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Tackle fake news with transparency

Arjan El Fassed|

In the Netherlands, the next municipal elections will be held on 21 March 2018. On the same day, voters will also be asked their opinion in a non-binding referendum on the Intelligence and Security Services Act. This advisory referendum will be the last referendum in the Netherlands, because the new ruling coalition will scrap a 2015 law which allowed for citizen-enforced, non-binding referendums on newly-adopted laws.

While the Dutch government is concerned about possible disinformation disseminated by state actors, citizens are looking for information to determine their vote. Although “fake news” seems to be able to disrupt election campaigns and influence public opinion, a closed government also leads to unpredictable results.

Fake news

In a growing debate about how fake news should be best tackled, the tendency among governments is to banish fake news. It sometimes seems as if politicians who loudly call ‘fake news!’ often do not have the best transparency records themselves.

In the US, investigators are trying to determine to what extent Russia may have meddled in the 2016 presidential election, while President Donald Trump dismisses any criticism as fake news. In the Philippines, President Duterte intends to hand out huge fines for spreading false information, while he himself is firmly criticized for his bloody “war on drugs” that has claimed thousands of lives.

In Germany, the Netherlands’ eastern neighbors, the so-called ‘Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz‘ has recently come into force, a law that obliges Twitter, Facebook, and Google to remove fake news messages or face penalties of millions of euros. This law is the most extreme example of efforts by governments to rein in social media firms – a bad idea – that is likely to be followed up in France.

The fundamental right to information

Instead of investing in censorship, governments should invest in protecting democracy by increasing transparency and active information disclosure. For a healthy democracy, it is not only necessary that people can vote, but also have access to essential information. Not for nothing is the right to information together with the right to privacy and the freedom of expression a fundamental right. In combination, they protect citizens against the abuse of power.

Governments that do not actively share information not only hinder necessary innovation, but also harm confidence in public administration. In particular, when consensus is to be found in an already fragmented political landscape, agreement on basic information is crucial.

Politicians know too well that information is power

Voters, elected representatives, advocates, journalists, policy makers, and citizens depend on reliable and verifiable government information for many choices in life. When you want to buy a new TV, there’s a ridiculously wide array of sets and stores to choose from. You not only decide the brand, size, resolution, and sound, but also at what store or platform you place your order. This also applies to your news consumption: the platform, the channel, broadcast, the newspaper, or the article.

If you are dealing with a government, then you have little choice. As a resident, you depend on the municipality where you are registered; as a student you will be dealing with the Government Education Agency (DUO); as an unemployed person, with the Employee Insurance Agency (UWV); and as an entrepreneur, with the Chamber of Commerce. You do not have a choice. These organizations, to a certain extent, determine themselves how open or closed they are.

In the Netherlands, there are more than sixteen hundred government agencies, public administrative bodies, common arrangements, and government inspections on which citizens, entrepreneurs, and others depend. How they deal with making information available varies enormously.

An informed citizenry is the bulwark of a democracy. A voter should be able to find out what his or her vote has meant in recent years before he or she enters the polling station. It should be easy to find out what a local representative has voted for and against in the municipal council during the past term. It is often not the case. That is why Open State Foundation started to unlock the municipal council data of more than 100 municipalities in the Netherlands.

Whether it is consumers who depend on inspection data from the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority, entrepreneurs who want information from the company register, or patients who want access to price and quality information from hospitals – especially when they are dependent on a single government organization – transparency is essential.

Not censorship but transparency

In order to make and improve policy, voters, elected representatives, policy makers, journalists, and advocates need access to information about decision making, the use of public funds, and the results thereof. That information must be verifiable.

And because they are often dependent on government for this purpose, it is important that government organizations make information available and accessible to everyone without barriers, proactively and in a timely manner – and in the form of open data.

Data-driven policy making?

Various local governments already use a lot of data to underpin policy making. It’s great that decisions are going to be influenced more by data, but then we have to be able to look at it from the outside world as well. What data does a government agency actually hold, which databases does it manage, and which datasets are included? Which datasets can be open, and which are not and why not? In what way does the government deal with this data? And wouldn’t it be good to have more transparency about algorithms used by governments? And if you want to know how the algorithm works, should you not be able to access input data?

And so on

It is not censorship but actively making verifiable information available that governments should champion against fake news. Through the reuse of government information, as a voter, policymaker, journalist, entrepreneur, or consumer, you can not only assess the quality of the information that the government itself uses, but it is also possible to check and even improve this data.

If you want to involve people more in politics, they need the same information. And when people have access to qualitative and verifiable government information, they will be able use it themselves to exert influence. Now that would be democratic innovation. A great task for all those newly elected local representatives.

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