New challenges



M Ziauddin

Social media and the digital sphere offer a great new opportunity for journalism, enabling reporters to tell stories in different ways, while working with data to create depth and context for their audiences.
However, those who indulge in propaganda are also making use of data with considerable success, spreading misinformation with the purpose of promoting their own agendas, leading to a loss of trust in the media in the process.
The way the media is being manipulated these days makes it very difficult for even the highly professionals among the journalists to escape becoming willing promoters of this propaganda without realising what they are doing.
According to social media experts the computational propaganda uses algorithms, automation, and human curation to purposely distribute misleading information over social media networks.
Among other findings made by these experts, results showed that 50 per cent of shared news in America was misinformation, with every piece of
authentic, professional journalism matched with a piece of ‘fake news’, while the UK and Germany had 20 per cent of their social ‘news’ shared as misinformation.
Experts have listed three myths that need to be understood in order for journalists to work against the misinformation ecosystem. They warned journalists to be critical of the information that they are seeing online, as failure to do so will lead to journalists and news organisations becoming part of the problem and thus fuelling the spread of disinformation.
There are bots on social media that are communicating just as well as a human can, while distributing fake news on a scale that no human can do.
(Internet Bot, also known as web robot, WWW robot or simply bot, is a software application that runs automated tasks (scripts) over the Internet. Typically, bots perform tasks that are both simple and structurally repetitive, at a much higher rate than would be possible for a human alone).
Experts say many bots are so well designed that users on social media cannot identify them as being such.
Bots are said to be getting smarter. A lot of money and resources are being invested in technology interfaces.
Data forms a key part of any newsroom and helps journalists understand what is going on and which issues are important right now, but the problem is often that the data we are seeing is being manipulated.
According to experts a lot of bots don’t focus on communication, they drive metrics — likes, views and shares, which manipulate one’s metrics. When it is on a large scale, it is very difficult to detect those bots.
And it is becoming problematic for both algorithms, which use metrics to see what is trending, and for journalists to see what is happening, particularly during political elections. If journalists are taking those manipulated metrics, and are carrying out the agenda and inflating it, then that is a big part of the problem.
Experts believe we are still in the situation where we are repeatedly being fed the information that fake news is an over inflated problem, but it is a difficult trend that will pass. But it’s not something that is going to go away.
Therefore, newsrooms are advised to focus on educating their audience to be aware of disinformation, and being vigilant themselves not to run quickly with what is trending — to think twice before they set the news agenda.
Meanwhile, a UNESCO report, World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development highlights such positive developments as civil society mobilising to push for greater access to information, media houses cooperating with fact-checking services to push back against a torrent of disinformation, and more and more governments adopting freedom of information laws.
Concern about the proliferation of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda has reached the point where many governments are proposing new legislation, according to Kelly Born (Six features of the disinformation age published in International Politics and Society newsletter).
This year, Germany’s parliament adopted a law that includes a provision for fines of up to €50 million on popular sites like Facebook and YouTube, if they fail to remove within 24 hours ‘obviously illegal’ content, such as hate speech and incitements to violence.
Singapore has announced plans to introduce similar legislation this year to tackle ‘fake news’.
In July last year the US Congress approved sweeping sanctions against Russia, partly in response to its alleged sponsorship of disinformation campaigns aiming to influence the US elections.
In Born’s view, such action is vital if we are to break the vicious cycle of disinformation and political polarisation that undermines democracies’ ability to function.
“But while these legislative interventions all target digital platforms, they often fail to account for at least six ways in which today’s disinformation and propaganda differ from yesterday’s,” Born contends.
First, there is the democratisation of information creation and distribution. Any individual or group can now communicate with — and thereby influence — large numbers of others online. This has its benefits, but also carries risks — beginning with the loss of journalistic standards of excellence. Without traditional institutional media gatekeepers, political discourse is no longer based on a common set of facts.
