Fake News, Propaganda, and Influence Operations – a guide to journalism in a new, and more chaotic media environment
14 Mar 2017
This article was first published in Norwegian on NRKbeta in February 2017 and was translated into English by its author for the Reuters Institute
The media of the world may be facing a crisis more serious than a media economy in free fall, a crisis involving the foundations itself: Trust. Not the trust in the single newspiece or the single publication, but the entire idea of editorially controlled news mass media.
Fake News has been around forever.
And by itself, fake news poses little threat beyond the need for increased alertness. But fake news attacks society’s system for information sharing. It’s casting shadows of doubt over the credibility of media, and creating the impression that the media is offering just one of several possible truths, thus making it sort of optional which facts you care to relate to.
If you can convince people that real news is fake, it becomes much easier to convince them that your fake news is real.
– Garry Kasparov | Twitter
When the audience is trained to doubt everything they meet in the news, it may lead to devaluation and destabilisation of society’s system for information, and a vacuum might appear.
This poses a threat not only to the media itself. It is challenging the entire structure of society.
The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation is governing several of the most powerful communication platforms in Norway, and our charter obliges us to uphold and strengthen democracy.
Both out of consideration for our public, and our own long-term trust and legitimacy, it is crucial to be aware of what we pass on – and how.
The NRK must guard its integrity and trust to be able to act freely and independent of individuals or groups that for political, ideological, economic, or other reasons wish to influence the editorial content .
Translated from 'NRK-plakaten' | Regjeringen.no
- A strong quality control on single news item level
- Increased awareness of underlying games
- Re-evaluation of our terms for offering access to the public sphere
- A review of how we can not only avoid doing mistakes, but actively contribute to making things better
This Betalysis will touch briefly on how we got here, but its main focus will be what we think needs to be done now.
What is Fake News
'Fake news' is nothing new. So called Yellow journalism goes back more than a hundred years. In the UK, they’ve had Sunday Sport with headlines such as 'London Bus Found Frozen In Antarctic Ice' since the 1980s.
But in October 2016 the term Fake News fell into the everyday language of the world in connection with the US president election.
Several different things get the label:
- Political propaganda?
- Fake News
- Shoddy journalist handiwork
- Fake News
- Stuff you don’t like
- Fake News
The term is imprecise, and partly drained of value. Still, it is so ingrained that we will use it here as a bucket term for some different things.
In theory, Fake News may be divided in two:
- That which is made for profit
- Propaganda meant to influence
We may also distinguish between:
- People who spread it unintentionally
- Those who spread with an intent
But all of this is attacking society’s information system, may undermine public confidence in media, and can also in part be treated similarly. Hence, we’ll primarily cover them as one.
A definition: Fake News is news items that are invented or distorted intentionally
One of the most important things we do, is paying attention to the intent, not the 'news'.
Much concern about 'fake news'. 'False propaganda' may be better term. Shouldn’t overlook intent/orchestration, even if by non-state actors.
– Deb Roy, Chief Media Scientist, Twitter | Twitter
Fake news is often published on websites that may appear credible, and harness social media for distribution. This video illustrates some of the psychological mechanisms behind how it spreads: This Video Will Make You Angry
What is the deeper issue?
The click economy and the continuous deadline of digital media has given us an event based reality dissemination: News stories are triggered by something that happened, someone who said something, someone who placed something in the media.
This is in turn making the daily presentation of our world and our agenda setting reactive: It is defined by things that happen, and subsequently get reported.
If you should wish to influence society’s view of an issue or its agenda, all you need to do is create a media-friendly stir, and voilà: Direct access to the public.
The way digital media have developed, the border between what is important and what is merely spectacular (or just entertaining) has become more blurred.
What is most visible isn’t necessarily the most important.
It is not possible to discuss this topic without touching on the newly elected president of the United States.
We may never know whether Donald Trump is following a cunning playbook, or if this is just how he is. In this context it isn’t very interesting anyway. What is interesting is the actual outcome of what’s going on and the different mechanisms at work.
The magician’s most important trick, is waving one hand dramatically, while the other, discreetly and undetected, is working the magic, former editor of Politiken Bo Lidegaard reminds us. "No-one masters this art better than Donald Trump. And few tackle it worse than the media, who are willingly led by their noses around the circus ring by his cheap acts", he wrote in Præssen lar seg rive rundt i manegen av Donald Trump.
