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10.7.2017

Thoughts on Disinformation

The phenomenon of disinformation is to a certain degree linked to the fact that we are living in an era where we no longer “consume” the media the same way we used to. At the same time, even the most progressive of us do not really catch up with the sources of information that the youth seek. So there is this overall disharmony coupled with a bit of a knee-jerk reaction and fascination with new tech. Add to it the polarization of society (echo chambers and filter bubbles) and here you are in July 2017.

Been There, Done That

What have we experienced so far? Hacking, automated social media accounts (i.e. polbots on Twitter), junk news, …

In terms of fake news, the scene has been mapped, we are now fairly certain we know a junk news site when we see one and people regularly monitor the existing ones.

There are attempts to demonetize the business (e.g, Sleeping Giants) and we have great teams of fact-checkers (Bellingcat).

People are also finally doing research on social media!

StratCom teams are being set up on national and international level. Politicians and bureaucrats are forced to talk to citizens and propose counter-narratives to the doom and failure that the so-called alternative news propagate.

New media organizations are popping up, often based outside of the country’s capitals, working online and experimenting with new journalistic forms such as VR.

Oh the Glorious Future

As hard as it is to predict any trends for the future, we need to step up our game. And to be honest – it is better to be ready for something that never comes than to be always lagging behind.

What seems to be taking shape at the moment is the use of memes in political communication. I do not mean just Pepe the frog but given that high-schoolers acknowledge that their knowledge about the world comes from places such as 9gag, it may become more prominent.

Tied to that is our insufficient knowledge about these social media. We are learning how to analyze Twitter and Facebook, but other places (which are not that new) are gaining traction: 4chan, 8chan, Reddit, 9gag; including their country-specifics variations.

New tech will be abused. Any novel format that the society will gradually adopt will be part of disinformation operations. It may be a cool VR game that let’s you experience a conflict in a far away country or targeted political messaging based on the data we voluntarily leave behind as we surf the web and use our smart devices.

Media, Education, and Everything Else

“There is no simple solution” – everybody ever asked about solution to fake news.

Yes, there is no simple solution but there are couple of things which may work in certain contexts and which I am particularly fond of:

  • Media Education – get to the schools and talk to the students about what they are interested in. Show them how cool verification is on issues that they care about (which may not be politics or anything you consider important, if they learn to reverse-search images just to know where to buy that cool dress or handbag, that’s absolutely fine with me). We can also call this digital resilience, although that sounds slightly defensive to me.
  • Media Cooperation – professional solidarity but also virtual newsrooms where different kinds of media outlets work on the same story and then amplify their articles / videos / snapchats or whatever through their network. If you want to write an awesome longform piece by all means go for it – but try to use that material in formats accessible to wider public. (Quality and independent journalism is a sine qua non for this to be functional)
  • Customized fact-checking, researching the troll-bots networks, pressuring politicians to refrain from using junk media, etc. – I love these and I do think that they are important, but at the same time they feel a bit like “the next level”. That is by no means to say that we should give up on them, it is just my sense of prioritizing. And do not get me wrong, it is fascinating to see how much we can discover using new tech, but we should not forget the basics – journalism and education (how old-fashioned of me!).

This blog post was written as an after-thought after 2-day #DigitalSherlocks Summit in Warsaw by our colleague Radka Pudilova. It was originally published at www.techtrends.cz.

Radka Pudilová Project Coordinator radka.pudilova@osf.cz