Published Tuesday 14 November 2023 at 13:45


This project has received funding from the European Union under Contract number: 101083730 — BROD. This document reflects the views only of the independent Consortium, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained herein.


The paper offers a perspective on the growing challenge of balancing disinformation
narratives and freedom of expression within European Union (EU) media policy. It
claims that within current approaches such a balance cannot be achieved and that a
serious look at the drivers of media consumption trends and EU media policies on
disinformation is required. Within the current frame of reference there is a need to
carefully consider what we mean by freedom of expression. This paper argues that one
aspect to consider is how current EU media policy, online media consumption and
monetisation models create a space where attention-grabbing and emotionally charged
content is favoured. This viewpoint might shed light on how these trends may potentially
be overshadowing important but less attention-grabbing voices or perspectives. The
article contends that one possible approach would be policies which encourage
prioritising and investing in not-for-profit and participatory media systems built on
community ownership and grassroots input.
Key words: disinformation, freedom of expression, EU, media policy

The proliferation of disinformation is a significant threat to democratic institutions
and societal cohesion globally. The European Union has attempted to respond to
and counteract disinformation through legislative and regulatory measures, including
the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation adopted in 2018 and the strengthened
Code of Practice in 2022. These efforts have the stated aim of increasing transparency
and the accountability of online platforms, supporting media literacy programs,
increasing transparency around political advertising, encouraging independent fact-
checking, and promoting cooperation between tech companies, researchers, and media
outlets. Early evaluations of the original Code of Practice on Disinformation claimed,
somewhat understandably, that the Code has failed to satisfy such lofty goals or to
significantly mitigate the disinformation phenomenon (Durach et al., 2020).
The current EU approach is one of self-regulation and co-regulation, where there
is an effort to encourage private stakeholders to work with public bodies to establish
and implement rules and policies. As such, broad objectives and principals have been
set by the European authorities, and online platforms and companies are tasked with
implementing specific rules and procedures to achieve these broad objectives. This is
a middle ground approach between self-regulation and direct regulation in order to
address disinformation in the online space. This approach requires careful management
and monitoring to ensure accountability and transparency. However, there are various
concerns over both the lack of transparency and effective action from online providers
on disinformation. There are also concerns over how EU policies and positions might
represent a threat to freedom of expression, a point emphasised by the fractured
nature of member state policies with some EU countries implementing direct
regulatory measures. For example, Germany and France enacted restrictive national
laws against election misinformation in 2018 and online hate speech in 2017. These
measures heighten concerns around censorship and often serve to legitimize criticisms
and distrust of national governments and the EU. There are also legitimate concerns
that such regulations could ultimately be used as suppressive measures which could
be abused for political purposes (Durach et al., 2020).
What is often missing in such discussions is an appreciation of the limits of our
ability to tackle the issue of disinformation without rethinking both our current
relationship with media consumption and current media business models built upon
the monetisation of information. The dominance of digital media and the internet
have fundamentally altered the way that media is produced, distributed and consumed.
The abundance of free content available has made it increasingly difficult for traditional
media outlets to generate revenue and sustain their business models (Napoli 2019;
Andrejevic 2013). The media industry continues to face challenges due to the shift
from print to digital advertising. This has resulted in a decrease in advertising revenues,
which is a long-standing source of income for media companies. As more ad dollars
are diverted to online platforms and social media, traditional media outlets are under
financial pressure to find new sources of income and modify their business models.
This change is also linked to concern surrounding the reliability and accuracy of
news and information due to the monetisation of information. In the struggle to draw
attention and clicks, media outlets are incentivized to favour sensationalism and
clickbait over precise and informative reporting. The monetisation of information
has led to concerns about the reliability and accuracy of news and information.
Media outlets are incentivized to prioritize sensationalism and clickbait over
informative reporting in order to draw attention and clicks. This demand for page
views and advertising revenue has also allowed for false news, disinformation, and
propaganda to spread. The current business model makes it difficult for large for-
profit media platforms to willingly or enthusiastically jeopardize their revenue streams.
