The firehose of falsehood

“None of this is brand new; politicians have always sought to smear journalism they didn’t like. What’s new is that the attack is no longer about this or that story, but about journalism itself. It’s a challenge to the very notion of an independent accounting of facts.”

A couple of weeks after the 2016 election, Nic Dawes, the former editor of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, penned one of the best pieces on journalism in the age of Trump that I’ve read to date. Cast in the form of an open letter to U.S. journalists, it offered advice “from those of us who have worked in places where the institutional fabric is thinner, the legal protections less absolute, and the social license to operate less secure. Not outright dictatorships, but majoritarian democracies where big men — and they are usually men — polish their image in the mirror of state media or social media, while slowly squeezing the life out of independent institutions.”

One of Dawes’ core pieces of advice was: “Get used to being stigmatized as the opposition…The basic idea is simple: to delegitimize accountability journalism by framing it as partisan. Why should anyone care about your investigation of the president’s conflicts of interest, or his tax bills, if they emanate from the political opposition? The scariest thing about ‘fake news’ is that all news becomes fake. Yours too.”

Chilling, right? As prognostication goes, it doesn’t get much more accurate than this. Just weeks after Dawes’ piece published, Steve Bannon — in an interview with the Times, to add insult to injury — declared that “the media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country.” As for dismissing investigations of the president’s conflicts of interest, or his tax bills, as “fake news:” Yep, and yep.

None of this is brand new; politicians have always sought to smear journalism they didn’t like. What’s new is that the attack is no longer about this or that story, but about journalism itself. It’s a challenge to the very notion of an independent accounting of facts. And in 2018, as tension builds on a host of stories from the Russia investigation to dozens of contested Congressional elections, we’ll see this challenge mount. Here are four key tactics we can expect to see more of:

The lawsuit threat. Roy Moore wasted no time before threatening to sue The Washington Post — just as Trump earlier threatened to sue The New York Times for reporting on his accusers (prompting an amazing response from the Times’ general counsel, David McCraw). These kinds of threats are empty more often than not. But at a time when billionaires have discovered that the cost of litigation, whether or not it prevails, can cripple a news organization, many publishers — especially those without the resources of a Jeff Bezos — may think twice about whether to risk it.

The “fake news” play. When the Post’s stories first published, Roy Moore didn’t exactly deny them: He simply said he had never dated a girl without her mother’s permission. But by Election Day, he had pivoted to claiming he had never even met any of the women accusing him of sexual assault, while his supporters spread rumors that the women had been paid to lie. It’s an exact parallel to Trump’s responses to some of his accusers — indeed, as Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin reported recently, the president now suggests the Access Hollywood recording was faked. The goal here is not simply to undermine a particular claim, but to challenge the idea of verifiable news, period. The narrative we’ll see more and more of is that journalists are simply pursuing political agendas; that they are driven by the same petty vendettas and partisan loyalties as some of those they cover.

The ad hominem. In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for politicians to go after “the media,” but relatively rare to take aim at individual reporters. But Trump has perfected the ad hominem, calling out specific journalists from Katy Tur to Dave Weigel and Don Lemon, and unleashing armies of trolls (and sometimes worse). These attacks, too, seek to undermine the notion of the press as an institution and cast it instead as a collection of individuals with axes to grind. In 2018, we can expect others to take up this tactic — and let’s hope that Greg Gianforte was the exception in going after a reporter physically as well.

The firehose of falsehood. Together, all these attacks eerily resemble a propaganda technique described in a 2016 RAND report on, of all things, Kremlin disinformation campaigns. As my colleague Denise Clifton has noted, the researchers described how Russian propaganda uses multiple messages, across many channels, often inconsistent with each other and with little regard for the truth. This aims, they write, to “entertain, confuse, and overwhelm the audience,” so that in the end, people will simply throw up their hands and give up on the idea of ever finding the truth. It’s a feeling American audiences will become increasingly familiar with in 2018.

Monika Bauerlein is CEO of Mother Jones.

