ONA18: We are fighting, but we are losing the war against disinformation

They were there, standing in the hallways and even in a few sessions, on all three floors of the Online News Association conference here in Austin this week. This is my sixth ONA, but it was the first time I can remember seeing security guards at all. It wasn’t just that I saw them once, but that I felt like I saw them everywhere. This is new.

This is new.

People really think we are the enemy. Security guards to protect a bunch of journalists.

I’d like to tell you I’m surprised, but I’m not. The past two years have taught us that we have a target on us, if nothing else. In the past few months we’ve seen threats against several newsrooms (an attack in Annapolis in July, threats against Boston Globe employees that led to an arrest, the daily abuse women journalists and ethnic minority journalists face online, etc.), at times aided and abetted by President Trump as he frames journalists in terms of incendiary rhetoric and hurls accusations of “fake news” at any coverage that is critical of him or his administration. There is a general sense among us that while we are doing vital work these days as the president is trying to normalize corrupt and criminal activity, it is becoming increasingly dangerous to do journalism in a country that supposedly values a free press. The 2018 World Press Freedom Index done annually by Reporters Without Borders ranks the U.S. 45th in the world in press freedom, in part because of attacks and threats of jail against journalists who do the hard work of uncovering corruption and holding the powerful accountable.

It’s against this backdrop that I took in the ONA conference. This generally is the most positive gathering I attend. You do feel the usual worries about sustainability and failing business models here, but there is a sense of exploration, optimism and dedication to figuring this all out. But this year’s gathering reflected a kind of steely resolve against a culture that is trying to figure out how it values us. We have a president shitposting on Twitter every day about the press being enemies of America simply for doing its job, and Amy Webb pointed out in her tech trends session a recent IPSOS poll that noted 43% of Republicans would be fine with the president shutting down news outlets “engaged in bad behavior.”

Not worrisome at all!

(As a researcher I would caveat that “bad behavior” is in the eyes of the beholder and really what the people favoring this mean is they are OK with it being done by this president. I doubt they’d have supported Obama shutting down Fox News for similarly vague offenses.)

This year I attended as many sessions on fake news, propaganda, and disinformation that I could find. We got a great start with danah boyd’s opening talk that sketched out the meta-level challenge we all face. It was a tour-de-force keynote that connected the sociology and psychology driving some of the behaviors, the evil motives from bad actors in concert with unwitting dupes that spread disinformation, the blindness of the tech companies that have built our primary systems for spreading news and (mis)information, the process by which fake news travels from conspiracy theory sites to the President’s phone via Twitter, dated press routines and under-resourced newsrooms for enabling some of the worst of it. The video talk is here and the text is here. I strongly recommend this if you have interest in the big-picture mess we are in.

I sat in on a session put on by Storyful about how troll communities such as 4Chan and organized bot campaigns game the verification system journalists use, all to spread disinformation either for chaos or with specific political objectives in mind. Later, another session about Verificado that attempted to apply some layers of fact-checking to the 2018 Mexico elections by linking newsrooms together in a way that was unprecedented and — let’s be real — would get a lot of resistance from U.S. newsrooms that are built for an era of competition despite our lack of resources. Another session outlined efforts to use blockchain technology to create trust and verification processes around journalists and news outlets; in particular a lot of us are intrigued by Civil even though it is very hard to explain to a lay person what journalism + blockchain means. Finally, we closed on a frank discussion of what it means to do accountability journalism in an age when the powerful are selling the idea that journalists are reckless manipulators of facts and have secret agendas in line with Democratic Party interests.

I want to tell you after all of this that I came away optimistic. I believe a lot of folks did, which is great. But as one of the few academics here, I found myself wondering if professionals are just at the beginning of grasping the enormous challenge we are facing. There are deep-rooted, tribal interests at stake here when it comes to problem-solving. There are ideological-based and group-identity-based reasons people don’t want this problem solved. Their world makes more sense if the enemy remains the enemy, if the press is liberal and awful, and if we can pin all our hopes on a person or party who will save us all. Journalists are battling issues of trust in public life, but it’s partly a function of technological change that is decentralizing trust and verification while geometrically increasing the amount of ideas and content the public has access to. As often happens, demagogues are the first to grok and exploit emerging ways to communicate. The press is playing catch-up.

