Claes de Vreese

Misinformation Crisis

Air Date: January 13, 2018

University of Amsterdam political communications chair Claes de Vreese discusses global populism and the post-truth present.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Of bots and trolls. When we explore the digital carcinogens that have infected the internet ecosystem, a wave of anti-social media, Oxford Internet researcher Nick Monaco guided us through the origin and use, really misuse and abuse of these online predators. Today we consider specifically the post-fact present. Webs of lies spun rampantly via digital dissemination, with Harvard University Joan Shorenstein Fellow, Claes de Vreese, professor and chair of political communication at the University of Amsterdam, and editor-in-chief of Political Communication. Today we’ll examine the crisis of misinformation, the evolution of populist rhetoric and its resurgence around the globe, from the United States to major European powers. How is the digital climate swaying public opinion, and ultimately elections, referendums, and direct democracy? Welcome, Professor.

DE VREESE: Thank you.

HEFFNER: It’s a pleasure to have you here. I first want to ask you, knowing the Shorenstein reputation and the fact that you are there with a cohort of scholars from around the world, including your counterpart, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an American political communications expert, how, how do you reflect on your time at Shorenstein this past year of 2017.

DE VREESE: Being at the Shorenstein Center is really a fantastic experience, because there are these really great scholars there but there are also really great faculty and really great student and staff at the Shorenstein Center, so it’s been wonderful, but this year has been particularly interesting maybe because we are a good group of people together who actually speak very well even though we come at very, you know, from very different backgrounds. Kathleen is a U.S.-based scholar and we have Donna Brazile and Tyler Bridges there. It’s an eclectic group of people but we have a lot of you know, common ground also with our entrepreneurial fellow, Wael Ghonim, who’s there as well.

HEFFNER: We spoke before about how you would differentiate the American political communications system right now and the misinformation crisis on U.S. soil and how you, how you compare that to the crises in Europe or elsewhere. And I wanted you to give us, and our viewers a global presentation of what really is the misinformation crisis right now.

DE VREESE: So we live in an era that I think we can characterize as an era of real sort of information pollution. There’s a lot of information out there but it’s very hard to verify all of it in a very quick manner, and one of the things that really set the U.S. system and U.S. experience maybe in a separate category compared to other western democracies are actually factors that have both to do with the media system and with the political system. So it makes a very big difference for example for how much, influence information can have in a political system if you are looking at a proportional representation system or a first past the post system. So if in the United States you win a couple of key states with a very small majority of votes, that’s enough to put someone in the White House. Whereas in most European countries and in most countries with a proportional representation system, that would maybe, you know, give a percentage more or less to any given party but not necessarily sway that party into absolute power. So that makes a very big difference for how much impact can misinformation or information have. There have also been, you know, instances in the past where ads or normal news would have these kind of influences that are big but they just become amplified and way bigger in a system like the U.S. system where you elect the President in the way that you do with the Electoral College and winning the entire state by just a very small majority of votes. So the electoral system is one component. The other one is the media system. Most European democracies have a way stronger public broadcasting culture. That is really one that even though they have seen declines in the past decades of their audiences, they’ve been part of generating a culture of having public and political discussions that is different from the system here that has become so highly polarized in the media landscape, and if you then add on top of that what has been happening in the past say just ten years, in terms of our online and our digital media landscape, well then you have got the almost perfect ingredients, for trying to understand why it is that information and misinformation can have such a big influence as it can today.

HEFFNER: You allude of course, Professor, to the states where the Russian trolls, the farms of trolls were hyperattentive to the battleground states, and therefore they were infecting social media by IP address, going down to the county by county level. And that made those particular voters, Pennsylvanians, Michiganders, more vulnerable to the misinformation. Where did you see cases where the communications apparatus you could say had the integrity amidst this flood of disinformation online? We point to elections in Germany and France in particular, where we saw outcomes that were different from the U.S., but how, what is the information or disinformation state of play in those two cases of France and Germany most recently?

