Why the Rise of State Media Requires Savvy Reading

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Painting of Edmund Burke MP c. 1767, studio of Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) Wikimedia Commons

The Fourth Estate, in 1787, was an embodiment of the ‘speak truth to power’ mantra. “[Edmund] Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all,” as Thomas Carlyle wrote. Burke, pictured above, would never have seen the radio, the television, or the blog, but the principle of a free, impartial, and rigorous press has long stood as part of the democratic school of thought nevertheless.
330 years later, events show that the pen and the sword are not equally matched. Reporters face harassment, threats, or death in pursuit of their duties, even in democracies. The murder of Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh is only the latest example of this trend. The image of the journalist as watchkeeper has been replaced by that of the journalist as impediment – something to be trampled over if it gets in the way of populist progress. In dictatorships and under military juntas, the ability to strike at members of the press with impunity is now viewed as routine.

And an equally pernicious trend is the attempt to blur the line between state and mass media: an approach to power perhaps best known from the dictatorships of the 20th century, given new life in the 21st.

The state media today is a far more sophisticated machine because there are more avenues of attack. The USSR’s replied upon newspapers like Pravda – a former journal of arts which would gain its political character under Leon Trotsky – and broadcasting stations including Radio Moscow, coupled with heavy censorship of both local and foreign journalists. These politics of exclusion sought to keep a strict lock on what could be accessed.

The astonishing lack of trust in the news media has done away with the need for a hermetic seal on news, allowing state-sponsored news to fill the gap with a variety of techniques. Sputnik, for example, apes Western media with its delight in viral headlines and emojis – but its bald pro-Russian stance makes it an unsubtle tool. RT (formerly Russia Today), its big brother has proven a somewhat more skilled player: in addition to its wild-eyed columnists, it has featured such noteworthy figures as Noam Chomsky, developing credibility. It has also experimented with less explicitly state-led channels for foreign markets: Agence2Presse (a clear take on APF’s full name), a Front National supporting news outfit in the vein of The Gateway Pundit, is the second iteration of ProRusseTV (many of whose former journalists have gravitated to Sputnik or RT). The use of French journalists for a French audience – and the removal of any Russian state branding – don’t mean that the influence from the Kremlin is diminished.

Social media has offered another outfit altogether. On the anniversary of the abortive coup in Turkey, TRT World (a part of the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation) used its social media feeds to push out a distinctly pro-government message. Its message was delivered via slick videos, which had an added bonus – allowing users to respond. A quick scroll through found the majority of responses were strongly in support of Erdogan. Whether or not this simply reflected TRT’s readership is difficult to ascertain; what is more obvious is that TRT does not explicitly show its ties to the Turkish government.

Turkish protests in support of Erdogan in the wake of the 2016 coup d’etat attempt                                 Mstyslav Chernov – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51156155

And then there is the case of the bot – the ‘fake’ user, a profile rigged to blurt out things in support of or against a given candidate (with the potential for manual control as well). The Russian botnets I discussed last week are a particularly noteworthy example of this because they are so visible: they have targeted Western institution, and as a result have been exposed by Western think tanks and journalists. But studies on this ‘computational propaganda’ suggest it’s hardly a Kremlin secret – it’s simply that in many other countries, it is designed with a domestic audience in mind. The presence of these bots in Venezuela, for example, is little remarked upon both because of their relatively limited numbers and their lack of interference with Western geopolitics: nevertheless, they act as force multipliers for the Maduro government, creating an illusion of grater support.

This all feels a bit grim, especially as President Donald Trump seems keen to follow this route. Lara Trump’s Trump TV resembles Sputnik the most in its on-the-nose style of propaganda. Whilst it’s unlikely to gain new converts, even stabilising support from an existing audience – and further encouraging them to disbelieve non-state-affiliated media – is an achievement of sorts. Whilst it lacks the commonly seen underpinning of a party structure(in favour of a support for a demagogic leader), there’s certainly a case to be made for Trump TV being a kind of proto-state media.

It would be unfair to say that all state media exists purely for propaganda purposes – Al Jazeera’s reporting (when it doesn’t come to Qatar) is very high quality; the BBC, in spite of its many flaws, represents a gold standard in editorial independence. And yet, no matter how free they are from state interference, these institutions are inextricably linked into a form of soft, cultural power. Nor are non-state actors inherently agenda free: the objective press is a myth after all. The peculiar problem of the state media in the age of rising populism is the tendency to violence under illiberal governments, and the role propaganda plays in both legitimising and downplaying it.

