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Sept. 14, 2018, 12:29 p.m.

Fighting back against fake news: A new UN handbook aims to explain (and resist) our current information disorder

“Journalists can be direct victims of disinformation campaigns, but they are also pushing back.”

In a global-first act of collaborative research and knowledge sharing involving leading international experts, the UN published a new handbook this week that aims to help equip journalism to tackle the scourge of “information disorder.”

The book, Journalism, Fake News and Disinformation, was edited by the two of us — Julie Posetti, a senior research fellow at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and Cherilyn Ireton, executive director of the World Editors Forum. Here we share the handbook’s key lessons from the frontline of the “fake news” fightback.

We curated this handbook, under commission from UNESCO (the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), in the context of growing international concern about a “disinformation war” — a “war” in which journalism and journalists have become prime targets. This targeting — by “strongman” politicians and deceptive corporate actors, from Trump to Duterte, Cambridge Analytica to Bell Pottinger — makes fighting back against weaponized information mission critical for journalism.

So we brought together some of the world’s leading journalism researchers and practitioners working to combat the disinformation crisis to ensure the handbook delivered cutting edge good practice advice built on high quality research. Contributing authors include: First Draft News’ Claire Wardle, Poynter’s Alexios Mantzarlis, Meedan’s Tom Trewinnard, Dig Deeper’s Fergus Bell, and Lebanon-based media literacy specialist Magda Abu-Fadil. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Alice Matthews and the Ethical Journalism Network’s Tom Law provided additional research.

Between us, we have tackled: the truth and trust nexus, the key terms, definitions and formats of “information disorder”; the causes and consequences of the crisis in the context of digital transformation of journalism; the implications for media literacy; the role and purpose of fact-checking, along with basic techniques; verification processes for social media content, with an emphasis on images and video; and strategic responses to disinformation-fuelled, and frequently gendered, online harassment and cyberattack.

Our combined efforts are designed to be used as practical training resources for working journalists and newsrooms, as a model curriculum (or individual lessons) in journalism education settings, or as knowledge resources for media development and media literacy initiatives internationally.

“This new handbook draws on insights and advice from global experts to throw light on information pollution and explain how journalism can fight back,” says Guy Berger, UNESCO’s director of freedom of expression and media development, who oversaw the book for UNESCO.

No, your news is not fake

There was debate over the use of the term “fake news,” in the title of the handbook and throughout. “Fake news” is today so much more than a label for false and misleading information, disguised and disseminated as news. It has become an emotional, weaponized term used to undermine and discredit journalism. For this reason, the terms disinformation and misinformation, along with “information disorder” and “mal-information” (as suggested by First Draft’s Claire Wardle and her research colleague Hossein Derakhshan) are favored in the handbook, but not prescribed.

We concluded that it’s impossible to discuss and respond to the crisis without naming the beast — especially when the news media and academic literature are full of the term “fake news.” But it is a deeply problematic terms and we treat it as such — even striking through the words on the cover. “‘Fake news’ is an oxymoron which lends itself to undermining the credibility of information which does indeed meet the threshold of verifiability and public interest — that is, real news,” UNESCO’s Berger writes in the foreword to the handbook. “To better understand the cases involving exploitative manipulation of the language and conventions of news genres, this publication treats these acts of fraud for what they are — as a particular category of phony information within increasingly diverse forms of disinformation.”

Impacts, ethical dilemmas and responses

Disinformation and misinformation go beyond challenging journalists’ reputations and safety. They question their purpose and effectiveness, and they perpetuate the degradation of journalism to the detriment of civic discourse. One of the main objectives of the handbook is to help strengthen journalism’s response to the crisis through credible research about the causes and consequences of the problem and practical skills development, in turn boosting core journalistic practices like verification in the interests of reinforcing audience trust.

Ethical journalism that values transparent practice and accountability is a vital piece of the armoury in the battle to defend facts and truth in an era of information “arms race.” Aided by process transparency and explicit application of ethical standards, journalism’s distinctive role today lies in its capacity to contribute clarity and build trust around verified content. Central to this process is an interrogation of fresh ethical dilemmas for consideration by journalism practitioners in the context of “information disorder.”

