Our polluted information ecosystem

Even by recent standards, it’s been something of a banner week for our informational hellscape. The Justice Department’s inspector general issued a report debunking conspiracy theories about the FBI’s decision, in 2016, to open an investigation into potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, only for the attorney general of the United States, William Barr, to publicly dispute the IG’s findings. (Barr told NBC that the Russia probe was based on “a completely bogus narrative that was largely fanned and hyped by a completely irresponsible press.”) We learned, thanks to the Washington Post, that officials, over many years, systematically lied to the American people about the state of the war in Afghanistan. In Britain, a crucial general election has been muddied by fake news and crude manipulations—many of them pushed out by politicians. And then there’s impeachment. As Peter Baker, of the Times, wrote Monday, “There are days in Washington lately when it feels like the truth itself is on trial.”

Yesterday, these stories (and many others) formed the backdrop to a conference on disinformation at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, convened by CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “It seems almost unnecessary to talk about why this is important because I read the newspaper this morning,” Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, said by way of introduction. Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center, concurred. “I read Twitter,” she said.

Watch: Prepping the press on disinformation efforts in 2020

The conference was a reminder that disinformation is never a discrete problem: it operates across our global information ecosystem. On the day’s first panel, Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, offered environmental pollution as an analogy. “You would never point to one square foot of the ocean and restrict pollution to just that one square foot—that’s not how pollution works,” she said. “Pollution suffuses.” As with the natural world, industrial-scale polluters exist in the informational sphere—but, as Phillips pointed out, “You do not have to intend to pollute on this earth in order to pollute this earth.” Even the people trying to fix the problem are part of the problem. That includes journalists.

The day’s discussions—on election reporting in the disinformation age, the new mechanics of voter suppression, and the role of social-media platforms in our present mess—were an effort to parse the various, overlapping levels of the disinformation problem: the public and private, the national and international, and, importantly, the local. Leon Yin of The Markup, a soon-to-be-launched investigative news site focused on tech, reflected on research he conducted on the Internet Research Agency, Russia’s “troll farm,” and its activity on Twitter during the 2016 US election. Yin found that IRA accounts shared far fewer fake news stories than they did local news stories, especially those focused on crime and race. Many of the accounts he studied were themselves styled as fake local news outlets. “Local news is a vulnerability,” Yin said. And “race is a tool that can be used to draw divisions in American society.”

Disinformation—like pollution—does not respect national borders. Still, the nation—and one nation in particular—remains an important regulatory locus. The US “sort of bears responsibility for the entire world,” Carole Cadwalladr, the British journalist who helped break the Cambridge Analytica scandal, told Pope in her keynote interview at the conference. “You’ve got jurisdiction in a way we don’t have, and your news organizations… are taken notice of in a way which the rest of the world is not.” During the final panel of the day, Olaf Steenfadt, a former German TV journalist who now works for Reporters Without Borders, noted that when France moved recently to tax tech companies, the Trump administration threatened retaliatory tariffs—an indication, Steenfadt said, of the way the US prioritizes corporate welfare. “No judgment here,” he said, to laughs in the room. “Facebook and Google are a product of this, for better or worse.”

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Just as America’s regulatory heft makes it a magnet for scrutiny, our national elections next year—and media coverage of them—will be watched the world over for clues as to the state of global informational health. In his introductory remarks, Pope noted that disinformation adds layers of complexity to a climate that is already challenging for the press. “I don’t have a sense that lessons have been absorbed” since 2016, he said. “It seems to me that we’re heading down the same road.” Throughout the conference, panelists suggested ways in which we might change course. Shireen Mitchell, who works on diversity issues in media, tech, and politics, noted, for instance, that reporters should be more circumspect with stolen information, lest they aid malicious actors’ efforts to weaponize it.

As Phillips said, acknowledgement that we are a part of—not apart from—the hellscape is an essential prerequisite if we are to make progress. So is recognizing the scale of the problem we face. Returning to her environmental metaphor, Phillips said we need something like a Green New Deal, but for information. Even then, she warned, “It’s an open question as to whether or not we’ve crossed the Rubicon.”

