Western policymakers and academics find themselves in the midst of a debate on how to maintain the rights of a free press in a world increasingly flooded by disinformation, some of it sponsored and disseminated by state actors.
The issue has proven particularly acute in Ukraine. As disinformation played a key role during Russia’s invasion and continued occupation of part of that country in 2014, civil society responded. In France in 2018 President Emmanuel Macron claimed that disinformation during election campaigns undermines democracy. He announced legislation that would supposedly ban “fake news” during election campaigns – potentially setting up the state as the arbiter of “truth.”
“As we learned during the Cold War, we need not become them to fight them,” wrote retired U.S. Ambassador Daniel Fried and Brookings fellow, Dr. Alina Polyakova in an Atlantic Council report in 2018.
“As an open system, democracy is more vulnerable in the short run to certain manipulation, but it is more resilient than authoritarian systems in the longer term,” the two scholars stated in their report, "Democratic Defense Against Disinformation."
In fact, Ukraine’s experience has played a key role in sparking a worldwide debate over disinformation and its effect on societies that uphold freedom of the press.
European Action Against Disinformation
In recent years,some European countries have taken steps to protect their media spheres from malicious disinformation, particularly the state-sponsored variety. The Ukrainian case is instructive not only because it demonstrates the destructive impact of disinformation campaigns, but also because it produced a response to state-sponsored disinformation campaign in furtherance of military operations – rooted in journalism.
In 2014, volunteers from the journalism school at Kyiv’s Mohyla Academy formed an organization known as StopFake, which finds and debunks stories it identifies as “fakes,” fabricated “news” coming from Russian state-owned media and their allies in Ukraine. The organization used social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to fact-check the "fakes" it finds flooding in from Russia.
In 2015, the European Council created the East Stratcom Task Force with the goals of combating “Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns” in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. To that end, the “EU vs Disinfo” website reviews news and fact-checks disinformation coming from Russia and pro-Kremlin sources. The project provided an example of government officials fighting disinformation with facts rather than regulating speech, avoiding the clash between free speech and government decree.
US Election Interference
State-sponsored media outlets with no editorial independence, but whose funding affords them the veneer of authentic news outlets are seen as a particular challenge in democratic societies. RT (Russia Today) and another Russian state-owned media outlet, Sputnik, fall into that category. RT was cited the U.S. intelligence community’s 2017 declassified report that concluded that President Vladimir Putin “ordered an influence campaign” surrounding the 2016 presidential election.
“State-owned Russian media made increasingly favorable comments about President-elect Trump as the 2016 U.S. general and primary election campaigns progressed while consistently offering negative coverage of Secretary Clinton,” said the Intelligence Community’s Assessment, released just before the presidential inauguration. Intelligence officials concluded the media outlets “contributed to the influence campaign” that included the hacking of political emails and targeted social media postings.
Rather than spread wild, fabricated stories as some smaller web outlets do, these networks typically promote the goals of their respective governments through biased content. In the United Kingdom, the media regulator Ofcom, with the power penalize networks which fail the test of “due impartiality” has cited the Russian state-owned broadcaster RT several times.The Iranian satellite network Press TV was banned from British airwaves in 2012 for broadcasting an interview with imprisoned Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari in 2010. Bahari, who was jailed after covering the Iranian elections of 2009, said he gave the interview under duress.
Polygraph.info video by Nik Yarst.
The First Amendent - Protecting Free Speech
In the U.S. the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects freedom of speech and the press, provides more leeway to media outlets, like RT and Sputnik. However, in November 2017, RT was compelled to comply with the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires registrants to disclose their affiliation with foreign governments.
Critics say the requirement that RT and Sputnik be registered as foreign agents has led to threats against American news outlets operating in Russia, including Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty and CNN.
While some analysts suggest outlets like RT and Sputnik use the First Amendment as protection to engage in malicious activity, they are hesitant to suggest restricting or censoring content.
“For the purpose of public education and awareness, the U.S. government could support the publication of an independent report by a trusted independent media or civil society watchdog (or consortium of such groups) that would publish a list of state-sponsored media (including Western media outlets, like the BBC) and develop a ranking system for assessing their independence,” Polyakova, the David Rubenstein fellow at Brookings told Polygraph.info.
“This would provide a valuable resource to journalists and the general public for distinguishing between credible and non-credible sources.”
Social media and internet platforms also find themselves in the midst of the fight against disinformation- particularly tech giants Facebook, Google and Twitter. Since 2016, these companies have faced increasing scrutiny over their ability to detect and close down state-sponsored fake accounts and the notion that they do not do enough.
While tech companies’ responses have included working with third party fact-checking organizations and banning accounts for “inauthentic” activity, their actions sometimes provoke a backlash from users who considered the bans unjust.
critics of the tech giants say their size can lead to de facto censorship even if it isn’t being carried out by the government. According to Polyakova, more competition among tech firms would help rectify the situation.
“Competition in any market is a good thing because it forces the companies to respond to user demands, in this case for more privacy protection, personal data control, and transparency on how content is being delivered,” she said. “We are in a situation now where a few firms dominate this market, so more competition would be a positive.”
Government response raises the specter of state censorship in the name of curbing “fake news.” Russia, a country not known for respect of press freedom, recently approved a law designed to stop the spread of “fake news” on the internet. Nearly one month later, an environmentalist activist became the first person charged and fined under the law, for posting information about a planned protest action in her city.
In April 2018, Malaysia passed a bill aimed at banning the dissemination of fake news. The law was repealed just months later, in August 2018, after being roundly criticized for stifling freedom of speech.
As disinformation prevalent via the internet and social media, the need to counter or at least mitigate its harmful effects while still preserving freedom of the press will undoubtedly continue to present a delicate balancing act for Western decision makers.
[Friday, May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. This is the second in a series of Polygraph.info articles on press freedom and disinformation].