The way Donald Trump is exploiting media for his own gains, and his sustained attacks on this central control mechanism in society are serious for several reasons. The tricks used can also be recognised in others, here in Norway as well.
It has been estimated that no-one has ever dominated the media as totally as Donald Trump is doing today. His strategy has brought him to the position he is now commanding, and is offering him strong reach and influence.
The Smoke Screen
Donald Trump has a steady and massive output of stuff that would demand serious willpower in the media to resist. The symbiosis between Donald Trump and click driven media is creating a smoke screen making it possible for him to steer public attention.
If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.
– Thomas Pynchon
Which is why the media will often end up writing yet another article on whether Trump had the highest electoral margin since Reagan or not, while simultaneously forgetting to mention that he’s been avoiding talking about his campaign’s contact with Russia.
The sheer amount of diversions is weakening the ability of the media to cover the actual politics and setting the agenda. Too often coverage is governed by what is said, rather than by observation of what is actually going on, combined with consideration of what is important because it will concern many, or imply major changes.
The so-called ‘Weaponised Relativism’ tactic was developed by the Russian intelligence organisation KGB in the 1970s: If you offer enough alternatives to the truth, the truth will become blurry. For some parts of the public it may eventually be sufficient for the president to deny something by saying FAKE NEWS!
Our media environment is increasingly chaotic, and filled with alternative versions, making it unclear what is true and not.
Hannah Arendt once said: "If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. […] And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please."
The manipulation technique Gaslighting is used by narcissists to make the victim doubt its own senses. You need to be aware of how it works.
The Wearing Out Of The Middle
Donald Trump’s voter base was far from a majority of the US people; around 27% of eligible voters voted for him, around 27% voted for Clinton, 43.1% did not vote.
To hold on to the public opinion, his biggest worry isn’t the democratic voters – they don’t approve of him anyway. Neither does he need to worry about his loyal bedrock, but whether the large group in the middle should engage and drift. As long as this group stays pacified by noise, uncertainty and a feeling of helplessness, his room for maneuvering will be larger.
The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.
– Garry Kasparov | Twitter
The Victim Game
Should you want to weaken the credibility of critical media, you could raise doubts about their motives and objectivity, and actively lure them into acting subjectively. This will make it easy to play the «the media is the opposition» game, as Trump’s adviser Steve Bannon is doing when he’s saying that the media needs to keep its mouth shut. "The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country."
89% of Republicans now agree to the statement that news media is "exaggerating the problems with the Trump administration because they are uncomfortable and threatened with the kind of change Trump represents".
Reacting to fake news, propaganda, and lies with visible fact checking and debunking can increase the noise level, it can make truth relative, increase polarisation, create an image of the media as a biased actor – and ultimately end up running the errand of the propaganda.
In the bigger picture this may contribute to undermining the media as society’s established ecosystem for information and opinion forming.
More than fact checking, society needs having things explained, and overview of what the larger issue actually is.
What can we do?
Here is a checklist for how we can best guard our credibility
1. You will get far using basic journalistic methods
Paragraph 3.2 of the Code of Ethics of the Norwegian Press starts: "Be critical in the choice of sources, and make sure that the information provided is correct."
Meet every news item you encounter as if it was an anonymous source, and use classic source criticism techniques.
You have always got time for checking the original source.
2. You have to ask "why does this appear at exactly this moment?"
If something is liable to influence the agenda of society in a specific direction, and it may seem convenient that it surfaces right now, Follow The Money. Who would profit? "Why are you telling me this right now?"
- Will this strengthen the agenda of a specific actor?
- Will it impact the view of an issue?
- Does it conveniently divert our attention from something different and more important?
All these things give reason to check things more thoroughly. Do not lend away the trust and credibility of your media organisation without good reason. The right thing may be to let the case rest, and rather focus on the bigger picture.
3. Fake news may contain traces of facts
Single facts may be correct without providing a good picture of the bigger issue they are colouring the public’s view of.
A humanitarian organisation’s press release stating that "Eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity" isn’t Fake News in the classic sense. But it does illustrate how single facts may be correct, but still lead us astray about the bigger picture, as we explain in the article Misforstå! Føl! Lik! Del! …men eier egentlig 8 menn mer enn halve verden?.
