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Facts, lies, hate and elections: how to pick your battles in the war against disinformation

‘Countering dis- and misinformation is like fighting a guerrilla war, with enemies coming from all sides, organised and systematic. How do you pick your battles?’ Lessons from five editors. Lucinda Jordaan reports about an Editors Summit session on ‘Facts, lies, hate and elections’ at the recent World News Media Congress in Taipei

“What do we do when the lies crowd out the truths – in a hyper-partisan world, where politicians promote an alternate reality and ‘alternate truths’? Do we need to think about different approaches that involve all of society?” Soyoung Kim, Reuters news editor

The many probing questions posed to, and among, panelists at the Editors Summit session on ‘Facts, lies, hate and elections’ at the World News Media Congress in Taipei last week, underscores the many different issues plaguing newsrooms across the world.The event aimed to seek solutions for journalists and newsrooms facing the challenges (and damages) of working in an age of disinformation, oppression and anger, particularly around elections. Panelists David Walmsley, editor-in-chief at Globe and Mail, Canada; Emma Clark, news editor for Afghanistan and Pakistan AFP in Afghanistan; Glenda M. Gloria, co-founder of Rappler (Philippines); and Nwabisa Makungu, editor of The Sowetan in South Africa, didn’t disappoint. 

“Sure, self-censorship, media ownership, election violence, all these problems have been there for a lifetime. The difference now is that disinformation is an easy tool for the tyrant, the corrupt regime, the corrupt politician, to use – and to facilitate victory. That’s the differentiator here. Because disinformation pollutes the entire environment, and chokes us. And if we don’t do something about it, we probably will die,” said Glenda Gloria, co-founder, Rappler. In sharing their experience of election coverage in their respective regions, they covered a vast range of topics, including issues of Press Freedom, Misinformation, Disinformation, Social Media, Democracy, Political Reporting, AI, Civil Society, Online Harassment, Safety of Journalists, Mental Health and Moral Injury.

‘The enemy of the people’ – when democracy gets tested
Moderator Soyoung Kim, news editor for North Asia, Southeast Asia & Australasia, Reuters, South Korea, was based in Washington DC from 2019 until 2021 and ran the 2020 presidential election coverage in the United States. “We always knew that it was going to be a bruising election campaign; that it was going to be ugly,” she recalled. “Trump was the sitting president, and calling the news media ‘the enemy of the people’ – and he frequently attacked our work as fake news.

“Misinformation in elections is nothing new. But what made this particular situation dangerous and challenging was the fact that someone in the highest office used his bully pulpit to spread lies. And of course, as news media we were constantly fact-checking everything he was saying. But unfortunately, his statements gained traction; they created a life of their own on social media. “What I didn’t foresee was that it wasn’t an empty threat. And he was actually going to attack the integrity of America’s election system and was going to make all efforts to try to overturn the results.

“Fast-forward three years: half of Americans believe their election system is fraudulent or prone to fraud, and do not have faith in the system. Even worse, the lies have been infectious globally. We’ve seen, from Brazil to Myanmar, politicians using the same playbook to claim fraud or stolen elections, in an effort to hold on to power. “Looking ahead to the next elections, Trump is back in the mix for 2024. We are definitely preparing again. And, like four years ago, we know that we need to prepare for misinformation, lies and – again – possible violence, too.

“Challenges remain. What do we do when the lies crowd out the truths – in a hyper-partisan world where politicians promote an alternate reality and ‘alternate truths’? Do we need to think about different approaches that involve all of society?”

Meeting changing norms
The very principal of democracy is under threat, noted David Walmsley, Globe and Mail. “I think you have a sign that natural order is changing. And the ability to put that back in the box, I think is a very difficult thing to do. But one thing journalists can do in between that period of time between an election and a vote is to hear and represent the voices that otherwise only get heard during a moment of crisis. And I think that reflection is something that forces a change to how you staff and how you represent bureaus and what geographic representation you bring to your domestic audience. And that’s something we’ve certainly had to take on to some extent.”

Debunking dis- and misinformation: Lessons from major newsrooms
“Disinformation moves so fast, in my experience countering dis- and misinformation is like fighting a guerrilla war, with enemies coming from all sides, organised and systematic. How do you pick your battles – or do you go head on to engage them all? Have you or your organisation set up a strategy for facing disinformation? Are there any steps to counter disinformation?”   This pertinent question from the audience summed up a robust panel discussion with sage advice on dealing with disinformation over a short or long term. 

Emma Clark, AFP Afghanistan: “We have two dedicated digital verification journalists in our newsroom in Islamabad, monitoring trends, and they choose what to debunk. It’s based mostly on what’s going the most viral, but also they have to be frank about what is easy to debunk and what is understandable to the audience. We could go down rabbit holes for a long, long time trying to disprove a particular politician’s work, where he got his wealth from or whether or not he’s facing certain legal challenges. Pakistan’s judiciary is archaic, so it’s actually quite difficult sometimes. So we have to be frank about where we spend our time and our resources, what can be easily debunked and easily explained to the audience, as well as what matters and what has an impact.”

David Walmsley, Globe and Mail: “We’re working with a couple of universities and we have our own misinformation team. There’s been a lot of foreign interference in Canadian elections; Russia and China in particular are heavily involved. We’ve discovered that we don’t have the ability to look at the data pools that are required, but if we look at patterns, we can show the state actors who are involved, and we’ll be working on that for the next 18 months heading to the next election.” 

Glenda Gloria, Rappler: “We deal with misinformation operationally, because we have a database and an alert system. Of course, because we have limited resources, we don’t deal with all sorts of disinformation. But when it gets traction, and we are alerted, we address it immediately – but with visuals, not text. Aside from fact checking, we include visceral emoticons as well, because that’s what’s been most effective in debunking lies.

“If you issue a three-paragraph statement, no one reads it, it will not go viral. So I think you also apply the kind of form tactics that the other side uses, which is really effective. Secondly, we do a lot of workshops on responsible use of social media, with journalists, journalism students and non-government organisations outside Metro Manila – because, ultimately, you can only do so much as a newsroom. “But when you introduce your reporters to your community, face to face, they put a human face to the byline. It’s easy hate online because you don’t know the person; you don’t see their body language, or see them as a human being. But once you expose your reporters in communities like this, face to face, it lessens the hate. It helps. It helps build relationships again. 

“We go back to our communities and we introduce journalism as a critical profession in democracy. And we try to do that face to face. It’s hard work, but the long term game should be worth it.”

(By special arrangement with WAN-IFRA. The writer is a regular contributor to World Editors Forum, WAN-IFRA.)