While seeking to be “truth tellers,” journalists cannot always guarantee “truth.” Nevertheless, striving to get the facts right, and producing content that accurately reflects the facts, are cardinal principles of journalism. Ethical codes, designed to support information gathering and verification in the public interest, are what distinguish journalism, and in particular news reportage, from other types of communication. This is of increased significance in the digital age, where there is not just a democratization of communications, but also a constant flow of disinformation, misinformation, falsehoods, and abuse.

In this context, ethical journalism is even more important, as a framework for establishing models of journalism that favor trust and accountability in the interest of building meaningfully engaged relationships with audiences. Trust in reporting that is accurate, accountable, and independent is essential to winning over audiences and enabling a common public sphere in which debate can occur on the basis of shared facts. Informed audiences who engage with and share credible content are essential antidotes to the spread of disinformation and misinformation.

A disinformation crisis demanding even UN intervention

The handbook was commissioned under UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication because, as Berger writes:

Confronting the rise of “fake news” head-on is an imperative for journalism and journalism education. At the same time, the threats also constitute an opportunity to double down on demonstrating the value of news media. They provide a chance to underline in professional practice the distinctiveness of delivering verifiable information and informed comment in the public interest.

In early 2017, as the handbook was being commissioned, a joint statement was issued by the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, the Organization of American States’ Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information. Their declaration expressed alarm at the spread of disinformation and propaganda, and attacks on news media as “fake news.” The Rapporteurs and Representatives specifically acknowledged the impacts on journalists and journalism:

[We are] alarmed at instances in which public authorities denigrate, intimidate and threaten the media, including by stating that the media is “the opposition” or is “lying” and has a hidden political agenda, which increases the risk of threats and violence against journalists, undermines public trust and confidence in journalism as a public watchdog, and may mislead the public by blurring the lines between disinformation and media products containing independently verifiable facts.

“Fake news” is an old story, fuelled by new technology

Information fabrication is not new. What is new is the technology and social behavior that amplifies it enormously. It is important to understand the historical context when examining and reporting on contemporary manifestations of the 21st century phenomenon of “information disorder” that triggered this handbook.

As one-to-many communications developed in the 20th century, especially with the advent of radio and television, satirical news evolved, sometimes being mistaken for the real thing in news consumers’ minds. Finally, as the handbook illustrates, the arrival of the internet in the late 20th century, followed by social media in the 21st century, dramatically increased the spread of misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, and hoaxes. Both errors and fraudulent content now go viral through peer-to-peer distribution (many-to-many communication), while news satire is regularly misunderstood and re-shared as straight news by unwitting social media users.

We now inhabit a world with computational propaganda, state-sponsored “sock-puppet networks,” troll armies, and technology that can mimic legitimate news websites and seamlessly manipulate audio and video to create synthetic representations of any number of sources. In this environment, where trust becomes polarized around what “news” aligns with their views, many news consumers feel entitled to create their own “facts.” Combined, these developments present an unprecedented threat level that can drown out journalism, as well as contaminate it with the implication that there is nothing to distinguish it from false and fraudulent information more broadly.

But we encourage journalists, along with journalism educators and their students, to study propaganda, hoaxes and satire as historical features of the communications ecology to better understand the context, causes, and consequences that this handbook seeks to address — from harassment of journalists to the manipulation of elections and diplomatic crises. For that purpose, we recommend treating A Short Guide to the History of Fake News and Disinformation, recently published by the International Center For Journalists, as a companion module to our handbook.1

Seven ways to make sense of the disinformation crisis and fight back

The handbook is divided into seven modules: the first three scope and explain the evolution of the crisis while the final four provide practical tools and exercises to equip readers for the fightback.

