By Brooke Binkowski
Agreeing on basic values and facts is essential to a functioning democracy. Without consensus on the most basic of facts, there is no way to agree on the policies that are built on and around them.
Unfortunately, those who try to subvert democracy — or indeed, do away with it entirely — also know this.
That’s why authoritarian regimes are so often characterized by propaganda, disinformation, and a tight rein on any semblance of a free press. Disinformation is also a powerful tool in hybrid warfare for the same reason.=
It can be confusing and frightening to maneuver a world in which truth seems to be consensus-based, rather than set on a bedrock of facts. But as daunting as it might seem, the disinformation crisis is one that can be surmounted with aggressive, transparent journalism. Indeed, journalism and transparency are two of the best ways to fight back against disinformation and propaganda.
In a healthy democracy, politicians are tasked with creating or tweaking public policies so to improve the health of a country overall, whether that policy is domestic and focused on its own population, or international, focused on relations with the rest of the world. Weaponized disinformation, the true name for the “fake news” crisis, throws a wrench into both of those works. If we cannot agree on basic facts, how can anyone agree on policy and what’s best?
This is also not unprecedented. Today’s crisis has often been presented as something new, an entirely unknown problem with which to grapple. The truth is that this has been a problem in every single newly-adopted method of mass communication, from the printing press to the Internet. Indeed, it’s like clockwork: create a new way to communicate, give it to the public at large, and disinformation follows right on its heels.
In 17th-century England, the ruling classes initially opposed the printing press because they thought that the masses couldn’t handle having ownership over the written word. Those same ruling classes quickly found that disinformation was a way to quell their discontent. The fictitious Popish Plot of 1678 claimed that Jesuits were planning to assassinate King Charles II and put his Catholic brother in the power instead. That fiction caught and held the public’s attention. If you want to know just how little human nature has changed in the intervening centuries, the original newspapers, then called newsbooks, appeared in the mid-1600s, when they were colloquially called “paper bullets” because of their tendency to fan the flames of public discontent.
The 18th and 19th centuries were little better, as the printing press helped usher in a new era of disinformation with newspapers that trafficked in lurid, steamy stories and gossip. “Yellow journalism” entered our lexicon in the last years of the 1800s, when eye-popping, massaged stories pushed by well-known publishers such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer during a circulation war helped whet the American appetite for war with Spain. Although the stories were not responsible for the crises in Cuba that led to American intervention, they took advantage of the public’s interest to sell papers.
In Germany in the 1930s, the new medium of radio literally helped bring Nazi propaganda home through the brand new, mass-produced Volksempfänger, or “people’s receiver.” In the United States in 1938, that same medium famously created mass panic when War of the Worlds was first broadcast. The panic that resulted remains one of the best known examples of the potential negative effects of new forms of mass communication.
Being unable to discern truth when unreality is all around is one of the gravest dangers of an influx of weaponized disinformation and propaganda, but it’s not the only danger. Another, equally dangerous side effect of the weaponized disinformation appearing in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere takes place at the level of the individual in a pattern that has received far less media attention than the policies false stories can affect, but which is arguably just as dangerous.
That danger is not necessarily that weaponized disinformation will sway individuals to think one way or another. Rather, a goal of the agents of chaos who create and distribute disinformation is to free people to act on their most base fears and impulses. Disinformation works best, for instance, when it plays on enduring racial tensions, targeting an audience of people who are terrified of losing their social positions by stoking fears about an unstable minority or “other.” In other words, “economic anxiety” does not a white supremacist make: anxiety about losing one’s relevance does.
None of this is novel.
Working-class mid-century philosopher Eric Hoffer clearly delineated the personalities of those who would become part of mass movements in his famous postwar book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.
Hoffer’s personality sketches of the types of people who join social movements could have served as a blueprint for the types of disinformation currently afflicting social media,journalism, and working their way up to policymakers. In fact, it probably did.
“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents,” wrote Hoffer. “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil. Usually, the strength of a mass movement is proportionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil.”
You can see how that exact principle was both grasped and used in the disinformation campaigns that plagued 2016. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was made over into a perfectly vivid devil for a large swath of the population, aided and abetted by divide-and-conquer propaganda tactics that was aimed at individuals across the political spectrum with a wide variety of beliefs.
But how were so many countries affected by this corrosive, multi-pronged disinformation? How could it affect such large swaths of any population if there was not at least some truth to it? And how can this be stopped and prevented from happening again?
The answer to this from my perspective is threefold, requiring action on the part of tech companies, news organizations, and people.