Under more benevolent rulers, the question of how to fight it remains. There have been suggestions to bar state media channels from broadcast, but regulations fail to solve the underlying problems (and you can’t regulate every state media website). The only way to fight it is to have an engaged citizenry which can recognise the signs of propaganda, and treat it with the scepticism which it deserves.

The rise of citizen journalist isn’t all bad news for mass media

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I discussed Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks a few weeks back – a seminal text which predicts (amongst other things) the weakening of mass media in the face of a growing ‘prosumer’ movement. If some of Benkler’s other prophecies have not come true (most pointedly the death of intellectual property), the change of media from a one-way street to a two-way discussion most certainly has.

Benkler, however, didn’t predict that support for the mass media would collapse so profoundly. Just under a third of Americans surveyed last year in a Gallup poll had even a fair amount of trust in the mass media, compared to 40% a year before. That disbelief is much more pronounced amongst Republicans (at 14% trust down from 32% in 2015), but even Democrats had slumped to 51% – the lowest on record. The last great drop in trust was in 2004, presumably a result of the Invasion of Iraq.

That lack of trust in legacy media has paved the way for a desire for authenticity, as embodied by citizen media. The sneering of the mass media establishment for those without the mantle of ‘professional journalist’ has lost much of its bite over the years, not least because the ‘amateur’ journalist have often proven quite capable. Consider the most notable example from 2004, when Little Green Footballs and other blogs were able to score one over Dan Rather, regarding George W. Bush’s military record.

As social networks have evolved, some of the most important work comes from formal teams rather than individual bloggers. Few sites embody this better than Bellingcat, which was started by British blogger Elliot Higgins in 2012 and which “uses open source and social media investigation to investigate a variety of subjects.” Like those involved in Rathergate nearly a decade previously, Higgins work investigating the Syrian civil war started as a personal project. Today, a team of analysts affiliated with the Atlantic Council cover a wide range of conflicts, supported by crowdfunding. That citizen journalists can complete investigative work – which is so often expensive, slow, and uncertain – means it can serve as a helpful adjutant to the pre-existing infrastructure of mass media investigations.

The citizen journalist might lack the name or the funding which the mass media offers, but they also avoid the clunky bureaucracy, red tape, and any ideological agenda imposed from atop.  All of this translates into a greater appreciation of authenticity, in which being a bit rough around the edges, or not being an expert in a field,  is seen as an advantage. Think of it as the vox pop, but this time it’s the common person asking the questions.

And yet to place too much faith in authenticity can lessen an interest in verification. As the idea of journalism and political activism has become mixed up, that idea of authenticity has also helped to empower an industry of fake news, who can hawk lies and half-truths on the basis that they are saying what the mainstream media will not. Mike Cernovich, the former men’s rights activist and conspiracy theorist turned Breitbart correspondent, hosts a Patreon for his ‘high impact journalism’, peddling alt right canards including white genocide in South Africa and covert media support Hillary Clinton. Cernovich makes heavy use of Periscope, which offers the same sort of ‘unmediated’ experience as Trump’s tweets.

Even further to the fringe, Alex Jones of InfoWars has perfected aggrieved authenticity as a marketing gimmick. Jones’ violent outbursts against liberals, satanists, and assorted nasties are notorious (including one scene in which he rips his t-shirt off on camera), but they perform a kind of rawness which is rarely found in the mass media. Screaming about demonic possession or challenging random members of the public to fight is so far out of the realms of normal, mass media behaviour that it bolsters Jones’ claim to be unfettered.

It would be unfair to say that the media establishment is not immune to failures or deliberate deceptions by reporters or editors. Checks and balances don’t always work, and to ignore criticisms by the public is arrogant at best, business suicide at worst. So it is encouraging to see when citizen journalism and the mass media work in tandem. At the Washington Post, David Farenthold’s reporting of Trump’s donations relied heavily on working with a broad audience via social media. The idea of sending a reporter around the country looking for a painting would raise an editor’s eyebrow, though probably not their wallets. Instead, Farenthold was able to mobilise a massive group of individuals who previously could only have been involved with journalism through the letters page of a paper or magazine.

