The Media Today

Maria Ressa, Zeynep Tufekci, and others on the growing disinformation war

May 10, 2019

Yesterday, Maria Ressa, the editor of Rappler, an independent news website in the Philippines, was patched, via video, into the Columbia Journalism School. She was speaking from her home country, where it was the middle of the night. Ressa described, to assembled guests, how Rappler has been gearing up to cover critical elections in the Philippines, which will take place early next week. In the days that follow, Ressa will face arraignment in a Philippines court. In recent months, she has twice been arrested by the government of Rodrigo Duterte, an authoritarian leader who has waged a sustained campaign of harassment and disinformation against independent-minded journalists, in general, and Ressa, in particular.

Her arrests, and broader treatment by her government, are a clear example of the security threats against journalists emanating from malicious state actors around the world—actors who have only been emboldened by the Trump administration’s aggressive anti-press rhetoric. As the founder of a web-native publication in a developing media environment, however, Ressa’s experience of the disinformation war goes far beyond physical impediments to her freedom. “Welcome to my Alice in Wonderland world,” Ressa said, with a broad smile.

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Ressa was speaking as part of a symposium to mark the opening of new centers, at Columbia University and the Poynter Institute, focused on journalism ethics and security, and ethics and leadership, respectively. The centers, funded by and named for Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, sponsored the event, alongside CJR, Poynter, and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. (Newmark also serves on CJR’s Board of Overseers.) A range of journalists, representing the worlds of media, tech, security, and research, discussed the intensifying “disinformation war” on good journalism, how reporters and editors might respond to it, and the ethical challenges those responses might pose.

On one panel, Ressa; Emily Bell, of the Tow Center; and Zeynep Tufekci, a techno-sociologist who writes for The New York Times and Wired, discussed the overwhelming effect of junk information on our public sphere, and the role of social media platforms in disseminating it. Tufekci argued that, in the 21st century, a surfeit of information, rather than its absence, poses the biggest problem. “When I was growing up in Turkey, the way censorship occurred was there was one TV channel and they wouldn’t show you stuff. That was it,” she said. “Currently, in my conceptualization, the way censorship occurs is by information glut. It’s not that the relevant information isn’t out there. But it is buried in so much information of suspect credibility that it doesn’t mean anything.” Tufekci cited the frenzied reporting, during the 2016 election, on WikiLeaks’s dump of hacked Democratic Party emails—much of which lacked crucial context—as a malign example of the trend. “I don’t think traditional journalism has caught up on this,” she said.

Other parts of the symposium were dedicated to gaming out ethical dilemmas that news outlets increasingly face. David Folkenflik, a media reporter at NPR, mocked up an imagined scenario whereby a reporter is handed an audio clip appearing to show a presidential candidate disparaging the state of Florida. Noah Shachtman, editor of The Daily Beast, said the example was similar to a real story he’d run recently—in that case, he’d approached experts who were able to verify the voice on the recording. The difference with the imagined story, he said, was a lack of context, without which, he said, he wouldn’t publish. Phil Corbett, standards editor at the Times, reframed the debate: “It’s not just a question of publish/don’t publish, it’s a question of how do you write the story and how do you play the story?” As the debate continued, the story’s sticking points multiplied. Clearly, in a real-time, competitive news environment, the ethical quandaries are harder still to address. Mathew Ingram, a technology writer at CJR, invoked the WikiLeaks emails coverage again. “It doesn’t have to be a made-up example,” he said. “It exists.”

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Going forward, the centers at Columbia and Poynter will work to figure out how journalists and their outlets should respond to the dizzying information climate we face. The clock is ticking. “Information is power. That’s what this time period has proven to us,” Ressa said. “This is global in scope. It’s about power.”