Aron Pilhofer   We can’t leave the business to the business side any more

Joyce Barnathan   It will be harder to bury the news

Michael Kuntz   The only pivot that might work

Andrew Ramsammy   The year ownership mattered

Feli Sánchez   The year for guerrilla user research

Tanzina Vega   It’s time for media companies to #PassTheMic

Burt Herman   Things get real

Umbreen Bhatti   The trust problem isn’t new

Francesco Marconi   The year of machine-to-machine journalism

Juliette De Maeyer   A responsible press criticism

Lam Thuy Vo   Breaking free from the tyranny of the loudest

Doris Truong   Computer vision vs. the Internet vigilantes

Jennifer Choi   Standing up for us and for each other

Edward Roussel   Eyes, ears, and brains

Pia Frey   Address users as individuals

Jesse Holcomb   Information disorder, coming to a congressional district near you

Jamie Mottram   From pageviews to t-shirts

Kelsey Proud   No, no, no

Millie Tran and Stine Bauer Dahlberg   (Hint: It’s about your brand)

Rodney Gibbs   Tech workers turn to journalism

Tanya Cordrey   Finally, the seeds of radical reinvention

Mike Caulfield   Refactoring media literacy for the networked age

Brian Lam   Sketchy ethics around product reviews

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   The Snapchat scenario and the risk of more closed platforms

Amy Webb   Listen to weak signals

Helen Havlak   Keywords, not publishers, power the world’s biggest feeds

Will Sommer   The year local media gets conservative

S. Mitra Kalita   The arc of news and audience

Tracie Powell   The muting of underserved voices

Heather Bryant   Building the ecosystems for collaboration

Ray Soto   VR reaches the next level

Jared Newman   Venture funding and digital news don’t mix

Rodney Benson   Better, less read, and less trusted

Luke O'Neil   The end is already here

Kawandeep Virdee   Zines had it right all along

Jarrod Dicker   Honesty in advertising

Dan Shanoff   You down with OTT? (Yeah, DTC)

Usha Sahay   Wallets get opened

Mary Walter-Brown   Show a little vulnerability

Kyle Ellis   Let’s build our way out of this

Craig Newmark   Working together toward sustainable solutions

Cindy Royal   Your journalism curriculum is obsolete

Eric Ulken   The year local publishers get smart(er) about change

Sally Lehrman   Trust comes first

Nikki Usher   The year of The Washington Post

Nancy Watzman   Know thy TV

John Keefe   Scooped by AI

Pablo Boczkowski   The rise of skeptical reading

Raney Aronson-Rath   Transparency is the antidote to fake news

Ståle Grut   Reclaiming audience interaction from social networks

Julia Beizer   A longer view on the pivot

An Xiao Mina   Memes and visuals come to the fore

Mi-Ai Parrish   Blockchain and trust

Claire Wardle   Disinformation gets worse

Jim Brady   With the people, not just of the people

Marie Gilot   No assholes allowed

Laura E. Davis   Writing answers before you know the question

Jessica Parker Gilbert   Design connects storytelling and strategy

Tamar Charney   We get serious about algorithms

Adam Thomas   Sharing is caring: The year of the mentor

Matt Boggie   The intellectual equivalent of the Dead Sea

Mira Lowe   The year of the local watchdog

Zizi Papacharissi   Women come back

Caitlin Thompson   Podcasting models mature and diversify

Ruth Palmer   Risks will grow for news subjects — especially minorities

Vivian Schiller   Pivot to tomorrow

Hossein Derakhshan   Television has won

Jake Levine   The return to now

Nushin Rashidian   Publishers seek ad dollar alternatives

Corey Ford   The empire strikes back

Corey Johnson   The pro-fact resistance

Matt Thompson   Here come the attention managers

Mariano Blejman   News games rule

Felix Salmon   Covering bitcoin while owning bitcoin

Lucas Graves   From algorithms to institutions

Sara M. Watson   Feeds will open up to new user-determined filters

Joanne Lipman   Journalists inventing revenue streams

David Skok   Finding an information-life balance

Kathleen McElroy   Building a news video experience native to mobile

Borja Echevarría   TV goes digital, digital goes TV

Jennifer Coogan   The future is female

Renée Kaplan   The year of quiet adjustments (shhh)

L. Gordon Crovitz   Serving readers over advertisers

Mary Meehan   Real lives are at stake in rural areas

Christopher Meighan   Passive partnership is in the rearview

Pete Brown   Push alerts, personalized

Richard J. Tofel   The platforms’ power demands more reporters’ attention

José Zamora   Revenue-first journalism

Evie Nagy   Pivot to mobile video frustration

Monique Judge   Letting black women tell their own stories

Amy King   Let’s amplify visual voice

Cristina Wilson   The year of the Instagram Story

C.W. Anderson   The social media apocalypse

Eric Nuzum   Beyond the narrative arc

Carlos Martínez de la Serna   The new journalism commons

P. Kim Bui   The reckoning is only beginning

Charo Henríquez   Training is an investment, not an expense

Kim Fox   Audience teams diversify their approach

Damon Krukowski   Reviving the alt-weekly soul

Marcela Donini and Thiago Herdy   Collaboration is the way forward for Brazilian journalism