The methods described in detail below are tried and true and fairly simple — but that is not to say they are easy. Each takes discipline and doggedness. While they are not always immediately effective, they are always effective over time. They involve no bright and shiny new technology nor industry “disruption,” but they will involve putting money into some of the same boring old approaches.
The role of technology companies
First, big technology companies must own up to what they have done and continue to do using social media platforms they have created and operate. They have knowingly and willfully allowed disinformation to spread from both established and would-be authoritarian regimes. The ongoing mass displacement and genocide in Myanmar follows years of Facebook’s inaction on propaganda spread on its platform about the Rohingya Muslim population. The disinformation was largely pushed by sockpuppet accounts used by Myanmar generals is an example of how bad things can get with unchecked false stories.
As with the Spanish-American war, disinformation did not cause the underlying issues but instead exacerbated them, ripping the scabs from barely healed racial tensions and, once again, enabling bad actors to act on their most base desires. In Myanmar, that meant setting fire to entire villages, raping women, and driving hundreds of thousands of people out of their own country.
False stories planted and then pushed about the Rohingya and their purported “evil ways” led to accusations of raping children and woman, violence, theft, stealing babies, and various other unsavory activities. Facebook first denied knowing anything about the platform’s role in the ethnic cleansing campaign. Then, they claimed to have had no idea how to fix it, although human rights and anti-disinformation experts had offered input and help.
Facebook’s inaction continues to cost lives as what has become a refugee crisis continues, rendering hundreds of thousands of people effectively stateless.
How could this have been prevented? Moderation, for one thing. When pressed by international human rights organizations and journalists, Facebook admitted that they only had two Burmese-speaking moderators for the entire country. Facebook now claims it has now added dozens more.
The situation in Myanmar throws into stark relief the fact that moderators — once a staple of any online interaction — have been sacrificed to the altar of Free Speech, an elegant concept that is almost never properly applied.
Facebook is not the only culprit here. A hefty portion of the blame should be laid squarely at Twitter’s feet as well, which has stood by and allowed white supremacists, other extremists, bots and paid trolls around any controversial topic free rein on its platform. These trolls harass others completely off that same social media site, depriving them of their own chances to be heard.
Truly free speech in the public square offers everyone a chance to speak in safety, without fear of reprisal, not just some groups and not others. But this doesn’t happen on its own. Without moderation, the power dynamics and imbalances that already exist in any society are echoed and enshrined in the mass communication of whatever that society creates. To put it a different way, in a society where white supremacy rules, the white supremacists get the biggest platforms — and everyone else suffers. True free speech can only exist when everyone can speak freely. It cannot used to drown out, suppress, or harm other individuals or groups, or it ceases to be free speech by definition.
The role of journalism
Another piece of the puzzle of how to attack disinformation is journalists, who must conduct itself responsibly and transparently. In the age of the Internet, members of the news media now must “show their work.” This model should have been adopted decades ago. It is now a best journalistic practice.
Did you do an interview with someone? Put the recording up so that people can hear it for themselves. Did you crunch some numbers? Show your math.
From the perspective of a journalist who does just that, the prospect is initially daunting, but its utility becomes clear the the moment a reader or listener challenges you on what you have written.
Of course, good journalism is not fast and it is not cheap. The news industry has been spiraling for at least fifteen years at this point, if not far longer. Newsrooms that once bristled with reporters hungry for stories are now ghost towns strewn with virtual tumbleweeds. Without the essential gatekeeping of clear, contextualized journalism, disinformation purveyors are liberated to dance on the grave of free speech and policy that affects huge numbers of people. Journalists already know what to do; newsrooms need the funding to allow them to the freedom to do it.
The role of fact-checking in journalism must not be neglected this time around. Gone are the days that gossip, hearsay, and specious stories can exist as journalism. In an increasingly internet-friendly world, there is no reason to not make sure that the online versions of each story are as open-source as they can be.
Likewise, the days in which articles and essays (or, heaven help us all, entire books) are presented without fact-checking should be quietly forgotten as long as there is an infrastructure that can maintain it.
Again, show your work.
Footnote your stories, if you must, or salt them with links. Explain why you took the angle that you did; don’t be afraid of embracing an angle or a slant in a story as long you are not secretive about your angle and why you chose it. The more information is available for readers to view or hear or experience, the easier it is to present a more complete story without doubts or accusations of bias.
Fact-checking should be regarded as a foundational part of journalism and never again should fact-checking teams be laid off to satisfy bottom lines and budgets that are, given the millions-strong payouts offered to talk show hosts who prove to be incapable of doing their jobs, clearly arbitrary.
As Jay Rosen with New York University has pointed out, newsrooms have to change their focus as well. The days of covering political races as though they were horse races need to end in favor of focusing on the electorate’s needs, and asking instead, “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?”