Responses to these issues must go further than the basic need for algorithmic
transparency, Fact checking and media literacy programs. If we are genuinely
cognizant of the importance of accurate information to societal cohesion and
democratic institutions, then maintaining the current status quo and tackling
disinformation through the methods listed are at best reactive approaches, analogous
to treating symptoms and not the illness. It is here that the EU can take a leading
position by encouraging efforts to democratise the media and to offer alternatives to
the centralised power of dominant media outlets and platforms in conjunction with
measures like media literacy. One possibility is that this could be achieved by
prioritizing and investing in not-for-profit and participatory media systems built on
community ownership and grassroots input. The digital age provides opportunities
for citizens to become producers and distributors of media content, fostering grassroots
journalism, citizen reporting, and community media. What Hardt & Negri (2004)
refer to as decentralized horizontal networks can help provide the theoretical framework
and principles which can aid in the development of a democratization of media
production by coordinating efforts across local, regional and transnational spheres.
1. Defining Disinformation and the Digital Media Space
1.1. Defining Disinformation

A starting point of the discussion is effectively defining the term disinformation. In
the popular mind, disinformation has more prominently been associated with the term
‘Fake News’ a catch all phrase which has simplified the discussion and has been adopted
as a rhetorical political weapon (Durach, 2020). For the purposes of this paper,
disinformation is defined as any type of information that is false, inaccurate, or
misleading and has been created with the intention of causing harm to the public or for
financial/political gain (Durach et al., 2020). This paper takes the position that
disinformation is a political, social or economic tool, one which is directly derived
from society’s existing political and economic structures. It is an effective device which
can operate at both local and international levels (Boyd 2017). It is important to avoid
overly simplistic understandings of disinformation, which are in themselves barriers to
the effective creation of countermeasures. As Durach et al., (2020) point out the first of
these misunderstandings is a focus on ad hoc standalone disinformation instances,
(such as Russia’s efforts at disinformation) or contexts which underplay the larger issue
of digital media consumption. Secondly, Durach et al., (2020) also note that placing
the responsibility on mainstream media outlets to educate the public to identify
disinformation is misguided. This aspect is particularly problematic as the core problem
is with the way the new digital ecosystem works, and mainstream media outlets are
part of that. This ecosystem is generally driven by platforms, algorithms, big data, and
artificial intelligence, and relies on emotions and visual discourse to disseminate and
amplify disinformation. The current focus on fact-checking and debunking specific
content is simply not enough to combat digital disinformation.
1.2. Digital Media Environment
In his book: Infoglut: How too much information is changing the way we think and
know, Andrejevic (2013) posits that having too much information creates a paradox.
Despite having access to a lot of information, our ability to process and evaluate it is
often hindered by factors such as information overload, the speed at which information
is shared, and the lack of reliable filters to distinguish between trustworthy and
untrustworthy sources. The emergence of digital media conveyance methods such as
online platforms and media outlets, have fundamentally altered the way information
is accessed, disseminated and consumed. This shift has rendered traditional media
less influential in shaping public opinion, with social media platforms taking on a
greater role in the spread of disinformation and propaganda (Andrejevic 2013). As
such disinformation can be understood as an:
...outgrowth of these changes in news production and consumption patterns.
It is a direct response to the new informational environment, where old
norms, routines, and gatekeeping functions are no longer effective in defining
news and information. (Bennett 2012: 26)
As Allcott & Gentzkow (2017: 211-236) note, social media platforms are different
from traditional media technologies because content can be shared among users without
any third-party filtering, fact-checking, or editorial judgment. This means that anyone
can potentially reach as many readers as mainstream media outlets. Tufecki (2018)
argues that the structure of social media platforms, which are algorithmically driven
and characterised by network effects, can amplify the spread of false information and
make it difficult for corrective information to gain traction. Likewise, Boyd (2012:71-
76) argues that the structure of social media is characterised by what she refers to as
“context collapse”, in which social norms and expectations are destabilised by the
presence of multiple audiences and contexts. In terms of the impact of social media and
disinformation, Bennett (2016) and Andrejevic (2013) both suggest that contemporary
disinformation serves to personalise political communication, reinforce ideological
polarisation, and undermine critical thinking and open debate, leading to the subversion
and dismissal of opposing voices and institutions. This observation is repeated by
Flaxman, Goel & Rao (2016) in their quantitative data analysis on the relationship
between personalised algorithms, filter bubbles and online news consumption (2016:298-
320). These findings also support the conclusion that individuals exposed to such
information bubbles are less likely to engage with diverse perspectives than those who
got their news from traditional media or television (2016:318).