Below, more on disinformation:

  • Watch it back: Other speakers at the conference included Hayes Brown, of BuzzFeed; Masha Gessen, of The New Yorker; Jonathan Albright, of the Tow Center; and Hamilton Nolan, recently of Splinter. You can watch the whole thing at this link.
  • The magazine: The conference jumped off of CJR’s latest print issue, also on disinformation, which has been rolling out online in recent weeks. The final piece to publish, by Mathew Ingram, is on Silicon Valley’s stonewalling. “Facebook and Twitter have aimed to demonstrate their eagerness to examine everything that went wrong in and around the [2016] election,” Ingram writes. “A number of researchers, however, say that the only tangible result of these endeavors has been the press releases.” You can find the whole issue—including Phillips’s piece on the futility of facts—here.
  • Consumption habits: A new study from the RAND Corporation found that 41 percent of Americans think the news has grown less reliable. “Perceptions of changes in news reliability were linked to patterns of accessing the news,” the report concludes. “Broadcast and cable television were perceived by the greatest number of people to be the most-reliable ways to get news. Social media and in-person communication were perceived as the most-reliable sources by the smallest number of respondents.”
  • Wray of light: On Monday, Christopher Wray, the FBI director, told ABC’s Pierre Thomas that he has seen no evidence that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election—a theory beloved of Trump and other top Republicans. “I think part of us being well-protected against malign foreign influence is to build together an American public that’s resilient, that has appropriate media literacy and that takes its information with a grain of salt,” Wray said. (Yesterday, Trump lit into Wray on Twitter, referring to him, somewhat conspicuously, as the “current Director of the FBI.”)
  • Ground control to Major Tom’s: We learned at the conference yesterday that NASA has an office around the corner from Columbia above Tom’s, the diner of Seinfeld fame. Emily Bell’s mind is still blown.


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday morning, House Democrats unveiled two articles of impeachment against the president; the articles charge that Trump abused the power of his office “to obtain an improper personal political benefit,” and mounted “unprecedented, categorical and indiscriminate defiance” of Congressional oversight. Elsewhere, Politico’s Daniel Lippman and Tina Nguyen profile Christianné Allen, a 20-year-old Instagram influencer and college student who, since September, has worked as communications director for Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer. Allen recently accompanied Giuliani to Ukraine, where he was shooting a documentary for the pro-Trump One America News Network. Per Betsy Swan and Asawin Suebsaeng, of The Daily Beast, OANN tried to score a US travel visa for a former Ukrainian official who says he has dirt on a company linked to the Bidens. Instead, the official went to jail in Germany on corruption charges.
  • Breaking this morning: Time magazine has named Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist, its person of the year for 2019. The other finalists were Trump, Nancy Pelosi, the anonymous whistleblower who sparked the impeachment crisis, and protesters in Hong Kong. Thunberg succeeds last year’s winner, “the guardians,” a selection of threatened and murdered journalists including Jamal Khashoggi, Maria Ressa, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the staff of the Capital Gazette, in Annapolis, Maryland.
  • The Committee to Protect Journalists is out with its annual report on jailed journalists: it found that, for a fourth successive year, at least 250 reporters globally are behind bars; that China has nudged ahead of Turkey as the world’s worst jailer of journalists; and that the number of charges on “false news” grounds continues to rise. Egypt is especially prolific on the latter score. (Ruth Margalit chronicled its crackdown for the magazine.)
  • The media arm of Verizon—which encompasses Yahoo, AOL, TechCrunch, and HuffPostis laying off 150 staffers this week, CNN’s Kerry Flynn reports. According to Benjamin Goggin, of Business Insider, the cuts bring the tally of US media job losses in 2019 above the 7,800 mark. Verizon Media already laid off 800 employees in January.
  • In other media-business news, Bloomberg Media is buying CityLab from The Atlantic. (Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton notes that while some CityLab fans are nervous about the new owners, the site “could do a lot worse.”) And Berkeleyside, an independent news site in California, is launching a new nonprofit outlet in Oakland, with help from Google.
  • Sports Illustrated named Megan Rapinoe, the World Cup-winning captain of the US women’s soccer team, as its sportsperson of the year. At the awards ceremony, Rapinoe took the magazine to task, the New York Post’s Keith J. Kelly reports. “Am I only the fourth woman worthy of this honor in 60 years?” she asked. “I don’t think so.”
  • Britt McHenry, of Fox News and its streaming service, Fox Nation, is suing the network; she says she was sexually harassed by Tyrus, with whom she co-hosted a show on Fox Nation, then punished for speaking up. Tyrus denies wrongdoing; Fox News says it expects the suit to be dismissed. The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr has more.
  • After McKinsey released him from a nondisclosure agreement, Pete Buttigieg revealed his clients from his time at the firm; they include Blue Cross Blue Shield, Best Buy, and several government agencies and departments, including the Department of Defense. Buttigieg told The Atlantic that he doesn’t believe his work led to any job losses.
  • And Rossi Lorathio Adams II—a social-media influencer from Iowa—organized for a man to be held at gunpoint over a web domain name that Adams wanted to buy from him. Adams was just sentenced to 14 years in prison. The Des Moines Register has more.

ICYMI: The Rise and Fall of Facts

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.