At the AEJ’s Congress in Vilnius, Lithuania on 17 November journalists, editors, Internet experts and academics from the Baltic region and around Europe attempted to answer big questions about the future of news. William Horsley reports…
The collapse of media business models and the flooding of the space of journalism by merchants of mischief, falsehood and trivia have led many to ask ‘what’s the point of journalists’? Participants said solutions lie in the vocation of journalism to speak truth to power, fuelled by sharpened skills, collaboration and enterprise.
Lithuanian journalists welcomed colleagues from across Europe to what they called the frontline of an ‘information war’, and gave a host of examples of media disinformation and campaigns of political subversion orchestrated, they said, by Russia. Lithuania’s Vice Foreign Minister, Darius Skusevicius, set out the government’s view that the spread of hostile disinformation to the Baltic states and elsewhere was an extension of Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine and must be firmly repulsed.
Long-time Lithuanian Russia-watcher Marius Laurinavicius, claimed that the methods being used for ‘ideological subversion’ by RT and other Russian state media today are essentially the same as those used by the Soviet Union in the Cold War. But the uniquity of social media adds greatly to the impact of those messages, spreading confusion and fuelling social disruption. The meeting heard that state-run Russian media are watched by a quarter of Lithuania’s population, and a record 30 percent of the country’s voters backed parties of protest in the latest election.
AEJ president Otmar Lahodynksy said the work of the EU’s East Stratcom Task Force proved the scale of Russia’s information war beyond doubt: the unit has exposed thousands of cases of black propaganda, including efforts to provoke anti-establishment upsets in elections in the US, France and Germany.
The AEJ’s plenary annual gathering was held amid a flood of revelations about the extent of Russia’s use of trolls, bots, fake social media accounts and old-fashioned spies allegedly to influence voters in western states to vote for populist right-wing or protest parties, and to promote mistrust of their governments and national media. This molnth the British prime minister, Theresa May, accused President Putin’s government of ‘weaponising’ disinformation to undermine free societies and sow discord in the west with fake news stories and cyber attacks.
Some participants were concerned that no Russian journalists were present to answer these charges of systematically partisan reporting. One delegate questioned whether fears of the real effects of Russian ‘subversion’ might be exaggerated. But speaker after speaker pointed to examples of exposés of falsehoods or media manipulation by Russian media or its surrogates. Cases cited included ‘fake news’ about dangerous gangs of neo-Nazis in Estonia, Moslem rapists among refugees in Germany, and Bulgarian soldiers refusing to fire at ‘Russian’ targets during a NATO training exercise. Speakers identified the Kremlin-backed ‘Internet Research Agency’ and the topwar.ru website as regular sources of false news or disinformation.
Brian Whitmore, senior Russia analyst for Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, argued that President Putin’s Russia is replicating internationally the system of information and political control that he has established inside Russia. It consists, he said, of managed elections backed by mafia-like networks of corruption and organised crime. In his analysis, Vladimir Putin recognised Europe’s commitment to transparent and accountable government as a serious threat to his regime. Thus the democratic ‘Rose revolution’ in Georgia in 2003 and the ‘Orange revolution’ in Ukraine in 2004-5 prompted the Kremlin to establish a range of aggressive-defensive organisations, like the pugnacious pro-Kremlin youth movement ‘Nashi’ at home and the TV station RT to take the ‘information war’ out to countries to the west of Russia.
So what can or should journalists and polcy-makers do? Participants in the Vilnus debates suggested that journalists and policy-makers should wake up and do quite a lot of things that they haven’t got round to while they wring their hands about the whole situation. To start with, fake news lives off a lack of professionalism, one said. Many journalists don’t check their sources, and don’t do enough to keep their data secure online.
Liepa Zeiniene, who works for a highly successful news portal called 15min.lt, says journalism is not dying, it always has to contend with hostile conditions. Its purpose and salvation lie in investigative journalism, like the Panama Papers revelations by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Aiste Zilinskiene, who works for an online media association, said it is up to journalists and civil society to demand and push for safeguards and a level playing-field for media independence against the excessive influence over news content in the hands of politicians and media owners. Mikko Salo of the Finnish anti-fake news outfit Faktabaari said ‘Fact-checking is the antidote to the dangers of a post-truth and post-fact world’.
The harsh reality remains that the direct-sales-and-advertising business model which sustained mainstream media for over 100 years has been gutted by the near-monopoly control of online distribution of content by the giant technology and social media companies like Facebook and Google.Guest panellist Llewellyn King, the main host of White House Chronicle, a weekly news and public affairs TV show aired on PBS in the USA, deplored the fact that very low pay levels in most of the US media mean that few if any journalists now cover local courts and state legislatures in America — so, as he puts it, ‘corruption thrives’.
The lively exchanges at the AEJ’s Vilnius Congress are going to grow more intense. The Association of European Journalists, with active journalists in a score of European countries, is resolved to draw on the first-hand knowledge and experience of its members across Europe. The European Commission is now inviting submissions to a public consultation on ways of countering ‘fake news and online disinformation’, and AEJ journalists will make their voices heard.