Sunday, 19 August 2018

Lies, propaganda and hate - the vital connections


Among the more important imperatives of modern day journalism is exposing the people and agendas devoted to undermining trust in what now operates under the moniker of the “mainstream media.”

The difficulty with this though is that systems to unearth untruth and malpractice in the media are, at the same time, absolutely necessary in modern society to ensure that vested political and commercial interests do not prevail at the expense of the public interest.

This is why people are so attracted to the so-called “fake news” phenomenon as worthy of consistent vigilance and as a default when confronted with news and information that does not ring right with the status quo or does not conform with their belief systems.

It is also, at the same time, understandable that people in all their social and political spaces and environments should be concerned that lies and propaganda do not gratuitously enter the sphere of mainstream public communication. Though all of this is not new, what is different are the newer, infinitely more ubiquitous platforms, the growing sophistication of propaganda campaigns, and a catchy oxymoronic tag.

I have used this space before to help people identify the symptoms of this contrived malady and how we can easily identify its purveyors. In many instances the undermining of trust becomes a concerted focus of the most untrustworthy. The signs are relatively easy to pick up and essentially comprise a lack of accountability and transparency alongside clearly identifiable partisan agendas. Think of the last time you saw someone pronounce “fake news” on something and who is offering the assertion.

There is another, equally evident, feature of this: the propagation of expression designed to both defame and to promote hate. In social environments elsewhere, science and measurement are being applied to determine the connection between political and sectional survival and the employment of hate speech. No such compulsion here.

I spent two days in Jamaica last week examining this discrete component of the disinformation agenda. For it will help advance the cause of those concerned about the use of lies and propaganda to understand how promoting hate against individuals and groups feeds into the process of gaining sectional advantage.

It was generally agreed that the entire media industry, in all its facets, focus on actions to ensure that the promotion of hate – expressed as racism, sexism, xenophobia and discrimination against identifiable, vulnerable groups – does not gain traction within the body of mainstream media content, as indeed it sometimes does. It is a sad admission to make as a journalist, I must tell you. But it is the exception rather than the rule.

It is important, we who attended the Public Media Alliance workshop in Kingston last week concluded, that journalists and others operating in the sphere of public communication know how to identify what constitutes hateful content.

This becomes easier if there is, at first, a commitment to treat all groups and individuals with dignity and respect. Now, examine those recent social media posts about the demands of the LGBTQI community to be embraced by the universality of the human rights from which we claim to benefit. Think about the ignorant stereotyping of immigrants and why the disabled are yet to achieve social and economic equity.

There was also acknowledgement of the special status of children. I was quick to add this comes with astute disregard for how children look or behave. In the midst of the violence and mayhem, it has become far too easy to forget that our children require a special level of protection and are, in fact, protected by global convention and national law.

There has also been a tendency to assert cultural specificity on the question of human rights. Yes, we sometimes hear, "there are human rights, BUT what about our small size? What about cultural antecedents?" These are, of course, all entirely false and mistaken assertions. It is amazing that I once had to fight this point with a senior state official in the communication sector.

So, along with “false news” declarations and the hate, comes a declared disregard for human rights. These are all symptoms of a disease that has increasingly become endemic in the body politic. We so frequently point to more developed jurisdictions so afflicted but appear blissfully oblivious to its manifestations among us all.

First published in the T&T Guardian - August 15, 2018


Thursday, 21 June 2018

Eyes Wide Open for Disinformation


Disinformation and propaganda disguised as truth constitute more than a minor threat to social and political stability. This has been found to be so everywhere such practices are evident.

Responsible authorities and non-state institutions have been keeping a sharp eye on this, within the context of the use of new and social media, for about two decades now. Free expression rapporteurs from the United Nations, Europe, Africa and the Americas have issued more than one joint communiqué on the subject. There is also a lot of literature on traditional propaganda campaigns and how they work.

In the meantime, there is a growing body of direction on how this problem can be significantly dealt with – particularly when it comes to addressing the quality of traditional and new media audiences – without substantially threatening free expression.

The basic modus operandi behind the most recent versions of this phenomenon are now well known and understood and the direction flows of such information are becoming easier to track.

We know that both elements supportive of governments and those in opposition are routinely co-opted to facilitate and to enhance flows of disinformation. There are also non-state private actors that may for a number of reasons attempt to sway public opinion on a variety of matters, some criminal in nature.

I have repeatedly argued in fora examining such issues that a primary, durable intervention would be to focus on improving the discerning eyes and ears of receivers of news and information. “Media and information literacy” is the fancy term employed by development people nowadays.

Let’s break this down a bit and assume someone in a Whatsapp group posts a social media message ostensibly emanating from a senior police officer.

Let’s also say there is reference to a “Home Affairs” department of government and “upcoming elections” in the country.

What we would need are people to start asking some basic questions and to apply a more naturally sceptical pre-disposition. Firstly, do we have a “home affairs” department in T&T? Secondly, what “upcoming elections”?

