Good afternoon! I am a real Vasily Gatov (not fake one) and Im a real visiting fellow at USC Annenberg. I am going to speak about fake news - very popular yet extremely broad subject that has come into our life as professionals, as citizens, as media consumers not really long ago.We need to use this uncomfortably broad term - too broad to be scientific as we strive to comprehend the emerged new reality, and develop some protective, salvage measures.
Why is fake news a threat, an Enemy with capital E - to both democracy and journalism?
Apparently, fake news and weaponized information became a number one issue in American press and political debate. It spreads to many other countries, including Germany, France, Italy and others. Its also the most significant challenge to journalism and the news industry as Oxford Reuters Institute stated in the report earlier this year. Fake news endangers journalism from multiple directions, undermining Trust (something we relied upon for some generations), cutting into a revenue base and intercepting audiences the source of media purpose of existance. Not to say, Fake news infect democracy with multiple unwanted diseases. But fake news is not a new phenomenon, and thats one of the keys for understanding the issue.One more note: many people in media, in regulatory
sphere and in politics see Fake news as a technology driven problem, But fortunately for us and unfortunately for them this is not purely a technological problems.
Just a quick note on the lost on the last. Many people are quick to blame our hate-loved partners like Facebook, Twitter and Google for the creation of the fake news phenomenon, well, may be not creation as such but in providing a rich soil for them. Understandingly, when we speak about someone or someone we deeply hate and deeply in love with we cannot make a decent distinction between the rolls this thing go to this person place in our sailors and our problems.
Unfortunately I cannot insert a mirror into a PowerPoint. Because most of the problems we are going to discuss in the next few minutes are completely about ourselves. The cause of the fake news phenomenon is entirely human, and it is about our very own human imperfections, human social problems and frustrations. In my opinion, technology advances and different malignant actors who try to wrap night information are much less important components in this equation. However, they are indispensable for us when we try to develop a cure, an antidote to this life-threatening illness.
Well, well, - we just we will discuss Him later! I know everyone wants to know, but wait a bit for a bore professorial lecture to take the pace of NYT op-ed
So, as I said - the problem is us, the problem is you. We are not these perfect creature imagined by Plato in vision in six century BC who live in well designed future republic. Besides of things that Leon Festinger explored about 100 years ago - selective exposure to communication, and confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance avoidance Michael Fouclaut and Nicholas Luhman explained later the necessity for human beings to maintain the reality connection, making us prone to ignorant, illogical affection towards conservative agenda of preservation of unpreservableBut we also have novelty, a new entrant into this Portfolio of imperfections: digital social networks amplified performative behavior well, they call it sharing craze, or FOMA syndrome (fear of mission
out). For a socially networked human it becomes increasingly important to demonstrate allegiance to certain shared knowledge, shared views or consumption pattern in order to fell less loneliness and isolation, that grows in hyperconnected world. Sharing is a performative act, and it drives at least a half of Fake news power.
The second most dominant issue we need to deal with is society changes. Not only these changes are fast and omnipresent, but they via an aforementioned Reality Maintenance feature invoke an open, sometimes aggressive frustration. Ordinary people feel and protest negative effects of globalization (especially changing demographics, kudos to Alternative fur Deutschland); multiplied by the factor of digital divide, comes a important generational shift, reflected not only in different values of Millennials and Generation Z , but also in an acute rejection of the previous generations values, both political, life and consumer.
The third component of the fake news assault on our democracy in our profession: digital weapons. Im not speaking about specific pieces of software or hacker tools, but Im speaking about those glossy nice things every and each of you have in your pocket. Smart phones, iPhones and connected applications are the weapons of personal distraction or maybe even mass destruction (or, in Marxian speech destruction of masses). Its easy to assign the blame to mobile phones and digital applications because never in history the piece of technology has been so rapidly adopted buy so many; but unless we also underline that permanent Net access is a dual use technology, this indictment will be incomplete. Like in at the dawn of nuclear Era, International agency
for atomic energy created a list of dual use materials and technologies, that may lead to exploration of a nuclear fission and creation of an A-bomb, these new digital technologies were invented for good (remember Googles motto do no evil?) but now we know they can be turned into weapons. Theres weapons could be directed against particular humans, or particular societys or humankind in general.