It is not sufficient to know that single facts are correct. They also need to be relevant in the surrounding context and the angle of the article.
4. Beware numbers
Numbers have a tendency to seem more credible than they are. To include a number in a statement or press release is a well known trick for giving the sheen of science and credibility. But the number might not be that relevant.
Some questions you should as a number
- Does the number make you feel? This is often a danger sign
- Is the number large or small?
- Is it going up, down, or up and down?
- Does the number measure what you think it does?
- If you’re unsure what it means, or it’s difficult to explain, alarm bells should go off
Never accept numbers as proof without understanding them.
5. Beware the well said
Do not adopt someone’s narrative uncritically. That someone has said something headline friendly is not sufficient reason to give away publication, headline or angle for free. Rather, it is reason for being more alert.
We have the term framing; defining the playing board for the discussion. This can provide a starting point for influencing the agenda of society and offer some «handles» for the conversation, guiding how it may develop. If an actor succeeds in establishing concepts like 'bringing back jobs', 'anchor babies', 'No Go Zones', it will set some terms, and can influence how serious we consider something to be.
Similarly, a political debate on wildlife management (or a military operation) will have a different flavour depending on whether you choose to say 'take out' or 'slaughter' a pack of wolves.
Be critical towards reusing terminology, language, rhetorics, and narratives in journalism, headlines and subheadings.
6. Beware the alluring
After Donald Trump’s first solo press conference as a president, several media wrote about and debunked his claims of having had the largest electorate college since Ronald Reagan, and his attacks on the media. Significantly fewer wrote that he didn’t seem to worry about just-resigned security adviser Michael Flynn having discussed sanctions with Russia during the election.
The story ISN’T the press conference. It isn’t his attack on the press. It’s that Trump has no problem w/ Flynn talking sanctions w/ Russia.
The president of the United States is providing a wide selection of low hanging fruit for the the single facts-focused media. This drowns out the more complex and more important questions.
It is also painting a picture of self-obsessed and biased media bent on playing ‘gotcha’ on details, which ultimately will erode trust.
Don’t take the easy road. Maybe someone built it for you. Also, don’t undermine our trust with pettiness.
7. Offer overview and context
The public is seeing an increasingly chaotic and fragmented news environment. At the same time, issues are split into single story angles containing no trace of the bigger picture.
His unique blend of news, political freak show and entertainment makes Norwegian media publish 472 articles about Donald Trump every day. This close coverage is a disservice to the public, making the bigger lines invisible and attention is sold cheaply.
We might for instance publish an account of a press conference as one article, and a walkthrough of all its falsehoodsin a different article. When coverage is split up like this, the deeper points and how things connect is drowned out by multiple single angles on the bigger story.
People may also end up noticing just one side of the story, and it becomes difficult for others than the specially interested (and for us who get paid for reading news during working hours) to have an overview or understand the larger context.
Filter Nyheter is testing a format where they provide a single daily summing up of the larger lines in their Donald Trump messenger chatbot. This reduces noise, and does not offer more space than deserved for actors’ own agenda setting.
Make sure that the bigger lines and the most important points are clearly visible in the single articles.
8. Evaluate your publishing critically
As NRK’s Editor of Ethics Per Arne Kalbakk has said; 'Publishing is not compulsory'. It is we who decide what we publish, when, and how.
Jay Rosen advises; "And learn to be more careful with your headlines! That may be all he wants: your lazy headline".
Source criticism and quality considerations must be done before publishing. Always. That a normally credible source or news agency has published something, does not replace any part of our job.
We also need to be aware that attention is the oxygen of politics. We must consider the balancing act involved in covering what is happening, without giving undue help to marginal actors who have found out how to hack our editorial decisions.
A good suggestion that came up in the journalists’ and coders’ summit MisinfoCon, was visualising how news organizations are allocating their attentions, both in the name of openness, and to aid newsrooms in being more critical in what is covered, and how much.
If it may seem that a piece of news exists mainly to influence, it is worth going the extra round finding out what the weighty reasons for publishing actually are
9. Smart systems may offer false security
Fake news sometimes find their way into otherwise credible media and news agencies. Conversely, real news can exist on news sites spreading fake news. Hence, maintaining lists of fake news sites can lead to false security and even be an error source.