DE VREESE: So one of the things I think we have learned over the course of 2017 that it is actually possible to generate a discussion about, say, fake news, misinformation, and the value of information even during the election campaign. So we saw in France for example, that information came out that was relatively easy to say this is not proper information, this is not truthful, and that became part of the story during the election campaign. That is a very different experience, than the United States experience where this discussion has been taking place in the year after the election rather than during the campaign, in many of the European cultures there is maybe a longer tradition for also allowing some kind of interference with the information market. So regulation in the area of news and information is a very, very delicate topic, and you surely don’t want just anyone to regulate, and you can ask yourself many times whether you want the state and political power holders to be the ones that regulate. Having said that though, there is a tradition for more interference in that information market in Europe than than there has been here in the United States. So political advertising for example in many countries is either banned or restricted highly. The degree to which you can spread and buy air time for political parties is restricted, so there are these instances in the past and in current systems which are actually in place that are in some ways you could say interferences in what some have deemed to be an imperfect market. Now the idea of an imperfect market is not a foreign idea to the United States either. There is you could say interference in the market when it comes to food safety or how we run energy networks here, so this idea of that you might want to have at least a conversation about how you could encourage some kind of correction to market, and in this case we’re talking about the information market, in order to make it better than it is if it just grows maybe organically and without any kind of interference.

HEFFNER: That’s why you’re here. That’s why I invited you here, because you have an understanding of, you have to tiptoe around that R word, regulation. When you think of civic parameters as a replacement for the regulatory language that may be a way in the U.S. to champion the values of integrity in media to revive those values in the online marketplace. But I think you’re so astute to point out that distinction. Because there is a corrective course that we have to think long and hard about here, and at the same time, with any system, you use the word interference, that would immediately be rejected here because of what it insinuates, that idea of muzzling the First Amendment protection. So and yet the Germans and the French are, are living freely,


HEFFNER: And, and you know, they have the protection of free speech but it, at the same time they have a strategic set of you use interference, you could use regulation. But I would just say values, communications values.


HEFFNER: And I’m wondering if those are being fought back against in, in France and, and Germany or if they are holding up and saying, you know, we are different from the American culture in that we want to have free communications but safe and sane and fact-based communications, and we’re gonna incentivize those values as opposed to some of the commercial values that have fueled the misinformation on social media.

DE VREESE: Yeah so that, that’s a fantastic sort of range of questions almost that, that you pose here and one of the things is that this year, 2017, as oddly as it may seem when the year is coming almost to a close, is that there is maybe a, an opportunity actually for reappraisal of some very fundamental journalistic values and very fundamental appraisal again for values that have to do with the truthfulness of information. That is almost something that is coming out of this round of elections and discussions that we maybe did not see coming. And one thing that is interesting is that the discussion about whether or not you can regulate in a market, which in the United States when it comes to a media market and when it comes to the freedom of information and freedom of speech is so protected and there’s almost this sort of aversion of even having the discussion. That’s interesting still, if you look at other free democracies that have had these conversations but maybe seen through different lenses, where some of the ideas have been well we need to have a system in which we can protect and enable that ability to speak out, but it’s also important that there are institutions in that marketplace, be them through public broadcasting funding, be it through funding to newspapers, that will help you uphold this possibility to have an information ecosystem where truth and valued information is a major part of that system. And I think that’s a conversation that is not only ongoing still in the European situation, but also one where if you just reflect on the past months in the United States, there’s now almost sort of an, the door has opened to have that conversation in a way that wasn’t maybe even possible, just a few months ago.

HEFFNER: If our viewers haven’t, they need to check out on CSPAN, or download on the U.S. Senate website the testimonies, the woefully inadequate testimonies of the social media councils.

DE VREESE: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: It’s the only industry in maybe the history of corporate intervention where the U.S. Congress did not demand that the CEOs themselves appear to answer questions. And so you take the BP oil spill,


HEFFNER: Or Exxon Valdez, or the tobacco industry. Those CEOs were lined up and the American people, through their representatives, were asked these, these folks were, were put under the light. And why it was not the case with these social media companies, I don’t know if it has to do with the exploitation or incest with Silicon Valley on Capitol Hill, but the bottom line is that the testimonies which you could find easily on CSPAN, demonstrate how at least from the American perspective, we have not gotten adequate answers to our questions, and there is zero transparency or accountability. So I alert you to in the audience to Richard Burr and Mark Warner, and their statements on the intelligence committee when they invited the social media folks there. They should have been subpoenaing the, the, the CEOs, but the, the point is that these questions are finally being asked if not answered and that’s, that’s a positive development.

