Facing the facts on disinformation

Last week I mentioned PEN America’s Banned Book Index. I had forgotten, until I received an email the afternoon before that column was published, that I had participated last year in a survey of more than 1,000 journalists on dealing with disinformation. (I know, weird; who’d want my opinion? Especially as disinformation tends to make me curse liberally.)

Pout all ya want, kid. I won’t give you treats for bad behavior. Come in when the timer goes off, you get treats. Make me have to go outside to track you down, no treats.

No, not the disinformation that my feline charge Charlie keeps trying to feed me. No, Charlie, your mom didn’t say that you get unlimited outside time and treats. I have enough to answer for since I got you hooked, however unintentionally, on those catnip treats.

PEN America, founded in 1922, “is the largest of the more than 100 centers worldwide that make up the PEN International network. PEN America works to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others,” according to its website.

While there is and should be wide latitude to create and access a wide variety of reading material, disinformation—content created and distributed with the intent to deceive—poses special problems for journalists, whether on the news or opinion side.

In a 2017 report, PEN America “anticipated the potential risks if disinformation went unchecked, including ‘unending political polarization and gridlock; the undermining of the news media as a force for government accountability; a long-term risk to the viability of serious news; an inability to devise and implement fact- and evidence-driven policies; the vulnerability of public discourse to manipulation by private and foreign interests; an increased risk of panic and irrational behavior among citizens and leaders; and government overreach, unfettered by a discredited news media and detached citizenry.'”

A lot of actual fake news has come out of “news” mills in places like Macedonia and by people who have nothing better to do than make up crap. Illustration by John Deering, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“Today,” PEN wrote in its new report, “Hard News: Journalists and the Threat of Disinformation,” “we see a deluge of falsehoods, in words and images, injected into the public conversation in deliberate campaigns by operatives who seek political, financial, or societal advantage. Disinformation impedes the public’s access to the accurate information needed for civic engagement and informed decision-making. It undermines our public discourse, sows discord, and weakens our political system and ultimately our democracy upon which free expression rights rest. The potency of this threat is evident in how disinformation has baselessly diminished faith in our election system, cost lives by undermining the public-health response to the covid-19 pandemic, and fueled an insurrection at the Capitol that was intended to disrupt the peaceful transition of power.

“A free press is a fundamental manifestation of free expression, and purveyors of disinformation expressly target that role. From doctored photos to planted rumors to lies in letters to the editor to misleading claims and conspiratorial narratives reshared across social media, journalists are bombarded by deceptions whether reporting on local politics or wars abroad. The deliberate spread of falsehoods pollutes the information space, planting doubt and making it hard for people to discern the veracity of news sources and to tell fact from falsehood. False claims of ‘fake news’ directed at credible journalists and their outlets further confuse the public.”

You know it’s possible for positive news coverage to be fake news, right? Image found on Press Freedom Tracker.

Gosh, why would anyone want to confuse the public? Surely everyone in politics today is interested only in helping the people. (I think I sprained my sarcasm bone on that one.)

But, you may be thinking, journalists are just trying to save their jobs, right? It’s not like they do anything important, is it? I mean, it’s just a job that anyone could do. (Yes, there are some bad writers, but they’re outweighed by the people really dedicated to their work.)

PEN America makes clear the role journalists play in the U.S.: “Professional journalists, editors, and news organizations that provide credible reporting and promote informed civic engagement stand as a bulwark against the onslaught of disinformation being injected into public discourse. It is from their newspapers, websites, and broadcasters that communities can expect to access reliable information and understand the debates that shape their societies. Journalists have long been tasked with holding public officials to account, thwarting obfuscation by those with political or economic power, and probing for the facts. Never before, however, have they had to do so in the face of such an extreme surge of falsehoods and manipulations supercharged by algorithms and nefarious actors, and at a time when their news outlets are struggling for survival with starkly depleted resources.”

There aren’t actually separate realities, but those who believe propaganda think there are. Reminder: “Alternative facts” aren’t facts. Editorial cartoon by Matt Wuerker, Politico.

The survey responses showed that “disinformation is significantly changing the practice of journalism, disrupting newsroom processes, draining the attention of editors and reporters, demanding new procedures and skills, jeopardizing community trust in journalism, and diminishing journalists’ professional, emotional, and physical security.” The vast majority (81 percent) of respondents said disinformation is a very serious problem; I was one of them. The majority of us also deal with it regularly, some of us most days.

Worse, said the report, “More than 90 percent said disinformation had an impact on their experiences as journalists in recent years; 65 percent had faced hostility from the public, 48 percent reported feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, and 42 percent felt some portion of their audience had lost trust in them.”

Which, of course, is part of disinformation’s purpose.

The group’s analysis tracked closely with trends that “PEN America has identified as major threats to freedom of expression and its underpinning role for a democratic, equitable, and inclusive society.” Those include a surge in online abuse (such as trolling, threatening emails and doxing) in an effort to intimidate journalists into self-censorship; the loss of local news outlets providing community-level news coverage, leading to less informed and civically engaged communities; and undermined trust in the press.

The closure of local newspapers means news deserts, and unfortunately, unscrupulous actors fill the void on the Internet by pretending to be local news organizations when they’re really a part of a “pink slime” outfit like Locality Labs. Editorial cartoon by Rob Tornoe, America’s Newspapers.

(Side note: Doxing means to “search for and publish private or identifying information about (a particular individual) on the internet, typically with malicious intent,” according to Oxford Languages. From the report: “Three out of five journalists surveyed said that amid the proliferation of disinformation and distrust, at least one of these things had happened to them: received threatening emails, phone calls, or letters; been harassed in person while working; been doxed or trolled; been catfished; and/or feared for their personal safety sufficiently to add security precautions to their daily routines.” Because journalism isn’t thankless enough.)

“Disinformation and false accusations about the veracity of facts can leave individuals confused and communities divided, unsure what sources to rely upon,” the group reported, “potentially leading them to put news outlets with ethics and standards codes into the same bucket as purveyors of falsehoods.”

I mean, InfoWars and The New York Times are basically the same, right?

I’m not sure what we in local news media can do other than just continue to do our jobs to the best of our abilities. We can continue to debunk false claims, but we risk the backfire effect embedding the beliefs even further. Whatever we do, there will always be some people we will never convince that we’re on the level because they have been conditioned to believe that whatever they don’t agree with is “fake news.” No wonder so many of us are tired and overwhelmed. As one respondent to the survey said, “It is exhausting to be a journalist right now—the combination of economic precariousness with all the mistrust and noise out there.”

I’ll point fingers at one source of fake news. And I’ll do it with my normal-sized hands. Image found on imgur.

As for me, I’ll continue to reject assertions in letters and columns that have been debunked and/or don’t at least attribute the source or make clear that it’s the writer’s opinion and not necessarily fact (though, yeah, I’ll occasionally miss one). That means political talking points won’t get much love, regardless of where they originated, because the bulk of them are couched in deceit … and are usually logic-deprived as well.

I haven’t had to deal with as much trolling as usual since the comment function on the newspaper website has been malfunctioning, and I can hope that in the meantime the usual suspects have found new hobbies.

Charlie, though, is committed to his hobby of trying to pull one over on his sitter. At least he’s cute.

And crap, he knows it.

He knows the utter devastation he can wreak with one little paw curl. This is a dangerous(ly cute) kitty.