A more permanent hybrid currently in the works is WikiTribune, founded by Jimmy Wales of the Wikipedia foundation. “Articles are authored, fact-checked, and verified by professional journalists and community members working side by side as equals,” it claims. If WikiTribune works, it could be the missing link between authenticity and verification we need. Only time will tell, but even if such a high minded example does not play out, we can expect to see a fruitful partnership between the mass media and citizen journalists in years to come – one of the few antidotes to false news and misinformation.

The Fightback Against Misinformation – and Why Propaganda is so Hard to Beat

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The misinformation industry has had a bit of a boom over the past year or so. On the one end of the spectrum, there are the amateurs: such as right-wing activists like the Gateway Pundit, or InfoWars-style conspiracy theorists. Many of their attempts are sensationalist, relying on an audience already primed to believe fringe theories.

Perhaps more worrying are attempts to ape credible sites, as seems to be the case in a slew of stories unearthed by The Guardian. The most likely suspect is the Kremlin, given that the articles were designed to denigrate opponents such as Francois Macron. These were quite literally fake news sites, using practically identical addresses to obscure their authenticity. 

Most concerning, are when the two groups work in unison, boosting their message even further.

In any case, the net result of misinformation isn’t merely the attempt to convince readers of a certain set of facts. More perniciously, it creates alternative truth systems, at best harming public confidence in facts and at the worst increasing polarisation. ‘There’s a war on for your mind’, Alex Jones’ site proudly declares, and that mentality enables propagandists great and small to defend their positions through ad hominem attacks and strawman arguments. They do not simply ask you to believe them – they demand you don’t trust anyone who contradicts them. The public issues of politics become personal.

Deliberately fake news isn’t a new problem, as has been pointed out ad infinitum – but then, the geopolitical stakes today are unique. One of the examples often cited is William Randolph Hearst, and his attempts to spur on the Spanish-American War: his alleged telegram, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war”,  shows a man bent on skirting facts if they got in the way of a good story (an allegation perennially levelled at tabloids).

And yet Hearst’s motivation doesn’t seem to have been about creating a narrative so much as simply selling papers. Morally repugnant nonetheless – the explosion of USS Maine, which was pinned on a Spanish naval mine, was probably a naval accident – but with a different level of cunning. Hearst probably didn’t want the Spanish side in his papers, and he did want to whip up a jingoistic fury, but the end goal seems to have been purely mercenary.

Thankfully, in the age of disbelief, we are armed with various tools to counter misinformation. There are the old guard, the Snopes and the Politifact, which have simply gained a new lease of life during the past year. And then there are heavier duty systems, designed by academics, such as the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) and the German Marshall Fund’s Hamilton 68.

The two cover similar topics – namely the far-right and Russia – but present it in different ways. Hamilton 68 is  more back-end, studying a group of Kremlin/alt-right Twitter accounts and offering users statistics such as trending hashtags in their group as well as top domains and daily Tweet counts.  By contrast, the DFRLab’s work is more about verifying news stories: whilst some focus on the archetypal misinformation campaign, other articles have used tweets, videos and NASA data to track potential arson by Ukrainian separatists. 

The existence of these systems are important to a general public more wary of legacy news media – they offer expert insight without the taint which arrogant and myopic media giants brought upon themselves over the past year. But defeating computational propaganda amongst the converted may be beyond even their capacity. For a committed, core following, Hamilton 68 and the DFRLab are embodiments of the great liberal menace, with or without lashings of anti-Semitism and anti-Communism. For those convinced the academy is blinded by liberal bias, an emphasis on expertise is ripe for accusations of conspiracy.

And even worse is the simple fact that computational propagandists don’t like being contradicted – and they have ways to make this clear. As the New York Times reported,  ProPublica’s work exposing pro-Trump/pro-Kremlin networks saw their reporters targeted and their inboxes knocked out of action. Not quite physical violence, perhaps, but as the Times argues, it’s only part of a wider belief that journalism which doesn’t fit one agenda is not journalism at all, but a personal attack on the propagandists (and by association their audience).  The ‘democratising’ effect of the internet has not merely given the world the right to reply, but also offers the capacity to silence troublesome voices.

The context collapse over the past year – the movement of political issues from a public sphere into a private one – has been the basis of computational propaganda, and its greatest strength: it immures it from criticism, and legitimises its excesses. How this is altered remains to be seen, but until it is, all the fact-checking in the world won’t be able to break misinformation’s hold over a concerning proportion of its readers.

