How disinformation campaigns and ‘fake news’ change the job of journalism
It has been a well-known saying in the media business over the past few years: Everything’s changing. But with a media hostile president in the White House, evolving Russian disinformation campaigns launching not only in the United States but in Europe and Africa as well, and new rivalry over “content production”, journalists have to rethink their job — for their own, but also for society’s sake.
The fabrication of news and false reporting is nothing that has exclusively occured in our digital age. But the frequency and intensity in which disinformation spreads has accelerated immensely due to the use of social media platforms to spread word. Since the U.S. presidential campaign and election in 2016, the ambivalent term of ‘fake news’ is on everyone’s lips. In the meanwhile deeply partisan American society, one side uses it to describe liberal, left-wing media, the other focuses on its original meaning of false reporting that tries to manipulate the audience.
Truth is embattled in the 21st century and so is factfulness. The term of ‘fake news’ has become contested itself, a propagandistic concept to some. Being used analogous to the German “Lügenpresse” which right-wing protesters and politicians of the right-wing populist party “Alternative für Deutschland” use to denounce the press (the term was originally coined in the Third Reich), ‘fake news’ is despised by many journalists.
But as the term only became popular since President Trump and other Republicans used it in rallies, discussions on ‘fake news’ are doomed. Despite the fact that there really are false news out there, spread often by Russian bots and bogus media sites on social media platforms.
To circumvent the dispute on terminology a lot of scientific studies and journalistic approaches towards false reporting have been filed under ‘disinformation’. And justifiably so. The actions taken by countries like Russia to lead the open and free societies of the U. S. and Europe into doubt about current events are taking place on a scale that surpasses just sharing an article full of lies. Disinformation is false information spread deliberately to deceive — with the intention to misinform people. This does not only include false reporting, but also Internet trolls and propaganda spread via Facebook or Twitter.
Facebook identified the problem, but has no interest in combatting it
In 2017 Facebook published a white paper in which the company confirmed that it witnessed massive, probably Russian, disinformation campaigns targeting the U. S. elections in 2016 and the elections held in France in 2017. A lot of industry insiders interpreted this as a sign that Facebook not only identified the problem, but was ready to combat it. The reality was way off the mark.
While Twitter prohibits political advertising as a whole since October 30 in order to tackle at least sponsored false information of campaigns spreading on the platform, Facebook denied to ban untrue content shared by political campaigns in the future. And as the First Amendment is strongly enforced by the government, it is highly unlikely that there will ever be a regulation of disinformation or ‘fake news’ campaigns — in contrast to Europe, where multiple states have introduced laws that ban hate speech, lies and political targeting while also flagging ‘fake’ content sites.
With 2020 in mind, neither politicians nor social media companies themselves seem to have an interest in approaching this problem that resembles a threat to the democratic society. In recollecting of its role in a democracy, the press could take on that task.
Political scientists gave the media an honorable name to illustrate its important part in a political system: the Fourth Estate. Financial pressure and growing media criticism have shattered the press’ role in many democracies. Though the rise of disinformation gives no reason to rejoice, it may create an opportunity for journalists to recollect and reassess their job, to reclaim the task of the gatekeeper — and in the end lift up an industry which has been shaped by pessimism for more than a decade.
Chances are, in a more complex world, flooded with information, that the service of sorting, checking, verifying, choosing and sharing information will be in great demand. In order to navigate the incoming information, a gatekeeper role is more sought than ever. And this is where journalism comes into play.
Editing information by checking the facts and choosing what is important and what is not has been the daily bread of every journalist from his education and first internship on. This process does not only include basic scrutiny but also the identification of the biases and checking other sources. Fact-checking has always been, aside from objectivity and a second corroboration of the reported story, one of the key elements of reporting. Facts mentioned in a piece of journalistic work — ranging from identity information, such as age or job description of a protagonist, to the description of a site where the story takes place or an exact timeline of events — always have to be verified.
As journalists aim to report the most distilled version of the truth, publishing (counterchecked) facts, based on quality research, may be the essential task of a journalists job. But the thoroughness of fact-checking has been challenged, especially by cutbacks in newsrooms, putting more work and time pressure on editors and reporters.
As disinformation campaigns have evolved technically, so has the hassle for journalists
This is not the only problem. As disinformation campaigns have evolved technically, so has the hassle for journalists: In order to have a chance of being able to provide fool-proof everyday content and identify disinformation, for example deepfake videos, newsrooms are in need of specialists that focus on documentation and verification full time. The Wall Street Journal is a leading example in this field, having established an internal deepfakes task force called the “WSJ Media Forensics Committee“ in 2018.
