After the US election and the following discussion about fake news I was thinking a lot about its implications on sustainability and climate change. A weeks later, I stumbled across an interesting article only realizing a fews hours later that a friend of mine was part of the project DROG covered in the article. Jon, currently PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, volunteered to answer some questions around the topic of fake news and its implications. Enjoy the read!
Some media, such as Zeit Online, have already written articles about DROG. Can you explain in your own words what DROG is actually about?
We started DROG in mid-2016 because we wanted to delve deeper into the inner workings of disinformation and propaganda. DROG doesn’t produce its own news, per se. Rather, we want our users to be informed about how misleading information spreads, how you can recognise it, and along which fault lines it’s used and misused by people and organisations from different political spectra. So users come to DROG to learn about and discuss different misinformative techniques and tricks, and how they’re being applied in their daily news feeds.
In other words: You want to educate people on the topic of fake news?
That’s part of it, but it’s not the whole picture. Fake news is a recent term that became popular especially during the 2016 US elections. The way I see it, it’s a term with a quite specific meaning: a news story that is entirely made up, published with the intent to mislead an audience by a media outlet that disregards established standards of journalistic ethics and good practice. CNN, often derided by Donald Trump as a fake newsmonger, doesn’t fall under this definition, even if no one would call CNN ideologically or politically neutral. So I’d like to draw a distinction between fake news and propaganda (which is ideologically one-sided, misleading information published at the behest of governmental or corporate interests; it doesn’t have to be 100% false necessarily), and disinformation (news published with the intent to confuse and obfuscate rather than inform). And then, of course, there is simple shoddy journalism, or the publication of unverified or unverifiable information without proper sourcing. As you can see, there are a lot of ways that information can be misleading, and the dividing lines aren’t always clear. DROG wants to help users make sense of all this.
Why do you think this is important?
A huge number of people, especially from younger generations, consume most of their news online. When you do that, you’re automatically exposed to an almost unlimited amount of sources, each with a more or less distinct ideological underpinning. Add social media into the mix, and what you have is an incredibly fractured and diffuse media landscape, where proper journalists, propagandists and scam artists compete for audiences’ attention on a playing field with a very low entry barrier. This gets confusing. Oftentimes, news consumers struggle to make sense of the news they’re consuming and have a difficult time recognising techniques of misinformation. This makes it difficult for professional journalists to get their point across, while at the same time giving political or financial opportunists the chance to flourish. The way I see it, education and proper discussion are the most direct ways of combating these ills, which is why DROG tries to do just that.
Isn’t your approach challenging since more and more fake news articles are being created?
I’m not sure if fake news is really a new problem or a new way to express old concerns. Propaganda and disinformation aren’t exactly new, and misleading information has been around ever since humans started telling each other rumours. So I don’t think we’re witnessing the onset of a new phenomenon. But as I said earlier, the internet changes the way we consume our news, and that comes with a lot of challenges, especially when it comes to recognising when you’re being fooled. In this sense it is a challenge, yes, but that only makes it more important to step up and try to do something.
Where does fake news do the most damage? Is there a particular area?
There’s always going to be a subset of any population that believes in obvious myths. Think of people who believe in alien lizard overlords, 9/11 conspiracists or flat earthers. These people aren’t too much of a threat, because their views are kooky enough to be subject to a lot of ridicule when they try to enter the mainstream. But we have a problem when loony viewpoints are used in the information sphere as political leverage. So when you see things like the perpetuation of ridiculous theories around the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine, the proliferation of climate change denial by ‘scientists’ and ‘journalists’ with obvious corporate ties, or the spreading of immediately falsifiable theories about people who are in the public eye, that’s when misinformation can do real damage. In a time when trust in media and politics is low, information that seems plausible at the surface (but falls apart upon scrutiny) can gain some serious steam and have a real, sometimes lasting effect. So that’s where you want people to have some kind of informed framework to fall back on when they encounter such stories.
When it comes to the debate on climate change, there have always been climate change sceptics. Is fake news a threat to the acknowledgement of climate change?
The problem with climate change sceptics is that they’re not scientifically literate enough to understand the literature and the methodologies that are used. This makes their views worthless at best and damaging at worst. Of course, if you understand fluid mechanics and climate modelling methodologies well enough, you can for example debate the degree of certainty that some current models predict, but no climate sceptic that I know of actually does this. Instead, they lash onto a couple of reported uncertainties in some data set or other and proceed to draw sweeping conclusions without any factual or scientific basis. These people are dangerous and wrong. Unfortunately, the low-barrier information sphere offers them plenty of opportunities to raise their voice. So in that sense it’s more easy for them to be heard and, in some cases, become quite popular. This is indeed a problem. The only thing you can really do about it is to spread awareness that these people are misleading their audience, and to challenge them directly. People like Potholer54 (a YouTube channel) do this very well. I’d recommend watching some of his videos. They’re brilliant takedowns of misinformed climate sceptics.
We met while studying Sustainable Development. Is sustainability currently under strain?
Oh yes. The relative success of the Paris Agreement aside, we’re having a tough time. If you only look at the climate policy proposed by the Trump administration, which is a full-scale rollback of the progress made under Obama, it’s quite clear that we’re not moving in the right direction. Antonio Gramsci said we should have the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will. That’s true enough, but the will to make any of the strides we need seems to be completely absent among those who hold a lot of power. And that’s bad.
That poses the question: What do we do about these developments? How do we debunk fake news?
I think fake news and misinformation are a huge problem, if only because they seem to inform some very powerful people. Facebook’s new fact checking feature is a pretty good idea, although I have some hangups about any organisation claiming to be the arbiter of truth in news. Another development is Google’s idea (not yet implemented) to leave fake information and debunked science off the first page of their search results. This way you can limit the availability of bad information, which should help a bit. But I think the best solution is to increase media literacy worldwide, through education in schools and universities or outside of the formal education sphere. If people are aware of the ways they can be misled, misinformation will lose its power.
Fake news and the whole debate around the phenomenon are often very controversial. Is there any positive aspect about this debate?
It’s being discussed. The debate has managed to make it into our daily parlance, which I think is generally good. By now, most people I think will be aware that there is such a thing as fake news. I don’t have any empirical data to verify this, but it could be that we’re already seeing the effects of this on the way people judge the reliability of the information they receive.
Thanks Jon for the interview.
Jon Roozenbeek is a writer, editor and translator. He's currently working as a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, where he studies Ukraine's and Russia's online media landscape and media theory.