Reality vs fabrication: who is behind the information we consume

30 November 2023

In an era increasingly defined by the omnipresence of artificial intelligence, the distinction between human-generated content and that crafted by digital technologies becomes ever more elusive.

This ambiguity, especially in the realm of public online spaces, presents a critical challenge for cities committed to fostering safe and inclusive digital environments. At the heart of this challenge lies the imperative for trustworthy information, a cornerstone for civic engagement and informed decision-making.

The text you just read was authored by ChatGPT 4.0. Although there are a few clues that hint the content was not generated by a human, AI applications are blurring the lines between reality and fabrication. How can we know who, or ‘what’, is behind the content we consume, and what are their intentions?

Deep fakes, conspiracy theories, or AI-generated images, proliferate unchecked in the online world, increasingly sneaking into the analogue world as well. False information, deliberately disseminated for manipulation, biases, or harmful intentions, contaminates political debates, social gatherings, and even traditional media.

Cities are not spared from being scenarios where unverified, erroneous or outright false information is reproduced.

Risky vaccines in Amsterdam

The Covid-19 era only exacerbated the problem. The obligations and restrictions created a climate of fear in many cities, favourable to the spread of false information. On social media, misleading content about the effectiveness of masks and, particularly, the risks of vaccines, run wild.

Amsterdam, for example, faced a disinformation campaign alleging vaccines caused infertility. In response to this situation, the city put in place a communication strategy based on a personal approach. They focused on interventions in places of gathering, such as schools, religious places, or markets.

Is air pollution that bad in Milan?

Milan, too, fell victim of misinformation. A news piece ranked the Italian city third among the world’s most polluted cities, trailing only Tehran and Beijing. Although Milan does indeed face a serious problem of air pollution, it falls far behind the top three. The original article’s source used real-time data from only a few cities worldwide. Yet, the unverified news swiftly spread locally and internationally.

“Today more than ever, the mayor’s job is one of the most difficult,” said Giuseppe Sala, Mayor of Milan, in a video released to deny the false accusations. “Those in positions like must dedicate significant time combating fake news, often propelled by those with vested interests. This misinformation is perpetuated unchecked by information outlets and swiftly disseminated online with a mere click.”

The risks of fake news

The spread of non-trustworthy information can lead to social unrest. By fuelling social tensions and exacerbating existing societal divides, it can lead to conflict within the community.

Local governments have the responsibility to provide people with the tools to exercise their rights and obligations safely. Preserving the public debate and ensuring a safe and representative online discourse are key to protecting our democracies.

What can cities do?

To give voice to the challenges cities face, the Eurocities Trustworthy information taskforce has published the report ‘Engaging cities in promoting a safe and inclusive online public space’.

“Cities and their citizens are facing a growing challenge – a lot of information and often also very untrustworthy information, frequently biased and unreliable, posing threats to trust, democracy, and at times, even lives,” acknowledges Faouzi Achbar, Vice Mayor of Rotterdam and chair of the Digital Forum. “It is imperative for cities to collectively take responsibility and work collaboratively in developing strategies that mitigate such situations.”

Cities agree that the first step is to understand the impact of false information and the mechanisms behind its creation and dissemination.

As municipalities are closer to residents, they are best positioned to improve digital literacy, conducting educational campaigns to raise awareness about the dangers of misinformation. These campaigns can teach the community how to critically evaluate information they encounter online and encourage responsible sharing practices.

At the same time, cities can establish fact-checking initiatives, partnering with organisations, to verify information before sharing it. They can disseminate accurate information through official channels like websites, social media, or community newsletters.

A European code of practice

In parallel, the European Commission has orchestrated a series of initiatives to combat misinformation, culminating in the signing of a reinforced Code of Practice on Disinformation in June 2022. This code focuses on demonetisation, transparency in political advertising, service integrity, user and researcher empowerment, fact-checking, and a robust monitoring framework.

This Code is a collaborative effort to curb the spread of misinformation, especially during crises such as pandemics or election periods. However, the complexity of disinformation threats requires a unified front. Learning from the experiences of other municipalities can help local authorities put in place mechanisms to safeguard information accuracy and trust.

“The threats posed by disinformation are growing more intricate by the day,” stresses Achbar. “We need to work together to combat it, by collaborating at national and local levels, but also with academic institutions, civil society groups, social media entities, and citizens.”


The Trustworthy Information Task Force of the Eurocities Digital Forum has published a report on ‘Engaging cities in promoting a safe and inclusive online public space‘ (available for Eurocities members only). The Eurocities Working Group on Foresight aims to continue working on this subject in the upcoming months. If your city has insights to share, or would like to work further on the subject, please contact


Lucía Garrido Eurocities Writer