The Age of Babel?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The fear that the internet would be reduced to a overload of information is not new.  In scholarship, it was codified at least 11 years ago, in Yochai Benkler’s fairly ground breaking The Wealth of Networks. The Babel problem, as Benkler dubs it, essentially argues that when everyone is allowed to shout, either no-one gets heard, or money comes to determine who is. In short, it’s either information overload, or the ‘old pay to play’ model of mass media.

Benkler is not a full-on cyber-utopian, but back in 2006 – the year Twitter launched, and when Facebook and YouTube were still in their infancy – he certainly painted a rosy picture of the web to come. It was to overthrow mass media (not inaccurate), turn passive consumers into active prosumers (very accurate), and encourage an open-source ideology would overcome our obsession with copyright (yes and no). The overall effect of the networked information economy, as he dubbed it, would be far preferable to what had come before. The Babel problem would be overcome through the power of the commons, just as the old dominance of mass media would be diminished.

This was before the Arab Spring, of course, when it became distressingly clear that despots could use the internet as effectively as dissidents. And it was well before we discovered that computational propaganda (the use of bots as political weapons) could help bring American democracy into dispute.

It feels a bit like we’ve hit peak Babel today. There’s a fragmentation of readership which we are seeing in America and across Europe, in part driven by a massive proliferation of news sources (not all of them terribly professional or acting in good faith). Levels of trust in the MSM, on both the left and the right, seem to waver. At the same time, the problem of differentiating between political activism and journalism has become quite acute. And, of course, there is that stench of money hanging in the balance – the allegations about the Seth Rich story being driven by Fox and the White House, sounds like nothing but good old fashioned pay to play journalism.

But is it fair to judge the internet as the greater divider? Benkler, in The Wealth of Nations, makes clear that he thinks the success of the networked information economy should be measured against the current mass media market. The usual benchmark, the high idealism of John Perry Barlow’s ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’, was rejected by its own author in 2004 to be fair.

Certainly, the erosion of mass media has allowed unsavoury elements to creep in from the fringes – but it has also given space for projects which wouldn’t have found a place when the traditional newsroom held a monopoly over information. Snopes and similar independent fact-checking organisations exist in a symbiotic relationship with media: they point out falsehoods, and the media publicises it. Similarly, we’re seeing the development projects like Hamilton 68 (which I hope to write more about in the future), a tool for tracking networks of bots and pro-Russian accounts on Twitter. Is it journalism? Not exactly. Is it a platform for journalists, as well as for civil society and ordinary citizens? Certainly.

In essence, the Babel problem seems to have provided its own upside. A mass media which cannot rely on simply saying ‘it’s right because I say so’ has gained adjutants to help say ‘it’s right because of so-and-so’. The much lower margin to entering the new media landscape, which Benkler pointed out even in 2006, means that you don’t have to pay to play any more, giving new space for hobbyists and amateurs to take their spot alongside the old timers.

This still doesn’t solve the problem of how we deal with a fragmented readership. The best argument might be to simply acknowledge that the cat’s out of the bag, has caught the train, and is already well on its way to the airport. The days of reliance on a few channels and a few newspapers are long dead. It’s a reality that the mass media might not like, but the simple fact is that ‘rebuilding’ a relatively broad audience which existed even twenty years ago is wishful thinking at best. We can expose ourselves to more ideas and more opinions, and the news establishment simply has to adapt to this.

Of course, when some those ideas are deleterious (see: Pizzagate), that’s not necessarily a good thing. No-one’s ever thought it was a good idea for pubs to start serving pints of paint stripper and bleach in the name of variety and freedom of choice, after all. And when these ideas are being presented as having equal validity to good science or rigorous journalism, you’ve got another problem altogether. What Benkler observed back in 2006 – and which should come as surprise to no-one today – is that the subclusters of political sites had stronger connections within themselves than to opposing viewpoints. When these bipartisan ties fray and finally snap, we get echo chambers. So in a sense, the Babel problem, with the resultant weakening of the legacy media and the explosion of spurious online resources, might be what’s at the heart of the conspiracy theories and political zealotry we’re seeing today.

There is encouragement to be had that we’re taking measures to see across the aisle. The New York Times runs a section featuring conservative stories in order to break the echo chamber. These were not discussions that were had in the past, when audiences were homogenised, because the need was not so apparent. Back then, though, we would never think about going out of our way to read what the other side is putting out. Today, with so many voices to listen to dodging the Babel problem and staying out of echo chambers is harder than ever. But at the least, we’re thinking about how to fight it.