1.3. Monetisation and the Media Industry
Andrejevic (2013) also explores the important aspect of commodification of
personal information through the digital economy. The digital monetisation of
information is closely connected to the challenges that the media industry has faced
over the last few decades. The abundance of free content available on the Internet
has made it increasingly difficult for traditional media outlets to generate revenue
and sustain existing business models. A key challenge for the media industry in the
digital age has been the shift from print to digital advertising. Advertising revenues,
which have traditionally been a significant source of income for media companies,
have declined as digital advertising has grown in popularity, with more and more ad
dollars flowing to online platforms and social media (Andrejevic 2013). This has put
pressure on traditional media outlets to adapt their business models. The easiest way
to do so is to adopt paid premium services or to attempt to influence how people
digest media content and information.
The desire to make money from online platforms is directly linked to the spread
of disinformation, as people create and promote misleading content to increase web
traffic and advertising revenue (Allcott & Gentkow 2017). Click-driven models that
generate revenue based on the number of clicks an article or content receives, for
example, incentivize sensationalism, clickbait, and provocative or controversial content.
This can lead to a focus on generating clicks at the expense of quality and accuracy
of information presented (Zannettou et al., 2019). Additionally, online advertising
platforms use advanced targeting techniques based on user preferences and behaviour.
As discussed earlier, this can result in filter bubbles and echo chambers, where users
are exposed to content that aligns with their existing beliefs, reinforcing biases and
limiting exposure to diverse perspectives (Pariser 2011). The creation of native
advertising and sponsored content practices further muddy the waters by blending
with regular content, making it hard for users to differentiate between them. This can
lead to biased or misleading information being disseminated, blurring the line between
objective journalism and commercial interests (McAlpine 2019).
The emergence of the digital environment and the challenges and pressures this has
placed on media outlets has aided in the creation of a specific type of contemporary
media consumption culture. It is a symbiotic relationship in which both elements have
evolved in tandem, each having a significant impact on the other over the years. Online
content is created to capture attention and generate revenue through click-driven revenue
or targeted advertising. This has led to the proliferation of clickbait and sensational
content. User preferences for personalised experiences have also driven the development
of monetisation strategies, shaping the way we consume media online. This reciprocal
relationship has created a culture of media consumption that is highly dependent on
attention and revenue. Such a media culture has significant implications for genuine
freedom of expression. Monetisation models that prioritize click-driven revenue or user
engagement may lead to the promotion of sensationalist or controversial content over
more substantive or nuanced information (Tufekci 2014). This can create an environment
where attention-grabbing and emotionally charged content is favoured, potentially
overshadowing important but less visible voices or perspectives.
2. European Union Media Policies
and Strategies to tackle disinformation
2.1. General Approach to Disinformation

The European Union (EU) has taken a multi-faceted approach to combat
disinformation online. This includes the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation and
the European Democracy Action Plan, both of which aim to improve the detection
and analysis of disinformation, coordinate and strengthen EU-wide responses, and
mobilize a private sector approach. Furthermore, the EU has reiterated its commitment
to promoting transparency, enhancing media literacy, and supporting independent
quality journalism in order to ensure that freedom of expression and media pluralism
are protected. To this end, the EU has attempted to engage stakeholders from various
sectors, such as policymakers, civil society, media, and online platforms, to help
tackle the problem on multiple fronts. These initiatives involved the development of
a Rapid Alert System, The Code of Practice for online platforms, and various levels
of support for media freedom and independent journalism. All excellent aims, however,
unlikely to have a significant impact so long as media consumption culture continues
to be dependent on sensationalism, attention and monetisation.
In addition, assessments of the EU’s performance in regulating the digital space
and effectiveness of its regulatory efforts note that there remain significant challenges,
not least of which are the rapid pace of technological change, the dominance of a small
number of large, multinational companies, the fragmentation of national regulatory
approaches, and the potential trade-offs between regulating the digital space and
protecting individual rights and freedoms (Satariano 2019). Despite these challenges,
it should be noted that the EU has taken significant steps to regulate the digital space
including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the recently adopted
Digital Services Act. The DSA aims to modernise the EU’s regulatory framework for
digital services and promote transparency, accountability, and user trust. The EU’s
approach to regulating the digital space favours a principle-based, rather than
prescriptive, approach, which it claims leaves room for innovation and flexibility while
maintaining accountability and protecting consumer rights. However, more work needs
to be done to address concerns around market concentration, platform responsibility,
and content moderation. As such the EU’s regulatory framework for the digital space
remains very much a work in progress.
