“As much as I want the power of truth to be able to win without no other engagement necessary, I fear that – as we flag totems of “impartiality” and “objectivity” – the response to the challenges posed by fake news, propaganda and misinformation is often lacking in effectiveness.”
By Antonina Cherevko, IMS Regional Adviser for Eastern Europe and Policy & Law Reform
With the election of Donald Trump in the US, the term “fake news” became a buzz word. While some experts have claimed that we are dealing with a completely new phenomenon, others have pointed to the many past and existing examples of propaganda in the world’s political history. To me there is at least one distinct feature of today’s fake news production that makes it different from past examples. Previously, governments mainly used fake news and propaganda to consolidate authoritarian rule or mobilise the public within their own borders and populations. Now, systematic fake news production is employed to influence political agendas in other countries or at the international level. (Let’s recall how France’s President Macron openly called Russian TV channels Sputnik and Russia Today “organs of influence”)
Right from the start of the EuroMaidan protests in Ukraine in late 2013, Russia has employed a systematic fake news production in its actions against Ukraine – actions which ha resulted in the illegal annexation of Crimea back in the spring of 2014. A de facto war has been going on between the two countries since April 2014 and the systemic Russian misinformation and fake news production has become a major weapon in the war; an interesting overview of this can be found in the report “Main trends in media coverage of socio-political processes in Ukraine in 2014-2017” produced by the Ukrainian think-tank Detector MediaThe situation was also described well by Igor Yakovenko, a Russian media expert, at an event in Vilnius, Lithuania hosted by International Media Support:
“In classic cases, fake information is used to support actual warfare. In this case [e.g. Russia-Ukraine conflict] actual warfare was launched to support the information war.”
This is in line with what Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born British journalist, author and TV producer and fellow at London School of Economics, calls “weaponization of information”.
This phenomenon is obviously not limited to events in the region. What I am observing as a global trend is less freedom of expression and more of what Professor Monroe E. Price described as “strategic communication” in his book “Free Expression, Globalism, and the New Strategic Communication”: “forms and programmes of communication that are undergirded with a specific vision, programmes which are strategic insofar as they serve a larger set of goals”. In circumstances where “nothing is true and everything is possible”, people tend to ignore facts and believe in what they want to believe in and what is shared and approved within their close circles of relatives and friends. Also, the overall trust in media is decreasing and free expression standards are undermined by concurring strategic narratives.
As much as I want the power of truth to be able to win without no other engagement necessary, I fear that – as we flag totems of “impartiality” and “objectivity” – the response to the challenges posed by fake news, propaganda and misinformation is often lacking in effectiveness.
Firstly, fact-checking and propaganda-debunking initiatives are worth being supported, but I do feel sceptical about their reach and scope of impact. Why? These instruments are not pro-active; they are reactive and always late. They are more about restoring informational justice retroactively rather than about educating the readers there and then. Fake news has the potential to inflict significant damage before it is debunked. Another related concern for me relates to whether these fact-checking initiatives reach the same audience as is targeted by the original fake news piece? I find it unlikely that those who take in the fake news and those who read the fact-checking/debunking stories are the same groups of people.
Secondly, our long-standing commitment to liberal mind-set ensures a knee-jerk rejection of the so-called “negative measures”: limitations on or bans of certain media resources. We are convinced that prohibitions do not comply with freedom standards and simply do not work in the era of new technologies. Well, practice demonstrates that this is in fact incorrect. Coming back to my region, a legal ban on Russian TV channels in Ukraine contributed to a considerable drop in public trust in Russian media, now down at around 1.3 per cent only. Negative measures should obviously only be applied with caution, and are definitely not a universal cure against modern media ills – but we should stop denying that they can be effective and serve a legitimate cause.
It seems to me that in order to effectively combat fake news and misinformation, we must begin to ask ourselves why these stories become influential in the first place? I argue that fake news is successful because it taps into negative stereotypes and opinions which the targeted audiences already harbour. They do so by either confirming, promoting or enhancing such stereotypes. As our brains are flooded with news, we verify incoming information based on one question: how likely is this to be true? The mind answers this by using one’s existing stereotypes and beliefs. This is exactly the reason why the victory of truth and facts is practically impossible without including a fierce fight against negative stereotyping related to religion, gender, ethnicity, race and the likes. Amazingly the position of fighting stereotypes (in this particular case, stereotypes related to gender and age) has been recently addressed by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Carvalho Pinto de Sousa Morais v. Portugal.)
We need to acknowledge that, as pointed out in a Guardian article by the British writer Paul Mason: “In an ideological crisis, facts alone do not win arguments: narratives do”,. We need to have our own (positive) narrative, and we need to be ready to proactively promote our values and our cause. And to quote American Yale scholar Timothy Snyder: “Institutions only matter if we choose to understand them, if we choose to defend them.” I’d say the same goes for values and truth as part of them.
Ms. Cherevko’s blog post is a part of IMS’ blog post series where we invite IMS staff and experts working within freedom of expression and media development to share their thoughts and research on media trends and political affairs. The opinions expressed in the blog posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect that of International Media Support.
 http://osvita.mediasapiens.ua/detector_media_en/reports_eng/main_trends_in_media_coverage_of_sociopolitical_processes_in_ukraine_in_20142017_based_on_ngo_detector_medias_monitoring_results/ P.28-40
 Citation noted by the author of this article at the IMS media coordination event in Vilnius, in November 2014, where Igor Yakovenko was one of the speakers.
 Monroe E. Price, Free Expression, Globalism, and the New Strategic Communication (Cambridge University Press 2015), p.18 http://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/politics-international-relations/comparative-politics/free-expression-globalism-and-new-strategic-communication#BTQtOm0gzaEibboR.97
Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny. Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century (The Bodley Head, Penguin Random House UK, 2017) p.22-25