There are tools that can simplify verification (see beneath for an overview of resources). It is also possible to imagine automated solutions using artificial intelligence, databases and the internet to check stories and websites. In Fake news and fact-checking: Trump is demonstrating how to outsmart an AI, science journalist Martin Robbins writes: "the problem with news is that its, well, new. By definition, if a journalist reports a new piece of information then it won’t exist in some well-curated database to be checked against."
The only proven method, is doing a robust journalistic job on every single item we choose to invest the credibility of the NRK in.
10. Correct errors openly
If you haven’t done a proper job initially, or if new information arises, it is crucial – both for our credibility and to not disinform the public – that errors are visibly corrected.
Content will remain on the web forever, and old content is shared to serve agendas. These days, for instance, an article about «No Go Zones» in Sweden from May 2016 has had more than 30 000 page views within 10 days – quite a lot for a 9 month old article in a country with a population of ~ 5 million.
Having sound principles for correcting errors openly and following them is essential.
11. Avoid deserved criticism
Some of the media’s trust problems are caused by our own mistakes. We journalists are good and well meaning people, but we are not infallible.
- We don’t always take the time needed to do a thorough job
- We may be tempted by a good story in a press release or a headline friendly quote
- We don’t know everything and we simplify
- We’d like to tell exciting stories that get attention
And – even if we are using methods helping us to see issues from several angles – we are coloured by who we are, what we know, who we talk to, and what we see around us.
The more we’re able to make sure we don’t do a worse job than strictly necessary, on every single thing we allow to pass through our hands, the more we are protecting the confidence we need to be able to continue doing an important job for our society.
Further reading, some good resources and an educational radio programme
Readable and educational articles
Here’s a list of reader friendly articles – read one per evening the coming days!
Medienes rolle i forvirringens tid | NRKbeta
[Translation "The role of the media in an age of confusion"] – An outline for tackling the new media reality better
Don’t Dismiss President Trump’s Attacks on the Media as Mere Stupidity | TIME
An analysis of Donald Trump’s attacks on the media
I Helped Create the Milo Trolling Playbook. You Should Stop Playing Right Into It | Observer
How the strategy behind a marketing campaign for a low budget movie became a cook book for the American Extreme Right
GRANSKNING: Så styrs den svenska trollfabriken som sprider hat på nätet mot betalning | Ekuriren (Swedish)
[Translation: "INVESTIGATION: How the Swedish Troll Factory That’s Spreading Hate On The Web Is Controlled"] – Revealing racist, Kremling friendly content industry in Sweden
I Ignored Trump News for a Week. Here’s What I Learned | NY Times
A review of the coverage volume Donald Trump gets through his methods
Misforstå! Føl! Lik! Del! …men eier egentlig 8 menn mer enn halve verden? | NRKbeta (Norwegian)
[Translation: "Misunderstand! Feel! Like! Share! … but does 8 men really own more than half the world?"] – On how we allow ourselves to be confused and influenced by spectacular 'facts'
In Fighting Fake News, the Mainstream Media Has Poisoned Itself | ART+marketing
What it says on the box
USA-valget: De falske nyhetenes gjennombrudd | NRKbeta (Norwegian)
[Translation: "The US Elections: The breakthrough of Fake News"] – How fake news is spreading in social media
Winter is coming: prospects for the American press under Trump | PressThink
Media critic Jay Rosen’s two part series with specific suggestions on how to handle a media hostile president not playing by the rules
MAKE YOURSELF USEFUL: Six Simple Things Your Newsroom Can Do For Democracy | Fellow Paper, Reuters Institute, University of Oxford
A guide for media on how to handle its tasks for society better in new times
Here’s what non-fake news looks like | Columbia Journalism Review
Short and concise overview of sound journalistic principles by Michael Schudson
Fake news. It’s complicated. | First Draft News
A classification of different types of Fake News
Tools and resources
A Guide to Crap Detection Resources
Comprehensive collection of resources maintained by Howard Rheingold and others
Verification handbook by Craig Silverman
Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content
Readable study of the media and their relationship with viral content by Craig Silverman
Exercise your critical faculties with podcasts of BBC’s radio programme More or Less
Tim Harford explains – and sometimes debunks – the numbers and statistics used in political debate, the news and everyday life
Image: ‘The fin de siècle newspaper proprietor’ F. B. Opper 1894 PD, (Library of Congress)