You know Russians, they cannot leave any lecture without a proper reference to out great culture and literature, and I am no exclusion. Chekhovs gun hangs on the wall in the first act and this mean it will definitely fire in the third one. Most of the technologist and problems we are discussing in connection with fake news have emerged long before 2016, or are persistent to human nature and social tissue. Few prophets warned us to be prepared to some kind of digital dystopia (Manuel Castells and Eugeny Morozov among them), but very few people in government and tech really listened to them. And the gun (or, probably, it was the whole battery of rocket-propelled artillery) fired in the third act so to say.
Transitional societies like Russia - with weak press and
low journalism standards became exposed to domestic versions of Fake News much earlier than the West. Same applies to the role of digital technology in Arab Spring, in formation of ISIS internet insurgency. For concerned scientists it always was not to know on the existence of a trigger but a waiting when it is pulled.
To understand how fake news phenomenon today, we need to take a very brief history lesson. It could be said the fake news is a kid of modern propaganda who probably serve as his mother, and digital technology that somehow worked as a father of this unwanted child. Theres one important thing to note about modern propaganda which not many people understand. Born in the fire of the world wars, propaganda has a very important feature -indoctrination. Unlike a military device propaganda doesnt want to kill you, it wants you to obey act and think as the perpetrator of your brain needs.
The works of Clyde Miller and the Lord Ponsonby, published in 1920s-1930s, explain to us how propaganda really works; very important input to the study of propaganda has been done by a French scientist Jaques Eiulle in 1970s. He discovered and explained the so-called confusion arch principle, the one that best describes the way malicious messaging get into your brain and manipulate your behavior.
It all starts from YOUR own confusion that converts part of your mind into an investigative media consumption device. Confused, or frustrated by uncomfortable reality, human mind ENGAGES, looks for answers. Because of the engagement, and confusion, it really searches for simple answers in a hope, that the
simplicity will stop, abolish a frustration. Thats where declarative, mindset-addressing propaganda sneaks in! By PLOPPING A MINDSET, some sort of childish simplified thinking, it offers LIKELY SOLUTION (usually, the one that is completely against your interests). Its a bit like us, making our children to to wash hands or brush teeth or clean up their toys after the play. By hooking up on a mindset, propaganda propels certain action (or inaction, in some cases like this war is already lost, why should you risk your life). Theres no propaganda that just informs you, it needs you to act, to be programmed to do something dictated by a mindset. That is REAL propaganda goal. Indoctrinate a target and propel a desired behavior.
In case of fake news and postmodern propaganda, the biggest difference is that it has no goals. Even more, its so very postmodern that the production and distribution of this propaganda (and fake news faction) is the only goal of its existence. It skips a part of confusion, the part of mindset, even the part of action incitement. The only thing it really seeks is engagement. As we entered attention economy, we also dumped into attention-only propaganda (and advertising, to be exact). All other components may or not may be present. But the only thing modern propaganda and fake news needs - from you is your attention. Because it pays, because it converts into a hard cash, whether it
comes from Google AdSense, adversary government, ISIS, whoever.
Here comes the question I cannot avoid in a wake of recent elections in Germany (and, of course, US presidential, France presidential et cetera). If modern propaganda and fake news have no other goal than just attention, why it is so consistently connected to a success of right-wing, populist and conservative resurgence in many countries?In order to answer this question, we need another very short lesson on political science.
Donald Trump loves television, loves twitter, loves attention. I probably can stop behind saying this, as all the key words are here. Yes, populism of the new historical period is nothing than attention politics. Is strives for your attention, being ready to do actually everything, say everything, promise everything to keep you, as voter and citizen, engaged.