Then, armed with an abundance of scepticism, portions of the message from your inbox can be entered into a search engine or one of several websites now used to identify “fake news.” Snopes is an easy one to use.

VoilĂ ! “Home Affairs” and “upcoming elections” together with other key terms used in the Whatsapp message will yield an October 17, 2017 missive from South African officials regarding ANC leadership elections there last year – replicated almost word for word in the Whatsapp message. Takes a few minutes.

The next, slightly more difficult exercise, would be to work out ‘who’ might be behind what appears to be a coordinated effort to generate panic and concern about a visitation from some “home department” to verify elections-related information.

Many times, the person who innocently posts clearly bogus information on the group, would try to later diminish the potential harm by stating that such information can serve as a useful warning about the possibility of fake state operatives making the rounds.

Inquisitive sceptics (a condition to which some journalists are prone) would then position the finding alongside prevailing disinformation on, let’s say, the application of the property tax - to cite one possible, non-exclusive lead - and a variety of complementary online resources, including shady “news” outlets and supportive Facebook groups and pages.

Now, be clear, there is an essential difference between misinformation and disinformation. What online propaganda campaigns do is promote intentionally false (and often malicious) information through the use of people and channels that have the potential to innocently disseminate false information to wide and diverse audiences.

Additionally, one of the other main features of coordinated campaigns of disinformation is the effort to weaken the value of countervailing, authoritative sources of authentic information, of which the so-called “mainstream” mass media are but one.

It is therefore not surprising to often witness a high level of hostility toward and slurs directed at journalists and their media houses by politicians and their surrogates. This has been proven to be the case up North.

It’s almost axiomatic that disinformation campaigns embrace attacks on journalism and individual journalists. What is needed is a mainstream and social media consuming public that more readily diagnoses some pretty self-evident symptoms. Keep your eyes wide open!

(Originally published in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian)


Thursday, 3 May 2018

A state of media confusion


So, we observe World Press Freedom Day. It's usually only journalists who believe this has anything to do with them. It always seems that so many people along the communication spectrum do not understand that the interests of journalists and journalism run so wide and deep in any society.

Much of this has to do with the fact that people don’t often realise that good media practice is a social asset. Its value is way in excess of the ability of the industry to thrive on the production of meaningful content.

It was Washington Post journalist Paul Farhi who once argued, in an obvious state of pique, that a generic, amorphous entity called “the media” did not exist and that the label was in fact an all-purpose smear used by people not moved by any obligation to make intelligent distinctions about what they read, see or hear in the public space.

Today, in T&T, we suspect this to be a fact of our own existence. Journalists have become used to the observations of both the well-meaning and those inspired by ill-will that “the media” are capable of stimulating utmost evil, despair and destruction.

Now, don’t get me wrong; all institutions such as these are capable of causing harm. In fact, an overarching commitment of the journalist’s creed implies a requirement to cause no harm.

But I have even heard and seen broadcasters and newspaper columnists and others employing mass communication platforms complain about the impact of “the media” on behaviour, on official policy, on the price of bread. “The media”, of course, comprising everybody else except them.

There continues to be a kind of intellectual sloppiness which renders people incapable of disaggregating media content and recognising the media’s implicit complexity as the sum of many diverse, inclusionary and constituent parts.

It is thus the role of those now committed to promotion of media and information literacy – currently conceptualised as a discrete programme under the banner of UNESCO – to begin the hard work of explaining to people that while a media industry exists, and journalism remains a function of such an industry in all its current manifestations, there is actually no such thing as “the media” in the sense employed by many.

Confusion over the essential qualities of media also earns special credits amid what is now being widely described as “fake news” – aka propaganda or, more accurately, deliberate untruths implanted on mass communication platforms seeking traction by the unsuspecting. The fact is, the term is also an oxymoronic expression also meant to be a slur on journalism with which you disagree.

It’s a phenomenon connected to the situation in which opposition politicians somehow beome convinced that press freedom is a requirement of modern society while their colleagues in government belatedly discover a false balance between freedom and responsibility.

It is however true that to be responsible, you must first be free. How, for example, can better journalism thrive in the absence of open access to officially-held information? How can such information flow if protections for those with information to share in the public interest do not exist?

The freedom enlightened media legislation and regulation bring can contribute more than anything else to responsible behaviour by journalists and other media players.  

Yesterday, the Media Institute of the Caribbean (MIC) convened a regional training initiative in Jamaica for media professionals with an interest in investigative journalism and those who are attempting to gain a foothold in this special branch of the profession.

This is a singularly important exercise in the context of a communication environment that does not routinely conduce to either openness with the provision of information or to enthusiastic candour with the resulting revelations.

This year’s global theme for WPFD is “Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law.” Within this is an open acknowledgement of the need for more, not less, journalism and a better understanding of what constitutes “the media” and all they purport to bring.

(First published in the T&T Guardian on May 2, 2018)