The European Union’s definition of disinformation (verifiably false or misleading information which is created, presented, and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public and may cause public harm, intended as threats to democratic political and policymaking processes as well as public goods such as the protection of EU citizens’ health, the environment or security[i]) distinguishes the following roles regarding tackling disinformation:
- Those who create, present, and disseminate verifiably false or misleading information for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public;
- Those who engage in democratic political and policymaking processes;
- Those who enjoy public goods; and
- Those who defend democratic political and policymaking processes as well as public goods.
These roles, in turn, outline the direction of interventions needed to tackle disinformation:
- Interventions actively combatting those responsible for disinformation;
- Interventions defending political and policymaking processes; and
- Interventions defending the public goods.
The stipulation that disinformation is information that is verifiably false logically leads to the consequence that those who subscribe to disinformation are either ill-willed or uninformed – both are conditions that can be remedied top-down: either by ‘defenders’ limiting the potential of those who are ill-willed or by ‘defenders’ top-down educating those who are uninformed.[ii]
Citizens play hardly any role in this approach, other than enjoying the public goods. The highest citizens can achieve is resilience against disinformation. The most practical contribution they can make is not spreading disinformation. Citizens who subscribe to the content of disinformation either are seen as malicious ‘senders’ or as misled ‘recipients’ – which means they either should be combatted or educated by the defenders. This is a recipe for polarization.
[ii] These two options can be found f.i. in the Report on disinformation by the Belgian Senate: Belgian Senate (2021). Informatieverslag betreffende de noodzakelijke samenwerking tussen de federale overheid en de Gemeenschappen inzake de bestrijding van fake news.