I talked with working journalists who had their minds blown at some of these sessions. In a strange way, that worries me a lot. How could you not know your enemy? I teach and research in this stuff, but for working professionals this is an existential threat. If anything, I should be learning it from them.

As I’ve said before, as a scholar whose job it is to make big-picture connections, it’s hard to not be overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge as well as the fact that many in the public don’t see the enormity of the challenge, how quickly this American experiment can be wiped away when we don’t know we are surrendering everything in order to indulge our anger or fear. A free press is the immune system of a functioning democracy, but it is under assault from people who speak the language of populism as a smokescreen for self-interested governance. They have a vested interest in defanging the one institution that can stop them, particularly at a time when our constitutional system of checks and balances isn’t working thanks to one-party rule that disincentivizes Congressional oversight. Meanwhile the public largely is unsure whether or how to protect the press even when it sees the problem plainly. The chaos is intentional, widespread, and we are falling for it.

I speak with people not in academia or journalism all the time, and they just feel overwhelmed. How do I fix this? What can I do? The feeling of empowerment is so scarce even in an age when we have more voice than ever. Institutions devoted to truth are being drowned in a sea of lies, and the economics of the news business are making us more reliant on the public being part of the answer.

Out of that, a few observations on how to take what I learned here at ONA and chart a path forward.