2.2. The Code of Practice
The Strengthened Code of Practice on Disinformation 2022 is a set of measures
aimed at combating disinformation online. Like its original 2018 variant it is a
voluntary framework which follows a co-regulatory approach and encourages online
platforms, social media firms, advertisers etc., to adopt self-regulatory measures to
tackle disinformation. The Code seeks to increase transparency in political advertising
and fact-checking, defund the dissemination of disinformation, and empower users to
identify and flag false information. The Code also outlines commitments for digital
advertising industry players, online platforms, and fact-checkers to prevent and combat
the dissemination of harmful disinformation. Fact checking is a key activity advocated
by the code, along with the development of quality indicators for online content
which can improve the accuracy and reliability of information and reduce the spread
of disinformation motivated by monetisation. The European Commission regularly
evaluates and monitors compliance with the Code and encourages reporting and
data sharing. This is important for identifying areas that need improvement and
adapting the Code to address new challenges.
An important aspect of the discussion is a recognition of the limitations of the Code.
L. Gordon Crovitz (2022) writing for Politico has referred to the strengthened Code of
Practice on disinformation as a ‘fail’ and missed opportunity, and claims that it is no less
than a direct capitulation to online media platforms, claiming that it essentially:
Inoculate(s) platforms from the known harms they cause, as each one has
now been allowed to pick and choose which sections of the code it will be
bound by. The result is that the large platforms -- except for Microsoft --
have all declined to follow key “user empowerment” steps that would sharply
limit the spread of disinformation (Crovitz 2022).
Mr. Crovitz, who is the CEO of NewsGuard, an organization that rates news and
information sources on how they adhere to basic apolitical criteria of journalistic
practice, claims that they agreed to become a signatory in the hope that platforms
would incorporate tools like theirs available to their users. He claims however that
“platform representatives watered down user-empowerment commitments paragraph
by paragraph, word by word. And in the end -- besides Microsoft -- they refused to sign
anyway” (Crovitz 2022). This user empowerment provision is absolutely essential in
order to go beyond the steps which have proven ineffective by themselves which
platforms have already implemented. Fact-checking, for example, does not prevent
disinformation since fact-checking can only take place after the false information
has already been spread. It is by its very nature reactive to the issue. Moreover, the
products that high profile media platforms have designed prioritize maximizing
engagement and expanding advertising revenue rather than ensuring the accuracy of
the information they are sharing (Crovitz 2022). It is further claimed that if these
products were made by another industry, they would be held accountable to basic
liability laws and required to take reasonable steps to prevent known harms. While
platforms have agreed to abide by the EU’s revised code, they have neglected to
include the critical provisions that are necessary for successful implementation. If
these requirements are not adopted, it is likely that platforms will continue to operate
in the same manner, failing to alert their users of false sources and become unwitting
accomplices of disinformation campaigns.
In conclusion, the issue of disinformation in the context of European Union media
policies provides a clear picture of the varied array of challenges faced by policymakers
in addressing this phenomenon. The present approach of co-regulation, which
encourages public and private stakeholders to collaborate and establish policies
against disinformation, seems to be a compromise that intends to balance freedom of
expression and effective regulation. However, as the current co-regulatory approach
continues to be rolled out and implemented, it has struggled to achieve its objectives.
It therefore behoves the EU to consider alternative approaches. This paper posits
that addressing the monetisation of information should be considered as a crucial
aspect of effectively tackling disinformation. The shift from print to digital advertising
has put traditional media outlets under enormous financial pressure, incentivizing
media outlets to prioritize clickbait over informative, accurate reporting. A successful
response requires a significant rethink of our current media consumption relationship
and business models built upon monetisation. One proposal is to prioritize and invest
in not-for-profit and participatory media systems, democratizing media production
and fostering grassroots journalism, citizen reporting, and community media. The
EU has the opportunity to take a leading position in this regard by encouraging such
efforts to develop and coordinate across local, regional, and transnational spheres in
line with the principles of decentralized horizontal networks.
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