“Put it all together,” Rosen writes, “and the journalists covering the campaign have what they need to name, frame and synthesize the citizens agenda…. The citizens agenda, an exercise in high quality public listening, is both a published product (tested, designed, packaged properly for multiple platforms) and a template for covering the rest of the campaign. It tells you how to “win” at campaign coverage. Or stop losing.”
This human-focused reportage redirects journalism from the corporatist tactics it has increasingly taken over recent decades and focuses it squarely back on the people. This will takes more effort and offer up less immediate prestige than the “insidery” culture that permeates newsrooms with a political focus, but it would make stories from across the country infinitely more interesting and useful.
The role of the public
Finally, there is an onus on individuals who are receiving and pushing disinformation, whether they realize it or not. Some people act knowingly and willingly as nodes — purveyors of falsities and lies and misleading propaganda. Those people should be called out immediately for what they are in the public square. Their every public statement should be scrutinized and held up to past statements on the same topics. In fact, once their credibility has been thrown into question by deliberate lies or spreading false stories without a full apology and vow to work to do better in the future, the Alex Joneses, Jerome Corsis, and Roger Stones of the world (to name just a few of the more high-profile people who regularly push misinformation) should not be included in the public discourse at all without receiving strong pushback.
If someone is well-meaning but sharing stories “just in case,” however, or if they live in such fear that they believe every piece of corrosive disinformation that comes their way, their naturally limited reach would be (and should be) further curtailed by thoughtful, credible, openly sourced journalism.
If you don’t know where to start, media oversight groups such as the venerable Poynter and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) provide pointers to trusted news organizations and help you identify solid sources as well as help winkling out fake stories and bias.
Rules of thumb for detecting hoaxes and disinformation: If a site is loaded with ads and has multiple misspelled words and bad punctuation as well as no bylines, don’t trust any “news” stories that appear on it. Many viral hoaxes take little effort, because with a convincing enough headline, subheading, and photograph, the content of the story itself almost doesn’t matter. Don’t fall for it.
In the event that you do read the story, as opposed to just reading the headline, the rule of thumb is as follows: If a story arouses a strong emotion in you — whether it’s rage, fear, hate, even schadenfreude — then do not take it at face value. Do a quick online search for keywords in the story, and see what the coverage elsewhere looks like. Disinformation is at its best and most effective when it contains a little truth mixed in, too.
A way forward
To this end, I propose that the Big Three tech companies, Facebook, Twitter, and Google, put money into a foundation to be disbursed annually to small newsrooms. The money is there.
As much as good journalism costs, it is a pittance to the annual profits, past and present, of those gigantic companies, who have “disrupted” so many things that there might not be much left to disrupt very soon. The money would have to be donated transparently, but without fanfare, to a third-party foundation or trust so that it could be disbursed according to specific criteria decided upon by an elected board with full transparency and public input. It should be allocated with priority given to small local newsrooms, where coverage has most eroded. This should be given out annually for a set amount of time. That would provide the necessary firewall of public scrutiny to help prevent corruption.
This is also not unprecedented. The aforementioned Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were well known scoundrels of their time, disinformation purveyors for the sake of their circulation numbers, but each donated millions in the service of journalism and humanitarian affairs — and their legacies, as well.
A democratic government is a social contract should be entered into in freedom, for love of the greater good. In other words, the country that supports the health and safety of anyone within its borders and its nationals abroad, rather than having a government imposed from outside. This is not a libertarian diatribe, but a call to governments to remember that was created, first and foremost, with invisible bonds of trust and in doing so, entered into a pact with awesome responsibility — the conferred power of millions. To break that trust in a million small ways is to kill democracy by a thousand tiny cuts.
Power is conferred by the people and it should be done freely, with eyes wide open, and with the abilities of civic engagement, to be able to speak out and protest civilly or uncivilly, and to demand transparency and basic care from the governments and corporations that affect and control their lives. Journalism provides an opportunity for the government to speak to the people, and for the people to reply. It is an essential part of the democratic process.
The first step is to end the hold disinformation has on our lives and join the real world, made up of real facts and real events, in which real people are living — and dying.
Brooke Binkowski (@brooklynmarie) is the managing editor of TruthOrFiction.com, where she debunks misinformation and helps newsroom understand how to diagnose and slow the spread of disinformation. She is a veteran journalist with over two decades of experience, with a special focus on humanitarian and post-conflict stories, including writing for CNN, NPR, CBS, and the Wall Street Journal. Most recently, she was the managing editor of Snopes.com.
[Image Credit: UNESCO handbook for journalism education to fight disinformation]