DE VREESE: There’s no doubt that the platforms have a very odd position in our society today. They have grown so incredibly fast and they have become so powerful, so some of these bigger corporations that run these social media platforms are now such essential players in our society, and it is hard to think of any other business or any other area of our society where we would say we would have powers that are so strong without having a conversation about how they are regulated. And there is no doubt that this, the discussion about misinformation and disinformation, and unfortunately the use of fake news which is a, is a horrible term in, by itself. But that that discussion over past months have opened a door to saying well isn’t there something that you could do either from the public regulatory point of view or maybe this is also the time of, to enter a conversation with these platforms themselves about opening up. So there are a lot of things that they could do to make this,

HEFFNER: That’s what I was gonna ask you. What can the European regulators teach the social media companies?

DE VREESE: Well, so if we start with the social media companies themselves, and I think we are seeing this happening right now because they’re feeling the, say the hot breath of the regulators on their necks, so they are starting now already to roll out policies that are all about trying to actually improve their product and the platform and how discussions take place at the platform. But that’s a whole range of things that they can actually do, transparency for one thing. We know from other areas that transparency is a very important condition but it’s not a sufficient condition, because even if we as a scholarly community or as citizens in a country would have transparency and access to what is actually going on within the algorithmic black box, it will still require a lot of work and a lot of attention to figure that out. But it is a beginning point that you open up, that you start sharing the type of data that these platforms are gathering. That’s the first instance that the platforms can do themselves. They can also work together. In other areas we have seen that, when it comes to human trafficking, when it comes to child pornography, there are areas in which we consider so important in our society that you can actually have the industry work together and try and come up with solutions. And I would argue that having a good information ecosystem in a democracy is one of those areas that is so important that we also want to encourage the platforms and the big companies to start working together. So there’s an area of things that they can do even without the, a situation where we are entering into a, them being forced to do that, and they might be well advised to take some of those actions by themselves.

HEFFNER: Well they, they can very easily, as Amy Klobuchar, the Senator, has proposed, require the ad owners to transparently advertise, disclose if it’s an ad being bought by a political action committee or a campaign, the first second of that short YouTube or Facebook video. This was paid by, for X.


HEFFNER: But the problem, Claes, is that they don’t even know who’s buying ads still. And during the testimonies, they refuse to even acknowledge how many bots and troll farms bought ads versus how many real, live human beings and campaigns and political action committees bought ads. Camilla Harris and others interrogated them pretty ferociously on this. And they were supposed to follow up. They haven’t followed up yet.

DE VREESE: Yeah. You know, I, some, some message seem fairly easy to implement and it is odd that, that you have a system in which you force ads in some areas,


DE VREESE: To have full disclosure on who is sponsoring that ad, and you wouldn’t do that once you’re on a social media platform.

HEFFNER: Well, so is that, now is that a differentiation in that the European model, speaking of the Dutch model or if you want to speak to the French or German model, they have basically extrapolated from the idea of fairness in media and extended it to ads in the digital realm. In other words, in this country, the fairness doctrine is long dead.


HEFFNER: The idea that you have a balance of, you have to have exactly the same amount of time granted for this opinion or that opinion. Part of that’s a function as you were saying of the polarized media environment, but most of it is just the fact that the FCC has been negligent for so long and completely MIA. I mean there’s basically been no communications commission or regulatory force in this country. So what I was interested in, from your perspective, is how much of the French or German or Dutch or British regulatory system is now adapting to the new technologies?

DE VREESE: Regulatory systems have always been a little slow when adapting to new technologies, but there has always been this sort of interest in the media sector as something very important so when radio licenses were being issued or broadcasting was being launched, there were regulatory forces in place, you know, at the very outset because it was seen as something powerful. And it is odd that we’re not having the conversations that led to some of those discussions, in the last, when we, when we had them in the last century. And what you are seeing now is a sort of a double standard in the system in the United States where indeed there are requirements about funders of ads when it’s aired on television but not when that same ad for example would be put on a social media platform. So those are things you can put in place. Whether or not the U.S., discussion on this topic is ready to have a discussion as to whether you want to content regulate, now that’s a complete different situation. But there are countries that have said so in the lead-up to an election campaign, we consider that a relatively sacred and a very important period of our democracy, so for example in the British case, where for the charter of the BBC, the newsroom has been obliged in the content, in the substance of its coverage to make sure that there was equal voice to different political opinions. Now that is an interference or a regulation at the content level which may be hard to see in the U.S. context. But that’s not to say that you cannot have a conversation as to whether or not you would want or promote these kind of values in election coverage. You see countries in Europe where opinion polls are being banned in the run-up to an election. That’s again a situation where you can have a conversation, whether you consider that a worthy and a good thing or not, but opening up for even having these conversations, saying we’re looking here at the news and information ecology,


DE VREESE: That is one of the most fundamental features of our democracy and we cannot even have a discussion about how it is organized, seems odd.