Dheerja Kaur   Fun with subscription products

Jassim Ahmad   Thriving on change

Taylor Lorenz   Social and media will split

Jacqui Cheng   Retailers move into content

Rachel Davis Mersey   AI, with real smarts

Dannagal G. Young   Stop covering politics as a game

Michelle Garcia   Navigating journalistic transparency

Rachel Schallom   Better design helps differentiate opinion and news

Sue Schardt   Jump the niche

Jim Moroney   Newspapers have to be good enough for readers to pay for

Sam Ford   The year of investing in processes

Caitria O'Neill   The new court of public opinion

Mandy Velez   texting is lit rn, fam

Molly de Aguiar   Good journalism won’t be enough

Imaeyen Ibanga   Longform video leads the way

Elizabeth Jensen   Show your work

Jennifer Brandel and Mónica Guzmán   The editorial meeting of the future

Miguel Castro   The arrival of the impact producer

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Seeking trust in fragmented spaces

Alastair Coote   The year of self-improvement

Rubina Madan Fillion   Unlocking the potential of AI

Basile Simon   We need better career paths for news nerds

Matt Carlson   Attacks on the press will get worse

Kinsey Wilson   Facebook and Google: Help out or pay up

Ariana Tobin   Too tired to tap

Manoush Zomorodi   Self-help as a publishing strategy

Nicholas Diakopoulos   Fortifying social media from automated inauthenticity

Emma Carew Grovum   Newsroom culture becomes a priority

Federica Cherubini   The rise of bridge roles in news organizations

Rick Berke   Value is the watchword

Hannah Cassius   The year of the echo-chamber escapists

Betsy O'Donovan and Melody Kramer   Skepticism and narcissism

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   Women of color will reclaim and monetize our time

Alfred Hermida   Going beyond mobile-first

Michelle Ferrier   The year of the great reckoning

Niketa Patel   Live journalism comes of age

Raju Narisetti   Mirror, mirror on the wall

Frédéric Filloux   External forces

Steve Grove   The midterms are an opportunity

Kristen Muller   The year of the voter

Joanne McNeil   Gatekeeping the gatekeepers

Julia B. Chan   Looking for loyalty in all the right places

Alexios Mantzarlis   Moving fake news research out of the lab

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Publishing less to give readers more

Debra Adams Simmons   And a woman shall lead them

Sarah Marshall   Loyalty as the key performance indicator

Andrew Haeg   The year journalists become relationship builders

Alan Soon   The rise of start of psychographic, micro-targeted media

Vanessa K. DeLuca   Women’s voices take center stage

Dan Newman   A return to trust

Nicholas Quah   Stop talking trash about young people

Sydette Harry   Listen to your corner and watch for the hook

Daniel Trielli   The rich get richer, the poor scramble

Yvonne Leow   The rise of video messaging

Nathalie Malinarich   Peak push

Sam Sanders   Shine the light on ourselves

Emily Goligoski   Looking beyond news for inspiration

Almar Latour   Conquering calm

Susie Banikarim   R.I.P. Pivot to Video (2017–2017)

Trushar Barot   The Jio-fication of India

Errin Haines Whack   At the ballot, it’s time to count black women

Matt DeRienzo   A recession, then a collapse

Mario García   Storytelling finally adapts to mobile

Alice Antheaume   Are you fluent in AI?

Andrew Losowsky   The year of resilience

Lanre Akinola   Making noise is not a strategy

Carrie Brown-Smith   Transparency finally takes off

Mariana Moura Santos   Think local, act global

Monika Bauerlein   The firehose of falsehood

Neha Gandhi   Filler killers

Justin Kosslyn   The year journalists become digital security experts

Cory Haik   Suffering from realness, pivoting to impact

Paul Ford   Go global

Tim Carmody   Watch out for Spotify

Amie Ferris-Rotman   More female reporters abroad (please)

Bill Keller   A growing turn to philanthropy