October 2018) working on its report and policy statement on the role of public service broadcasting in tackling disinformation and information disorder. Its foci are not only on fact-checking, but also on the ideal of quality journalism, media literacy, and universal reach, via innovations and multi-platform presence – in essence, features that are included in the EU HLEG recommendations. Similar kinds of solutions are envisioned in the EBU policy brief, as well as for instance in Canada.



The case of disinformation, information disorder, and PSM  highlights factors that are central to the core concept of universalism in terms of relevance and impact: the foundational principle of universality; collaborations in the current national-global media landscape; and policy implications.


It has been noted that public service broadcasting and media are, as institutions, a part of media policy toolkits for universalist media policy, to counter market-driven challenges such as the concentration of ownership, increased competition and diminishing content diversity, and inequalities of access to the media. Information disorder, many scholars argue, is the perfect storm of commercialization, globalization, and political interference – and original premises of PSB being non-commercial, nation-based, independent are an antidote. Many proponents of public service media note that it is needed more than ever. As Emily Bell, the Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, has posited:


Everyone in public service journalism comes to work every day with a mission to inform the citizens of their country, and to try and reach everybody. Even people who can’t pay, even people who don’t necessarily think they need the news, or people who are left out of decision-making because they don’t fit the socio-demographic profile that means they would normally be included. To me, right now, there is almost nothing more important than having robust public service media available to citizens.


Existing political systems and public service broadcasters need to be free to imagine the kinds of information ecosystems that they’d want at the nation/state level and then real freedom to experiment with and find new paths to deliver that. And also to think about themselves oriented in a world where it could well be that large-scale technology platforms — designed, built, operated in America — will be taking over much of what your information ecosystem looks like over the next decade.


The case of disinformation and information disorder may also highlight, better than any other case, the role of PSB/PSM as a key partner in solving global challenges of the media landscape in a more localized, contextual manner; in collaboration with other trusted partners. The numerous fact-checking initiatives showcase the agility of many (resourced, mature) PSM organizations in responding to viral disinformation.


Even more broadly, while public service broadcasting cannot offer global universalism, or global solutions to the global challenge of information disorder its national scope could very well position PSB/PSM at the center of national solutions to a set of challenges that seem hard to grasp, or tame. As stressed in a review of scientific literature on research on “Social Media, Political Polarization, and Political Disinformation”, it seems clear that sorting out the relative impact of different manifestations of information disorder “ought to be a crucial prerequisite for anyone hoping to design policies to mitigate potential pernicious effects on politics from social media usage, as different problems prompt different solutions.” Regarding public broadcasting and public service media, policy-makers would have to be interested in preserving a mixed ecosystem that is unique and that has allowed a plurality of media to exist, in the impact of the various efforts by PSM, and in the possible kinds of support PSM might need to, in its part, remedy information disorder.  A review of international standards and PSM concludes: “If PSM are to realize their full potential in the future, then renewed attention needs to be given to these foundational principles established in the past.” Universal relevance and impact in countering disinformation and information disorder is a foundational principle, in today’s context.

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