ASEM could become a coalition of the willing against ‘fake news’


Global Europe

Picture of Richard Werly
Richard Werly

European Affairs and France Correspondent at Le Temps

The issue of ‘fake news’ is top of the European agenda as populist political leaders and movements, adopting US President Donald Trump’s policy playbook, also start painting the media as biased and too politically correct. Asian media outlets, meanwhile, are struggling to survive and are engaged in a painful struggle to ensure the most basic freedom of expression. For them – for the moment – combating the scourge of fake news is not a priority.
In order to discuss the concept of fake news in the Asian and European contexts, an effort must be made to establish an acceptable definition of the phenomenon. Accusing an individual, an organisation or a media outlet of disseminating fake news supposes, firstly, that the news report in question can be easily identified as a lie or a fraud and secondly, that this piece of news has been disseminated with the purpose of harming the other party’s credibility. Establishing this difference is essential in order to avoid confusion and enable a distinction between legitimate electoral, political or business discourse and messages that are merely dressed as news and presented to the public as more truthful than articles or stories emanating from ‘mainstream’ media.

An effort must be made to establish an acceptable definition of ‘fake news’

A key question is whether the problem of fake news is relevant for an informal intergovernmental forum like the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). Given the differences in the situation of European and Asian media, we should not expect a common attitude or a common answer to the issue of fake news. Nevertheless, what remains highly relevant for all parties involved in ASEM is the inherent dangers posed by fake news. These include – but are not limited to – efforts to discredit traditional media; undermine political trust; and fuel antagonisms and tensions.

Perhaps this common ground would be enough to explore opportunities for a shared ‘anti fake news’ platform and both European and Asian stakeholders could agree on such an initiative? Three ways for ASEM members to cooperate can be identified.

First, exchanges between European and Asian media professionals could be strengthened. While the reality of fake news differs from one continent to another, establishing a platform for discussion and debate can only have positive impact. Bringing together journalists and publishers as well as private and public media from varying backgrounds could help overcome differences and sidestep some inevitable ‘political correctness’ on all sides.

Second, ASEM member states could create a fake news task force. This is especially relevant from the perspective of ASEM’s mission to educate youth on media. Born in the Information Age, younger generations have a completely different approach to news and information, both in Europe and Asia. Their reading habits, their viewing habits and their appetite for information are radically different, and this poses a challenge to all institutions. An urgent effort for better education on media is therefore essential. This does not mean that an ASEM charter needs to be written but rather that media and education professionals can meet and share their experiences and knowledge. The objective of this task force should be to make recommendations to the 2020 ASEM summit under a single, simple working title Fighting Fake News at School.

A key question is whether the problem of fake news is relevant for an informal intergovernmental forum like ASEM

Third, the question of fake news needs to provoke a vigorous editorial and academic debate. ASEM could reap great political benefit by fostering discussion on this topic among academics and journalists but also Internet wizards. Some countries, like France, are considering the adoption of a law to prohibit the spread of fake news during electoral campaigns. Others, like Russia, are often accused by Western European countries for using Soviet-style propaganda tactics to destabilise opponents and political enemies.

We need to know the exact nature of fake news, where it starts and just how we can measure its impact on public opinion. We also need to know how people react to fake news and whether the reports worry them or not. ASEM members could join forces and contribute to the funding of a comprehensive study on the perception of fake news which would bring together political scientists, journalists and communications experts.

Too often, the “fake news” label is used to discredit opponents and adversaries. The reality is different, however: the spread of fake news, both in Europe and in Asia, is first and foremost proof of profound changes in public opinion and mindsets.

To continue working together, and combat false and misleading information and accusations, ASEM member countries should step up their efforts and lead an original ‘anti-fake news’ coalition of the willing.

This article is from Friends of Europe’s discussion paper ‘My ASEM wishlist: how Asia and Europe should really be working together’, in which we go beyond officialdom and seek out ‘unusual suspects’ – students, teachers, activists, journalists, think tankers, etc. – who consider where they would like the state of Asia-Europe relations to be by 2030 and what the two continents should do to get there.

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