Below, more on the disinformation war:

  • Mapping the battleground: You can watch the entire symposium at this link, where you’ll also find three stories CJR published ahead of the event. In one of them, Bell writes that “Every part of the news process is affected in some way by the externalities of a digital environment, from the funding models and reporting processes to hiring practices and diversity of participation.” But “journalism’s editorial codes and training are lagging behind reality.”
  • The fascist next door: Following a deadly shooting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte last month, Sam Thielman asks how the media should cover hate. “The options span the spectrum, from simply ignoring [hate groups], even when they commit terrible crimes, to characterizing them as contemptible bigots whose influence extends only to small groups of credulous people,” Thielman writes. “On the one hand, perhaps they should be characterized as neighborly types, whose desire for ethnic cleansing lies below a veneer of politeness, or, on the other, straight-up crazed psychopaths.”
  • Giving up on Facebook? Ingram, in the third of the special pieces, assesses the ethical case that media companies and individual journalists ought to sever all ties with Facebook. “Given that Facebook has not only helped hollow out newsrooms across the country but arguably lowered the overall quality of civic discussion, repeatedly flouted laws around privacy in ways that have served the needs of foreign actors like the Russian government, and played a key role in fomenting violence in countries like Myanmar and India, it’s worth asking: Is it enough to be skeptical?”
  • The example that ties everything together: On Wednesday, Singapore approved a sweeping new law against “fake news” that will grant the government significant discretion over what constitutes a falsehood, impose lengthy potential jail terms for users found to be spreading them online, and compel web publishers to post corrections. The law, the BBC’s Tessa Wong writes, targets social media platforms, news websites, and even private, encrypted chat services like WhatsApp, though it’s unclear how the government will police the latter type of forum.

Other notable stories:

  • Invoking the Espionage Act, the US government charged Daniel Hale, a former National Security Agency analyst, with passing secret files to a news outlet—an escalation of the Trump administration’s “war on leaks.” The outlet was not named, but the files in question appear to match a cache published in 2015 by The Intercept, detailing the US military’s deadly use of drones. As Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo notes, Hale would be the third person—after Reality Winner and Terry J. Albury—to be prosecuted for allegedly giving documents to The Intercept; one national-security reporter told Pompeo that its practice of publishing classified files in their entirety makes it easier for prosecutors to identify sources. Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of The Intercept, hit a different note. “Blaming news outlets rather than the DoJ’s free press attacks is demented,” he tweeted.
  • Chelsea Manning, who was detained in March for refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks, is out of jail. But her freedom may not last long. Manning’s release “came after the grand jury’s term expired on Thursday. Her legal team has already been served another subpoena,” Gizmodo’s Dell Cameron reports. “Manning has vowed not to answer any questions and, therefore, could be returned to custody as early as next week.”
  • Chris Hughes, who helped Mark Zuckerberg found Facebook in 2004, has called the company a monopoly that should be broken up. In a 6,000-word op-ed for the Times, Hughes writes that Zuckerberg has “unprecedented and un-American” power that extends “far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government.” Hughes adds: “Facebook’s board works more like an advisory committee than an overseer, because Mark controls around 60 percent of voting shares. Mark alone can decide how to configure Facebook’s algorithms to determine what people see in their News Feeds, what privacy settings they can use and even which messages get delivered.”
  • For CJR, Jared Holt went to a press conference hosted by Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl, right-wing activists whose “half-baked smear campaigns” have turned them into internet celebrities. “Burkman and Wohl are often subject to internet ridicule at the hands of their detractors; the ease of ridiculing them sometimes brings them more attention than anything else,” Holt writes. “The wise-cracks and laughs after the absurd and comical” press conference, however, “were tempered with reminders of the real-world consequences of Wohl and Burkman’s stunts.”
  • During the first four months of the year, four Democratic presidential hopefuls—Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris—accounted for more than half of all candidate mentions in traditional news media, according to an analysis commissioned by Politico. By contrast, “Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg, despite their splashy reputations, do not appear to have benefited from an inordinate amount of coverage,” with neither candidate topping 5 percent of media mentions.
  • And Robert Pear, a long-serving Times reporter on healthcare and other topics, died earlier this week, at the age of 69. “Pear went about his reporting meticulously and, to the wider public, inconspicuously. Appearances as a talking head reporter on cable news were not for him,” the Times writes in its obituary. “Yet his reporting—exacting, authoritative and closely read, particularly in Washington—spoke volumes.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.