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The chief censor of a country bans a ‘manifesto’ written by one of its citizens. It sounds like a throwback to the days of authoritarian governments in the mid-20th century, but this happened almost exactly a year ago in New Zealand.
The ‘manifesto’ was that of the Christchurch mosque shooter who had posted on platforms such as 8chan, before going on to kill more than 50 people. David Shanks, the New Zealand censor, officially classified the writings as ‘objectionable’ and told anyone in possession of it to destroy it.
You might have expected a representative from the UK to be arguing in favour of publishing links to these writings and a Russian delegate to be in favour of the censor’s actions – but in fact as at the recent RUSI conference on media information and in discussions since then, the opposite proved to be true.
Russia and the UK come from very different traditions of information access. But both kinds of regimes are finding themselves challenged by a world in which information can circulate rapidly outside the hands of those who have controlled it. As such, it is imperative that we discuss these issues and work together as much as possible.
Changed Information Landscape
Journalists who were once gatekeepers of information – deciding what we read or saw – have become ‘gate watchers’ as information flows unchecked and unimpeded via the Internet. The result has been a breakdown in trust, with the velocity and volume of ‘news’ putting the public in the precarious position of not knowing what to believe.
The case of the 2018 fire at the Winter Cherry shopping mall in Kemerovo, Russia, was a case in point, with many celebrities putting out information on social media that proved later to be untrue. The source of the most outrageous claims was Ukrainian blogger Evgeny Volnov, who engaged in intentional disinformation, yet general distrust towards traditional media outlets allowed fabricated claims to dominate the social media landscape during the fire and for several days afterwards.
We have seen politicians such as Donald Trump talk about ‘fake news’ – but this may not be about false information, but information that he – or other politicians for that matter – do not like.
First Draft, a global non-profit organisation which works with journalists and academics, prefers to categorise the public flow of dubious facts into disinformation (something that is intentionally false and designed to cause harm), misinformation (false information, but the sharer is unaware of this) and malinformation (genuine information that is shared to cause harm), classifications which were laid out in a Council of Europe research paper in 2017.
But it is not only the public who are confused: journalists, who regularly turn to online sources to inform and sustain their news-gathering efforts, have found themselves equally at a loss as they try to navigate their way through misleading and fabricated content. Claire Wardle, who leads the research for First Draft, notes this was the case with the journalists trying to cover the rise of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines in 2016, or those covering the Brexit debate or the US presidential elections later that year. Trying to deal with satire – think of the edited ‘deep fake’ video of Nancy Pelosi which made her appear drunk – may often end up with journalists putting manipulators’ ideas into the public arena even as they try to debunk them, as Whitney Phillips, a US-based academic, describes in her book, ‘The Oxygen of Amplification’.
This information disorder has led to a breakdown in trust in the media in many countries, giving the far-right great opportunities to further attack the press and undermine public trust. For example, on New Year’s Eve in 2015, there were reports of sexual assaults on hundreds of women at a festival in Cologne. German media followed agreed guidelines and did not mention the ethnicity of perpetrators. So, despite the Cologne police mentioning the ethnicity of the alleged perpetrators in a press release, this was not mentioned in the media until 4 January. The far-right argued that refugees were to blame but this was being hushed up by the press and police because of Angela Merkel’s immigration policy in the light of the refugee crisis.
Yet an in-depth investigation by De Correspondent found four months later that the crimes, which were less than reported, were not in fact linked to refugees, but groups of north African migrants. Such an investigation, while thorough and noteworthy, did not, in the far-right’s eyes, contradict their position which saw refugees and north African migrants as two sides of the same problem (an ‘invasion’ of predatory foreigners), that the German government was not willing to acknowledge, yet alone resolve. Thus, while the factual basis of the far-right’s claims were undermined, their general assertions of the government’s unwillingness and inability to deal with the refugee crisis seemed reinforced to their followers, and many others wondered about the veracity of the entire episode.
Technology to the Rescue
Does this mean we should despair in an information-disordered world? There is a positive side to the new media environment. There is now the opportunity to crowdsource information and tools from Google Earth to find locations, Wolfram Alpha to check weather and Yandex and TinEye to verify photos, to mention only a few of the technologies which can be swiftly deployed to check the veracity of stories. Academics and journalists are working hard to develop tools that help this effort further, such as the DMINR project at City University of London.
Russia and the UK in this Endeavour
While there is still much to debate between Russia and the UK over what we see as false information, there are several areas we can agree on. Media literacy is an issue for everyone – not just journalists. Celebrities at the time of the Winter Cherry fire helped build panic through their social media postings. The public too need to think before they share something on social media – a recent survey revealed that 59% of links shared on Twitter had never been clicked on.
For journalists, there is also the tricky debate around what they choose to report. The issue of freedom of speech is such that many would argue that everything should be reported. However, the mere act of reporting may have consequences, and result in the amplification of a story.
Journalists are thus presented with two conflicting views on how to proceed given the vast increase in the availability of information: they can either uphold the status quo, retaining their role as gatekeepers while risking alienating their audience, or start engaging with the existing news flow, at the risk of giving credibility to some unhinged ideas.
Some journalists may argue that the latter option is preferable. Traditional media is facing a crisis — level of trust in it is gradually decreasing partly due to the proliferation of fake news, and partly due to ‘doubts about media sources’ good intentions’. Besides, it is becoming easier for people to find the information they need themselves instead of relying on the press, and the only way forward for the media may be to give all the facts behind a story so their audience will not be compelled to look for more details, risking stumbling upon intentional disinformation.
This approach will still allow the media to uphold some of their most cherished values — objectivity and impartiality — while shielding their audience from fringe opinions. Facts themselves without context cannot be racist, prejudiced, biased or damaging, while their interpretations might be. Leaving out facts — such as ethnicity of criminals or crime statistics — may leave the audience wanting more and trying to find more. These attempts may lead them to websites, which will give them the right facts with downright outlandish interpretations — and these interpretations may be accepted because they are neatly lumped together with facts.
Partly ceding the ‘gatekeeper’ role of the media may be the only way forward, which will allow journalists to regain the trust of the public but still maintain a degree of guidance and protect their audience from harmful and damaging interpretations.
Both authors of this article feel differently about this choice, but would agree that it is a question of trying to define responsible reporting in a world where information disorder is ever more prevalent.
Common ground, however, may be found if we are to discuss the concept of ‘responsible gate-watching’. Journalists may be able to regain the public’s trust if they choose not to conceal facts that might seem damaging, but pay a great deal of attention to how they are being described — for example, providing relevant statistics that may help paint the whole picture of the issue being discussed or choosing not to link to ‘manifestos’ and other documents containing hate speech. However, the exact balance between reporting everything in detail and not amplifying hateful messages while retaining the public’s trust is yet to be found.
Dr Glenda Cooper is a senior lecturer at City University of London.
Alexey Naumov is a journalist at the newspaper Kommersant and an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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