  • “Truth, trust and journalism: why it matters” (Cherilyn Ireton)

    In many parts of the world, trust in media and journalism was fragile and weakening long before the advent of social media. This trend is not separate from declining trust in institutions which has been a feature common in many societies. However, the sheer volume and reach of disinformation and misinformation, dressed up as news and distributed via social media, has inflicted a contagion that threatens further reputational damage to journalism. This module encourages thinking about the broader significance and consequences of disinformation and misinformation, and how they feed the crisis of confidence in journalism.

  • “Thinking about ‘information disorder’: formats of misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information” (Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan)

    This chapter provides a typology of “information disorder” formats and places them on a spectrum for analysis. These formats include satire and parody, click-bait headlines, and the misleading use of captions, visuals or statistics, as well as the genuine content that is shared out of context, imposter content (when a journalist’s name or a newsroom logo is used by people with no connections to them), and manipulated and fabricated content. There have been many uses of the term “fake news” and even “fake media” to describe reporting with which the claimant does not agree. This module explains why such terms are a) inadequate for explaining the scale of information pollution, and b) why the term has become so problematic that it should be avoided where possible.

  • “News industry transformation: digital technology, social platforms and the spread of misinformation” (Julie Posetti)

    The digital age has been described as a “golden era for journalism.” But it has also delivered unprecedented, ongoing challenges and structural changes to the news industry which is facing a virtual “perfect storm” of convergent pressures that feed “information disorder.” This module explains how the digital era collapse of many commercial news media business models, in combination with processes of digital transformation and the rise of social media platforms, has enabled the legitimation and viral spread of disinformation and misinformation. It also aids critical analysis of the news media’s responses to “information disorder.”

  • “Combatting misinformation through Media and Information Literacy” (Magda Abu-Fadil)

    So how should those promoting journalism, including educators, practitioners and media policymakers respond to the crisis? This module introduces the concept of Media and Information Literacy (MIL) to understand news as a means to detect “information disorder” in obvious and subliminal messages.

  • “Fact-checking 101” (Alexios Mantzarlis)

    In the end, it is the discipline of verification that separates professional journalism from the rest. From politicians to marketers, from advocacy groups to brands — everyone who seeks to convince others has an incentive to distort, exaggerate, or obfuscate the facts. This module provides a methodology to detect fact-checkable claims and evaluate evidence critically, in line with ethical norms and standards.

  • “Social media verification: assessing sources and visual content” (Tom Trewinnard and Fergus Bell)

    This chapter is very practical, dealing with challenges of verification and evidence-based journalism which have been thrown up by digital technology and social media. It is designed to help readers identify and verify the original source of digital information online. It introduces different strategies for determining the authenticity of sources, photos and videos, especially user-generated content shared via social networks, with an emphasis on breaking news events. Readers are challenged to test their instincts with real-world scenarios and examples, before putting into practice basic investigative techniques and strategies for verifying content.

  • “Combating online abuse: when journalists and their sources are targeted” (Julie Posetti)

    A new trend has emerged at the intersection of populist “strongman” politics, disinformation and misogyny, with women journalists frequently targeted in state-sponsored online harassment campaigns designed to discredit them and chill their critical reporting. Such attacks can include threats of rape, sexualized abuse, and the deployment of technology (e.g. “deep fake” videos) to damage their reputations. The associated risks can further undermine trust in journalism, along with the safety of journalists and their sources.

Journalists can be direct victims of disinformation campaigns, but they are also pushing back. In addition to strengthening digital defenses, many are proactively exposing these attacks and uncovering the attackers. Engaging in Media and Information Literacy initiatives along with NGOs in this space, news media are also playing a role in educating the public about why journalism is worth cherishing and protecting — and acting as a vital antidote to disinformation. It’s clear to us that one of the key defenses against “information disorder” is more ethical and accountable journalism.

Julie Posetti is senior research fellow at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, where she leads the new Journalism Innovation Project.

Cherilyn Ireton is executive director of the World Editors Forum within the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.

  1. Note: The UNESCO handbook’s co-editor Julie Posetti and contributing researcher Alice Matthews are the authors of the ICFJ guide. []
POSTED     Sept. 14, 2018, 12:29 p.m.
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