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Freedom vs Fakes – an expert´s guide

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Sofia, June 06, 2021

by Irina Nedeva, AEJ Special Representative for Disinformation

Media literacy does not merely concern how the general public consumes media or distinguishes between types of media. It also has to do with the media literacy (sometimes illiteracy) of the media themselves. Below is what I had to tell my audience in my keynote address to the national conference organised by the Friedrich Naumann foundation on Media Literacy In Bulgaria – What have we learned from the crises? 

Irina Nadeva – pre-debunking nonsense

The conference was in turn part of the global FNF’s campaign #FreedomFightsFake, which helps empower citizens around the globe to think critically and to ‘pre-debunk’ disinformation. It was the only event in Bulgaria included in UNESCO’s Global Media and Information Literacy Week. I tried to address two of my main concerns –  disinformation and media literacy in Bulgaria.  

I vividly remember a story posted by a friend on social media. The setting was an office of the National Revenue Agency (NRA). Everyone entering had to have their temperature taken, but a lady refused – in order to avoid damage to her third eye, she said. When an official explained that taking people’s temperatures was a COVID-related measure, the woman started yelling: ‘You Illuminati, you! You won’t get me, you won’t !’

At my desk at the radio station this morning, I happened upon an e-mail from a listener trying to convince me that there was no such thing as COVID-19 and that we, the media, were out to deceive the public.

The argument: TV stations do not show footage of patients in ICU. The e-mail contained links…to all manner of websites: tabloid and yellow press, the pseudo-scientific websites of allegedly scientific institutes which on inspection immediately turn out to be anything but scientific.fake_factWebsites churned out by the hundreds.  There were links to videos by pseudo-scientists and compilations studded with fabrications oddly mixed with an occasional text from a reputable publication.

Indeed, a crisis – be it a pandemic, a traffic accident, the plague of terrorism, war, or a natural disaster – is also an information crisis that coaxes us into death-by-drowning in an ocean of disinformation and emotion.

It is the errata and corrigenda section that sets quality media and truly professionally-edited newspapers apart from the rest. It shows that they are willing to devote time to issues, to slow down, rewind, and check their facts.

Irina Nedeva, AEJ

It is no accident that this conference lays emphasis on media literacy, on the faculty of discernment that our society must foster as early as our school years.

Media literacy does not merely concern the general public, how it consumes media content and distinguishes between types of media. It also has to do with the media literacy of the media themselves.

This is where I lay my own emphasis. I am currently addressing you in my capacity as a representative of the Association of European Journalists, an organisation committed to upholding the highest professional standards of journalism. I am also here in my capacity as a journalist in a medium that is still relevant today, Bulgarian National Radio (BNR).

HOW SOCIAL MEDIA FEED PUBLIC DISTRUST

Media literacy for the media themselves? Why? Because reputable, tried and tested media are becoming a target for the growing public distrust in institutions, politicians, elites, and authorities. And this distrust is skilfully fuelled and exploited by social media, groups sharing particular interests, cults, and all those active circles of ardent believers and communities that often hide behind the façade of “alternative media”. 

These reputable, tried and tested media cannot afford to look down on the rest from their ivory towers. What is more, no – it’s not social media alone that is to blame for this.

SPEEDING UP THE FLOW OF NONSENSE

Technology, the Internet, ever easier and ever quicker connectivity, multiple connectivities in fact (I am certain that you have at least two alternative applications allowing you to reach your contacts on your smartphones), and the increase in the speed with which we share and exchange information –  a process which has by now become instantaneous – have all contributed to a complete overhaul of our way of life.

Reality started ceding its position to (increasingly  weaponised)  online communication much earlier than when pandemic and quarantine became commonplace. And the latter has long since exerted pressure on the media.

Even the most robust media have sped up their work, feeling the need to catch up and produce appetising headlines, and the time devoted to fact-checking has shrunk, effectively disappearing… Speed is everything.

FACT-CHECKING COSTS TIME AND MONEY

To remain relevant, to be read, you have to post material first and in a big way. The old rule of using three sources to check information is steadily becoming a bygone. This is not because finding three sources now is a challenge, but because you can easily access a full 300 of them.  

Yet, there is something else that we are now desperately short of. We lack something essentially vital now!… We lack the time needed for fact-checking. This is because of market pressure, rating considerations, and clickbait.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU PUBLISH A MISTAKE?

Beirut explosion – clickbait?

In countries such as our own, where the media climate has been skewed just as the market itself has been by the tainted trade-off between political and economic vested interests, where it all comes down to labels such as ‘shocking’, ‘bomb’ (the latter often spelled without the ‘b’ because the lack of media literacy runs parallel to a dearth of literacy in general).

What is the difference between our situation and that of the reputable German TV station covering the conflict in Ukraine which made a mistake? It was misled by a trusted source, or perhaps the source itself was misled? The TV station responded by correcting its coverage and set up a fact-checking department to which it appointed its best editors.

It is the errata and corrigenda section that sets quality media and truly professionally-edited newspapers apart from the rest. It shows that they are willing to devote time to issues, to slow down, rewind, and check their facts.

This is their distinguishing mark.  It sets them apart from media and websites relying on peak audiences and shock value and thirsting to be recognised as the ultimate and quickest authority on issues. These last never apologise.

MEDIA AS A WEAPON

To their minds, checking the veracity of information is a mere waste of time, and information itself takes the form of anything that comes to mind for a reporter looking to make an impression, an editor seeking to suck up to his or her boss, or an owner of a medium who sees it as a tool for tarnishing the reputation of someone they have been asked to damage.