But as it shares the powerful weapon with propaganda, populism also enriches the turf for all kinds of media communications. Both for true and false media, just the later are quicker and not morally strained to use this rich soil of unconsciousness. An important note to what is on the screen: both fake news and populism politics blossom in polarized societies; more people are divided and more narrow margin defines electoral victories more turf both will find for ongoing success.Fake news utilize digital goodies better and more efficient than traditional news organizations. Populist politicians exploit mass media far better than traditional leaders. Share button and retweet function are their best friends, second only to social human imperfections.But as I just indoctrinated you, utilizing a simple
messaging technique called framing (by putting one issue into a context of another, more clear and therefore providing you with a simple answer), we also need a minute of Media Effects study to further explore the subject.
The founding father of modern communication theory, Wilbur Schramm, once noted that media development cannot outpace the society development. Press only survives if it matches the levels of its audiences. Such match provides mass media with its most important feature Trust, something that Fake News challenges and attacks all the time, alongside with populism.
I mentioned before that a concept of dual-use technology is something to be addressed in a Fake news debate. The prominent feature that makes Fake news (and digital propaganda) so powerful is FREE. My friend and ex-editor of WIRED USA Chris Anderson one wrote a book, called FREE where he explained that internet wins amid all competition, scrutiny and criticism because it has a major competitive advantage
This FREE option makes a given, no-brand, no-trust, no-quality fake news site a steep advantage: not only it comes to you for free, it also spends money to be delivered to you, via Google SEO tools, or Facebook advertising, or influencer marketing. And never forget that trust, trustworthiness is a target for all kinds of fake news and propaganda. They will save no method to make you feel dissatisfied with legacy, real media (even labeling them MSM, or lame-stream media, like Donald Trump). Press freedom, trust with press is fertilizer for a democracy, but for fake news it is an insecticide, a poison pill.
Before coming to some practical suggestions how will the journalism survive this offensive (and yes, I remember my promise to tell you about Putin)? I will briefly provide an unconventional classification of Fake news. Not all of them are equal, they carry different powers and require different treatment.
While some of the remedies may sound banal, we should not fall into a rejection of moral and professional simplicity of the tools. While our mutual adversaries may look shielded and unconstrained, they have a few weak spots and this is a permanent. Fake news and decisively propaganda are opaque, non-transparent in their intentions and methods. By no means they are accountable; and, sharing this with populist politics, they all are irresponsible. As they goal for a maintenance of your attention, for distraction of you from what is real and important, they never care about the community the audience you, as journalist, editor, publisher live with. Gordon Pennycook and his Yale collegues recently published a great research that dissects internal working of digital propaganda: by substituting a real, factual agenda with GeoPolitics, or
invented scandalous events or sayings, fake news managed to hop onto reality maintenance imperfection. Meanwhile, what differentiates REAL news and REAL societal role of the press, is a deep and hearty connection with local and national interests.
When 2016 constituted the year of post-truth with all those alternative facts, promulgating conspiracy theories, public lying and whatever else is in arsenal of anti-democracy, the issue of debunking became central, especially for media activists and watchdogs. While falsehood debunking is a necessary and understandable desire of journalism that faces a lying competitor, lying politician or institution not always it really works, and sometimes debunking even makes it worse. Brendan Nyhan from Dartmouth College and Adam Berinsky of MIT both made an important contribution to our understanding of the machinery here. Debunking does not provide a correction especially for those who are already biased; worse, it contributes to a further delusion of the press trust. In a polarized political context it compromises the very
institutions of integrity (like snopes.com and other factchecking services) as biased consumers would rather decline logic and common sense, and dive deeper in their filter bubble than accept hard and uncomfortable truth.
Theres some interesting historical examples of working solutions to counter fakes and falsehood propaganda. In 1981-1994, Active Measures Working group was a critical component of the Cold War remedy to Soviet militarized information. But it only worked well because it sat on USIA infrastructure (making it at least partially integral to national and international policy), and because US leadership realized the importance and value of the AMWG work. Confluence of research, political integrity and leadership support made this case prominent. None of todays replicas to AMWG contain or rely onto aforementioned features. They exist at least by now as private or social initiatives, without integration with national politics (or alliance politics, for NATO and EU).
Yes, here it comes, Vladimir Vladimirovich, running a secret machine of propaganda and placing his bets against democracy and freedom. That was a joke!