  1. We need think through how we train journalists for this moment. Traditional j-school curriculum is a mix of skills and democratic press theory, which is great. I teach classes in internet culture. Students of mine don’t leave Lehigh without knowing about subcultures online, mischiefs and trolls, and the kinds of deep-web verification we need to engage in when it comes to social conversation and news spreading. But as I have learned, what I’m doing is rare. I worry we aren’t doing nearly enough to train students how to spot mischief online and where we go to verify it, to understand and investigate the cultural roots of viral memes that circulate online because they are easy to share and hard to fact check. Journalistic systems often don’t account for the difference between disingenuous campaigns designed to drive the news cycle and honest criticism or feedback that can be used to improve our news. The education about online culture, and the interplay between conspiracy sites and ideological news sites, is a lifelong process. We are sending people out to do these jobs without fully understanding the worlds they are entering.
  2. Disinformation needs to be a beat. I keep beating the drum on information and media literacy — we need to be teaching that to kids at a young age — but at this point the crisis is bad enough that we need to be educating audiences too. One-off articles every couple months aren’t going to cut it. The process of telling stories that demystify processes being used by bad actors needs to be front-and-center, both as standalone and as contextual layers to breaking news. We used to have social media editors in newsrooms back when that tech was new, and their role was to influence coverage so it added those layers. We need a similar role in newsrooms now that looks at how the news is being driven by conversation, taking into account troll campaigns and foreign influence. Stories about politics that deal with trending topics need to account for where the outrage is coming from and why, which means we need experts on this stuff in newsrooms. That is going to take an investment of resources, but also a restructuring that empowers these individuals to influence coverage by adding their expertise. We need editors who spend time on Reddit and 4Chan, who are familiar with what is happening on conspiracy sites like Infowars, so that we can spot a fake viral campaign at the source.
  3. Newsrooms need to collaborate more even as they compete. Competition leads to better, more aggressive investigative reporting. But newsrooms are not going to beat Russian troll farms in one-on-one combat, nor some of these sophisticated troll efforts designed to fool unwitting editors who stick to the usual verification process script. Verificado was an interesting project because it was a collaborative effort by newsrooms across Mexico to verify information in ways that the public could count on. We need to think more along those lines, contribute resources to larger goals that benefit both our democracy and collectively help all of our efforts to inform the public. Trust is sometimes applied to institutions, but I’m struck by how much of it hinges just on being labeled. Amy Webb shared that 59% of Republicans don’t trust the Associated Press, and yet she noted that few Americans actually know what the Associated Press is or what it does. This is a flat-out rejection of the idea of institutional news that isn’t based on anything except the belief (without specific evidence against that specific outlet) that news organizations are liberal. It’s stunning ignorance, but it’s still driving distrust generally and that’s a problem for news organizations no matter how off-base it is.
  4. Our storytelling about solutions tech like blockchain need to get a lot better before we can get the results we need. I really like what Civil is trying to do, but tech like blockchain is hard to sell to the public when it’s so obscure that I can sit through several hours of reading on it and still can’t pitch it in 5 minutes. Seriously, I’ve devoured everything on it I can the past few months and it still would take me a whole class to explain it to my students. The desired audience outcome — increased trust — hinges on understanding the method blockchain uses, and thus selling the idea as a process has to be simple. I believe Civil will get there because they have some smart people in charge, but this is going to be a process figuring out how to best tell the story to the public about why the Civil layer of trustworthiness matters. For now, it’s a good lesson in the work blockchain enthusiasts will have to do if they are trying to sell the benefits of their system to the audience.
  5. I don’t see enough urgency about connecting the online problems to offline crises. Russian troll stories in the U.S. rarely get linked to larger systemic problems with our electoral system, such as gerrymandering and voter ID laws specifically designed to suppress the vote from marginalized people. I heard one mention of gerrymandering the entire conference. No mention of voter suppression. What is happening with propaganda campaigns is absolutely linked to these other problems. We already have evidence that the Internet Research agency, for example, that stole millions of users’ Facebook data in concert with Russian bot efforts, was working on ad campaigns designed to discourage Black voters from showing up at the polls. The coverage is not nearly systemic enough. Voter suppression needs to be seen as being done in concert with these other online problems. It is a coordinated attack on democracy and big-picture coverage is taking the form of one-off stories rather than ongoing work that permeates all coverage of the issue.
  6. We can’t get enamored with our new tools at the expense of remembering that our audience is everybody. At a time when we’re worried about disconnection from the public, I get concerned about new trends that create multimedia experiences that aren’t accessible to masses of people. The virtual reality and augmented reality sessions here were nice, but if newsrooms are designing them for Oculus Rift and not Google Cardboard or Facebook, you’re prioritizing creating content for people with money. Economies of scale will kick in, eventually, but the news industry historically has not done a good job designing its product as something being made for everyone regardless of class. The decisions we are making now in terms of best practices for new storytelling modes in VR and AR will become standards by the time the tools are more widespread, and we have to be purposeful about making sure the experience is designed to be democratized from the start. We leave behind those without wealth and status at our own peril, because people won’t trust a product if it isn’t made for them.

Our challenge here is enormous. I loved this year’s conference for a lot of reasons and am grateful for the conversations we had, and I got a sense that most folks here were not into the idea of being reactive to this environment at such a critical time in the history of journalism. Good on us, truly. I’m tired of journalism conferences that feel like they’re chasing ghosts of crises that have long since devoured the business at the expense of dealing with current threats and getting ahead of new ones.

In the final session I attended on Saturday, one of the panelists remarked we are in a “golden age of journalism” because tensions with the Trump administration have led journalists to be more investigative, more dogged, and more zealous about performing their watchdog role. This has the quality of being both true and wishful thinking. We are getting more rigorous, independent journalism in these times, but it is sobering to remember there is a built-in rejection of anything journalists produce by 35% of the audience that is conditioned to believe journalists just sit in their offices and make things up wholesale. It is important to keep speaking the truth and holding the powerful accountable, but it’s also important to recognize there is a parallel battle being waged in the mediascape and within our social networks over what is true and that for many in the population our best journalism is falling on deaf ears. I hope we are dedicating ourselves to the idea that this is a long-term struggle, and that we are sober right now about the fact that an ecosystem built by the bad guys is winning.

Because the bad guys are winning right now.