16 November 2020

Global disinformation report calls for internet companies to fact-check all political content and limit the reach of electoral falsehoods

Internet companies should apply fact-checking to all political content published by politicians, political parties and their affiliates to help tackle the spread of disinformation, according to a new report.

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  • New report calls for Internet companies to apply fact-checking to all political content published by politicians, political parties and their affiliates to tackle the spread of disinformation
  • Report suggests Internet companies need to significantly improve their technological abilities to detect and limit the circulation and amplification of false and misleading content.
  • Report is based on UN-commissioned University of Sheffield research that is the most comprehensive analysis of the different responses used to tackle disinformation to date
  • Recommendations from the report include actions and tools that can be used to counter the spread of false and misleading information
  • Report calls for disinformation to be countered in ways that support freedom of expression and champions the crucial role that independent journalism can play

Internet companies should apply fact-checking to all political content published by politicians, political parties and their affiliates to help tackle the spread of disinformation, according to a new report.

Based on research by Professor Kalina Bontcheva from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Computer Science and Centre for the Freedom of the Media (CFOM), and Dr Julie Posetti from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and CFOM, along with an international consortium of researchers, the report is calling for governments, Internet companies, politicians and election authorities to unite their efforts and do much more to tackle the spread of disinformation.

With disinformation spreading online around major political, social and health issues across societies - intersecting with everything from the Covid-19 pandemic to this month’s US presidential election, the report sets out a series of actions and tools that could be used to fight the spread of false and misleading information.

The 2020 US presidential election has been tainted by a polarising stream of voting political disinformation, posted by high profile politicians, most notably the US President. It is precisely disinformation from such high-profile public figures that has the most damaging and polarising effect on societies and democracies worldwide.

Professor Kalina Bontcheva

Professor of Text Analysis and Head of the Natural Language Processing Group at the University of Sheffield

Crucially, the report calls for countering the spread of disinformation through action that supports, and does not violate, freedom of expression. It also stresses how being able to access reliable and trustworthy information, such as that produced by critical, independent journalism, is another key step towards fighting back against the spread of false and misleading information.

Recommendations from the report include:

  • Political actors should speak out about the dangers of political sources and amplifiers of disinformation, and work to improve the quality of the information ecosystem and increase trust in democratic institutions.
  • Political actors should refrain from using disinformation tactics in political campaigning, including the use of covert tools of public opinion manipulation and ‘dark propaganda’ PR firms.
  • Governments should actively reject the practice of disinformation peddling, including making a commitment not to engage in public opinion manipulation both directly and indirectly.
  • Internet companies should work together to deal with cross-platform disinformation; significantly improve their technological abilities to detect false and misleading content; and apply fact-checking to all political content published by politicians, political parties, their affiliates and other political actors.
  • Electoral regulatory bodies and national authorities should improve the transparency of all election advertising by political parties, candidates and affiliated organisations through comprehensive and open advertising databases and disclosure of spending by political parties and support groups.
  • Intergovernmental organisations should provide technical assistance to Member States in order to develop regulatory frameworks and policies to address disinformation.

The report was commissioned by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and is the most comprehensive analysis of the different responses to disinformation to date.

Research that underpinned the report has analysed how different states, companies, institutions and organisations around the world are responding to the spread of disinformation and outlines a new 23-step tool that can be used to assess disinformation responses, and their impact on freedom of expression.

A framework that gives an insight into the complete disinformation lifecycle - including how disinformation is instigated and created through to how it can spread and have real life impact - has also been produced as part of the report to help efforts to counter the spread of false and misleading information.

Professor Kalina Bontcheva, Professor of Text Analysis and Head of the Natural Language Processing Group at the University of Sheffield, said: “The 2020 US presidential election has been tainted by a polarising stream of voting political disinformation, posted by high profile politicians, most notably the US President.

“This has underlined yet again the urgent need for internet companies to implement consistently and thoroughly effective actions against disinformation, including fact-checking, moderating and limiting politicians and political parties when needed, and without exemption.

“It is precisely disinformation from such high-profile public figures that has the most damaging and polarising effect on societies and democracies worldwide.”

Dr Julie Posetti, Global Director of Research at ICFJ and Senior Researcher affiliated with CFOM said: “The US election is demonstrating the very real dangers that political and electoral disinformation represent for democracy and the urgent need to protect electoral integrity.

“We are seeing variations in responses to high level political disinformation from the social media companies, with Twitter taking the lead by very quickly labelling and suppressing the reach of false and incendiary tweets from political leaders.

“But we are also seeing examples of the important role that critical, independent journalism plays in debunking and challenging political and electoral disinformation, while staying clearly focused on gathering facts and assessing evidence in the public interest.”

The report, Balancing Act: Countering Digital Disinformation while respecting Freedom of Expression, is based on research commissioned by a Working Group on Freedom of Expression and Addressing Disinformation. The working group was set up by the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development which was initiated by UNESCO and the International Telecommunications Union.

The research underpinning the report was a global, comprehensive study that was conducted between September 2019 and July 2020 by an international, interdisciplinary team of researchers led by Professor Kalina Bontcheva from the University of Sheffield and Dr Julie Posetti from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).


Notes to editors

Report - full report

Report - executive summary (PDF, 4.2MB)

Computer Science at the University of Sheffield

Centre for the Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield

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