No rational analyst would challenge US Intelligence conclusion on Russian meddling in presidential elections in 2016. Not that the fact is undeniably proven with a hard evidence (at least yet), but too many details emerged and will emerge. The only major reservation I have as both Russian and communications expert is a question of scale. Basically, in the behemoth media campaign Hillary spend almost 1.1 bln dollars, Trump camp outed 0.4 bln Russian factor was pretty petite, and unlikely decisive. But:
Whatever details we will know in future, it does not change an important all-round conclusion Vladimir Putin had intentions and powers and, possibly, tools to hurt American democracy in the same way he THINKS United States were hurting countries and governments
whom the White House despises.
What needs to be explained, is the nature of Russian conduct, the reasons that brought Putin to hybrid weapons (I use hybrid in brackets as this term is all way wrong). Unlike USSR and Communist leaders, Putin does not want to conquer the world. What he seeks and attempts to achieve with operations similar to US presidential election in 2016 is defensive, it is protection of his power hold from external dangers. He equalizes his own interests with national interests of Russia and contrary to real national interests spends great fortune, time and effort of making nasty things to neighbors and global influencers. And he will continue to do so.
Russian factor in fake news and propaganda field has one grand power (that is simultaneously a great weakness). Propaganda is just the tip of the iceberg; corruption is the real Russian export. Not RT weakens democracy, but proliferation of embezzlement; not fake news really supports far right and populists, but cash injections (sometimes coupled with clandestine assistance). No one exemplifies this present and constant danger better than your former chancellor, who enjoys lush Gazprom payouts and Putins friendship. Schroeder embodies the hypocritical nature of the West political elites; along with other Vlads buddy Silvio Berlusconi.And, would I risk my prophetical reputation, I must say: this will not change until Russia changes. So, fighting against fake news and digital propaganda must
include, as default, support for changes in Russia.
So, after I drew a murky picture where enemies are powerful and persisting, I may resort to a few recommendations what may strengthen remaining positions of quality journalism against the Enemy with capital E. It will be suicidal to stop reporting the news. The news is a blood of the current society. Make news and information central to every effort, not views and analysis. In a world of post-truth, objective facts still matter most.Keep transparency, integrity and accountability. Embrace them, underline that your media products are responsible, open, impartial. Dont be shy to show your underpants, but dont make striptease your business.Be wary of technology solutions, even if you firmly believe Facebook, Twitter and Google must pay their
share in cleaning up the house. Tech giants will butfarless efficient unless you provide them with good reasons to employ the full power of a corporate censorship, and push for responsible use of this completely undemocratic tool.
I mentioned Active Measure Working Group before, but need to resort to this history lesson again. One less known part of AMWG work was a preparation of policy recommendations that covered areas of Soviet active measures and played well for Soviet aggressive propaganda. Targeted societies, targeted political systems should not be purely defensive, and reject legitimate criticism that often mixes up with falsehoods. Society is never perfect. Theres always those in need, in danger, in repression; one of the main parts of real journalism is fighting for underrepresented.
Dont antagonize The Technology. Even if Google and Facebook are guilty in your eyes, they didnt mean it. Help them to identify the problems, correct them but do not make more enemies.
Be careful with debunking, do no harm. Sometimes it is not necessary to repeat a lie if you want to argue with it. Challenge facts, but not someones poisoned interpretation of them.
Well, Russians are bad but they did not steal all the bicycles in Amsterdam. Do not fall into an easy trap of prepared mindset-invoking answer (as you may remember, this is one of the core propaganda arch components). Do investigative reporting, but: never forget it should be entertaining. Old style lengthy document-full revelations will not work in fast-paced digital consumption. Of course, it looks very authoritative and may make you feel proud and accomplished. But the consumer wants something different shareable bites, well positioned within a contemporary context.And one very last thing. Adverse propaganda and its sibling malicious fake news are very unhappy creatures. They thrive on problems, on despair, on troubles and conflicts. While this gives them access to
frustrated minds, this is another weak spot, Achilles heel of the Enemy with capital E. Staying positive, constructive, open-minded is an antidote to fake news.