The second feature — a direct by-product of democratisation — is information socialisation. Rather than receiving our information directly from institutional gatekeepers, today we acquire it via peer-to-peer sharing. Such peer networks may elevate content based on factors like clicks or engagement among friends, rather than accuracy or importance.
The third element is atomisation — the divorce of individual news stories from brand or source. Previously, readers could easily distinguish between non-credible sources. Today the original source of an article matters less than who in their network shares it.
The fourth element is anonymity in information creation and distribution. Online news often lacks not only a brand, but also a by-line. This obscures potential conflicts of interest, creates plausible deniability for state actors intervening in foreign information environments and creates fertile ground for bots to thrive.
Fifthly, today’s information environment is characterised by personalisation. Internet content creators can carry out controlled experiments with two variables and adapt micro-targeted messages in real-time.
“By leveraging automated emotional manipulation alongside swarms of bots, Facebook dark posts (unpublished posts) and fake news networks,” according to a recent exposé, groups like Cambridge Analytica can create personalised, adaptive and ultimately addictive propaganda.
The final element, as the Stanford law professor Nate Persily has observed, is sovereignty. Unlike television, print and radio, social-media platforms like Facebook or Twitter are self-regulating — and are not very good at it.
We are living in a brave new world of disinformation. As long as only its purveyors have the data we need to understand it, the responses we craft will remain inadequate. And to the extent that they are poorly targeted, they may even end up doing more harm than good.
In an age when it appears that the public around the world is falling out with facts, humanity and accountable truth-telling, the future of ethical journalism appears rather bleak. This situation is dealt in detail in a report titled Ethics in the News, compiled by the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN), which throws light on the challenges for media and gives journalists tips on ethical survival techniques.
The report also examines the continuing global rise of hate speech, particularly in South Asia, where there are increasing regional tensions, not least because of territorial disputes and increasing nationalism.
Beyond politics the report examines how media covers the plight of women who are victimised by repressive social and cultural attitudes that continue to dominate media coverage of the shockingly misnamed ‘honour killing’ in Pakistan.
However, according to the report, it was not all bad news for journalism. Perhaps the biggest single, corruption-busting story of the decade came from an unprecedented piece of investigative journalism carried out by 400 journalists in 80 countries — the Panama Papers. The report highlights two areas of particular ethical practice that make journalism a cornerstone of reliability and trust: firstly, a tribute to all the whistle-blowers and sources who make public interest journalism possible; and, second, an examination of how we use images to tell stories.
The report also provides tips for journalists on how to stick to facts, protect sources, report fairly on regional disparities, identify hate speech, block fake news and guard against war-mongering and propaganda.
The report notes a growing movement to strengthen the craft of journalism and how journalists committed to accuracy are doing good work and connecting with audiences.
But more needs to be done to support media. The report calls for action to strengthen media professionalism and for new directions in public policy:
• To develop practical and sustainable solutions to the funding crisis facing independent journalism.
• To support the public purpose of journalism through more investment in public service media.
• To launch campaigns to combat hatred, racism and intolerance.
• To provide more resources for investigative reporting.
• To encourage attachment to ethical values in the management and governance of journalism.
• To put pressure on social networks and internet companies to accept responsibility that as publishers they must monitor their news services.
• To support expanded media and information literacy programmes to make people more aware of the need for responsible and tolerant communications.
The moving spirit behind setting up EJN, Aiden White, has contributed a brainy piece to the report, excerpts of which follow:
“The world’s changing culture of communications not only encourages users to create personal echo-chambers at the expense of information pluralism, it has also shredded the market models that used to nourish ethical journalism. Many observers inside media are not overly optimistic about the future, but although there may be more rumours, speculations, fake news and misinformation as the information market moves online, there is a growing movement to strengthen the craft of journalism.
“Public trust will only return when people have confidence that powerful institutions are accountable and listening to their concerns. Journalism at its best can do this job, but not without fresh support. The crisis outlined here is not just one of professionalism, it is a watershed moment for democracy and requires political will to invest in open, connected and pluralist systems of communication.”

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