Going back to the e-mail I received, I felt like writing the following reply: ‘Sir, you are not shown the faces of ill people because they are not in a position to give their consent, you cannot see what it is like in ICUs because access procedures and protecting teams of journalists are not a quick and easy task and our media seem to be after a quick story. They increasingly resemble information fast-food factories, they work with elements, be they footage or photographs, stored on their visual databanks, at third party companies, or, worst of all, simply uploaded online.

CYBER-MACDONALDS

This global media fast-food plant currently produces more information (or “information”) than at any time in history. More information than we can consume is produced, as in that famous phrase about the Balkans ‘producing more history than they can consume’. We can observe that this trend has remained evergreen, finding manifestation in our present-day foreign affairs.

Indeed, let’s go back to our newsrooms! This will grow more and more important. Let’s invest the media with meaning again. It is not just the general public that is in need of media freedom. The same goes for the media themselves.

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

Three years ago, in 2017, the AEJ (of which the AEJ – Bulgaria Section forms part) decided that a collective brainstorming exercise involving participants from all national sections was needed. Our aim was to look into the way journalists are to tackle the huge problem of disinformation.

We participated in public consultations organised by the European Commission but first we drafted a consolidated set of answers, collecting responses to all questions of importance to national sections, to know where we stood on the issue and what we wished to advocate.

It turned out that we were not alone. Voices from academia and other international organisations of journalists joined the chorus, along with the Council of Europe, which hosts the Platform for the [Protection of Journalism and] Safety of Journalists. In 2019, the Platform included a disinformation strand in its analysis of threats to journalists.

Instead of dwelling on details, I would like to acquaint you with the main takeaways:

1. Firstly, the term ‘fake news’ is misleading and dangerous because it is considered the weapon of choice of populist politicians, who tend to blame their opponents or the media that are critical of them by alleging that they churn out fake news.

The ‘fight’ against fake news has become a flagship of the extreme right in Europe, a weapon that the extreme right uses to lash out at calls for not allowing the issue of hate speech to escalate further.

2. Second, tech giants and platforms are part of the problem, so they alone cannot serve as its solution, or cannot combat a problem that has been compounded and fuelled by other bots and algorithms.

We cannot and should not allow artificial intelligence to make judgments as to what constitutes disinformation since it is not capable of distinguishing the tangled, complex cancerous tissue of disinformation. This has now reached pandemic proportions, a tissue consisting of morsels of truth or half-truth, falsehoods, facts, and opinions.

Someone has to be aware of the relevant context and remind of its significance because the lack of such a compass would result in disparate interpretations and, ultimately, a failure to understand the situation.

3. Third, we issued a warning, explaining that a project-based approach would result in expert and advocacy NGOs creating products only within the framework of their dedicated projects.

As early as the consultation stage, we recommended the EU’s institutions support not just non-media fact-checking organisations but also traditional media and advised them to find ways in which to create conditions conducive to quality journalism.

LOOK CLOSELY – STICK YOUR NOSE IN THE GRASS

We argued that it was enough to observe the situation in countries like Bulgaria to understand why we are struggling. We urged them to consider mechanisms to guarantee the independence of journalists’ investigations and that of the editing process.

As an aside, I should mention that there is ongoing work on the issue at the European Commission and the European Parliament, with the latter being in the process of drafting a resolution. The media are now in the spotlight as regards issues pertaining to the rule of law and are there to stay.

Petya Dyulgerova, Neumann Foundation, Bulgaria

Fact-checking is indispensable to professional and responsible media nowadays. Without it, they cannot and should not attempt to navigate our context, which is ridden with beliefs and interpretations and hence made more complex.

JOURNALISM vs PUBLIC RELATIONS

We have to consider what the media can do to ensure their editors stay with them instead of making them seek their fortune on the labour market, where they go on to work as better-paid PR experts or, in the best-case scenario, researchers whose pay is, sadly, often lower.

How can the media keep from going so far as to dispense with revisers. How do they slow down and check the veracity of information before they publish it? How do they take the time to see whether a picture circulating online or a text copied from one press release, institution or Twitter account to the next is factual or spreading harmful fiction?

Indeed, let’s go back to our newsrooms! This will grow more and more important. Let’s invest the media with meaning again.

A TRUTH ENGINE – WHY NOT?

It is not just the general public that is in need of media freedom. The same goes for the media themselves.

My AEJ – Bulgaria colleagues will show you what our work in this sphere is about. The sCOOL Media project is of importance because some of the students with whom we work within this framework will become the journalists of tomorrow and they will do better than us. Others among them will be among the listeners, viewers, and readers of the future and they will enjoy a greater understanding of the food that is media content and how they ought to consume it.

The series on the infodemic, which deals with disinformation about the novel coronavirus and the pandemic, is our joint project with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. Above all, I would like to point you to our Guide on Online Fact-Checking. The Guide may be downloaded in Bulgarian free of charge from our website. 

Fact-checking is indispensable to professional and responsible media nowadays. Without it, they cannot and should not attempt to navigate our context, which is ridden with beliefs and interpretations and hence made more complex.

 The Naumann Foundation notes that Irina Nedeva´s speech at the opening of the conference enabled the formation of key partnerships between organizations in different sectors and provided opportunities for cooperation between the stakeholders from business, civic society, institutions, international organizations. This initiative was organized with the Media Literacy Coalition and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) together with the Ministry of Culture, Active Citizens Fund, Ministry of Education and Science, German-Bulgarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce, American Chamber of Commerce in Bulgaria, Bulgarian Association of Software Companies, Bulgarian Public Relations Association, and Branch Association of Bulgarian Telecommunication Operators. 

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