HEFFNER: And, odd, odd, odd, that’s what I hear from you, but, and folks’ conception of this, it may be wrong in thinking that television or radio is obsolete, because what is social media? It’s really just the collection of the professional content that you would get from those more outdated communications infrastructure. So you know, is it, is it true or not though that in those models and, and you can speak from, from the perspective where you’re based in Amsterdam, but perhaps you could map it out across the European continent. Something like Donald Trump as a phenomenon of free, unearned media just would not have been possible.

DE VREESE: Yeah, so there are very strict regulations also about ownership structures and cross-media ownership structures, in many European countries, but one of the things that is also so characteristic is that this interaction between what we now call say the old media landscape and the new social media platform landscape is so strong because also the way that politics operate today, it would be a misconception to say that television for example is still not an incredibly powerful force in politics, and in fact the interaction will, with social media is a very interesting one because yes, several political candidates and the U.S. President has a lot of followers on Twitter and there’s a lot of attention to what he does in his social media account. However, it is the very traditional and classic media that almost, you know, functioned as the biggest amplifiers of the message that he is spreading on social media, and that attention is important to understand, because now you’re looking at two systems next to each other where one falls into a conversation about free speech and regulation, and one is then a complete, unregulated and un-transparent system, and that’s very undesirable. And that discussion is the discussion that you need to have moving, moving forward, and the perception in Europe is that these two ecosystems are very tightly related and you need to have a conversation also about social media and about platforms, also, to have a, a stronger sense of where you would find misinformation and how to combat that.

HEFFNER: I would also note that Richard Burr, Republican, North Carolina, very importantly identified from the American perspective that these social media companies had been violating the, the law. The FEC law, which is that foreign actors are not able to buy ads, and they were rampant during the campaign and they continue to be unchecked in their advocacy of Trump and his agenda. So I mean the reality is that not only is the FCC dead, the FEC in this country seems to be dead. What is the Dutch perspective? What is the Dutch outlook right now?

DE VREESE: So one of the conversations that we have in Europe, also in the Netherlands, is saying either these companies take action themselves or you need to consider real regulation. And again, regulation is a hard concept to get into because you very easily come close to a regulation of content which is undesired. However, if the companies in the market itself does not shape up, then that’s one only way that you would have to go, and again, the companies and the platforms can do an awful lot themselves, and one of the things that were characteristic of 2017 was also that many of the discussions about fake news and about misinformation in France and in Germany was caught way earlier and was part of the election campaign as opposed to being a post-hoc, fact. And that there were several thousands, Facebook accounts being shut down over the course of the campaign, so the, sort of the, the rapidness with which this gets caught in the system and that this is called to public attention is of course also important because we also have to look at ourselves as citizens and as consumers of new types of information. There’s a ton of research out there that shows that certain types of headlines and certain types of information appeal more to us so we have a strong sense of individual agency when we are presented with information that looks catchy but maybe should prompt us to think twice what type of information this is, who the sponsor of that information is, and whether or not this is really something that you want to share yourself feeding into this algorithm of social media platform where that traction will help you or where you are in fact then helping as a news consumer to spread and make something even more, more prominent in a news ecosystem.

HEFFNER: Ultimately, are the European powers challenging the anti-social media as they did Google on anti-trust issues?
Are they as passionate in defense of facts as they were in defense of busting the monopolies?

DE VREESE: I can only say one thing, that is that I hope they are avid and as strong in fighting this one as they are on fighting corporate taxes and industrial sort of monopoly situations. Because we’re dealing with something that is so essential here, it is essentially the very core of how we organize our democracies, and if they’re not willing to fight equally vigilant on that one then I think we have a very big problem.

HEFFNER: Claes, thanks so much for being with me today.

DE VREESE: Wonderful conversation, thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.