In some cases, it’s just enough to go back to basics: In 2018 National Public Radio developed new standards for fact-checking, getting all their desks involved in the process. The result: A short guideline with questions like “Are all names correct?” in it. “Sometimes you can already restore trust by just getting the baseline of information really right, like the age of a protagonist or the spelling of a location”, says Marc Memmott, Standards and Practice editor at NPR.
Not only the revival of a time-consuming-but-worth-it fact-checking process gives the media industry an opportunity to regain trust and reclaim their role as Fourth Estate in our modern democracies. In an age where politicians tumble from one false claim to another far-fetched hypothesis, fact-checking the information given by these communicators could save the communicator ‘press’ itself.
Since the Washington Post started fact-checking President Trumps statements, this trend has taken the media world by storm. Did Lindsey Graham tell the truth in a Fox interview? Which statements did Hillary Clinton make about her private e-mails? Reporting on the truthfulness of statements is a golden oldie in journalism — but the current circumstances of U. S. politics give a new authority to it.
The mentality of separating the sheep from the goats has not only created departments like the Post’s Fact Checker but also affected live reporting. During the time span of multiple terrorist attacks in Europe between 2017 and 2018, German media outlets like Süddeutsche Zeitung or Zeit Online featured articles headlining “What we know and what we don’t know”. This simplistic approach got a lot of praise in the European media industry, as it focused on facts and not on hypotheses.
What makes journalistic work relevant in this decade?
In 2019, when every single user of the internet is enabled to produce information, news and so-called ‘content’, the Washington Post does not only compete with the New York Times or publications alike, but with millions of Twitter, Facebook and Wordpress users. Social media has vastly democratized the battlefield of information where the traditional media used to hold a gatekeeper position so strong that even politicians relied on it for support from the public.
While journalists come to terms with the idea, that even the most distilled version of truth is just a version — known in communication science as the constructivist turn — they should not fall into desperation about their declining authority when it comes to sharing information. The industry should rather focus on their gain in this situation: Not to share information in general is gold, but to share edited, checked and verified information. This resource could make journalism profitable again.
The ‘bad news’ that we might live in a decade of uncertainty about the truthfulness of information, may it come from a presidential Twitter account, a friend or a bot, could be, in this sense, good news for journalism. The media industry should think of it as a chance to regain trust and step in for democracy. The back-to-the-roots-approach of concentrating on the main job (reporting and fact-checking) instead of writing up op-eds and philosophizing essays can be a savior for a financially beleaguered industry. Do not get this wrong: Sharing opinions and interesting ideas will always be a part of the job. But it is simply not the key element.
Making an argument for the new (old) journalistic self-conception
The essential task of journalism in a democracy is to inform, so that people can build their own opinion based on true facts. The self-conception of (some) journalists which basically comes down to thinking up interesting propositions and forming opinions on subjects to share with the public will have to step aside in order to establish a new take on journalism — that isn’t all that new. Maybe this fascinating age of digitalization does not require a turnaround. Maybe it requires only two things that have been on the agenda of every newsroom all along: Neat research and thorough reporting.
In order to achieve this, journalistic education and work must adjust. The fact-checking process, although it was as important in the 1900’s, has to match up to digital standards. That said, it is of pressing importance to prime journalists and editors for identifying disinformation and further upgrading their fact-checking skills. The WSJ started, simultaneously to founding the task force, to train its journalists ongoing in verifying digital data.
In Germany, organizations such as “Netzwerk Medientrainer” and the Google News Initiative cooperate with news outlets to improve the fact-checking skills of their editors and reporters. The German press agency dpa hosts a yearly “verification marathon” where journalists compete with their checking skills.
These efforts show that the industry is on the right path — although there is a long way to go until every active journalist knows how to verify information he collected from an internet resource. Publications should therefore aim to equip every editor and reporter with basic verification skills and refreshed alertness for fact-checking. With massive financial and time pressure, every journalists carries the responsibility of delivering the most truthful version of an occurence himself.
Focusing more on the “daily bread” of journalism will not only restore media trust (in parts) but also make every publication better. An emphasis on truthfulness has also proven to be a recipe for popularity, as one can witness with the ‘Fact Checker’ and ‘The Fix’ department of the Washington Post. In order to make journalism profitable again one solution — apart from a digital subscription strategy — could be to change the job back to what it was: the veracious production and distribution of reports on recent events.
This article was written on the basis of learnings from the “Journalism in the Era of Disinformation” fellowship, which I was able to participate in in 2019. Find out more about the program at culturalvistas.org.