DISINFO2020

The Columbia Journalism Review (CRJ) and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, New York, organized Disinfo2020, a conference featuring top political and media thinkers with US and international expertise, to identify and discuss the threats posed by disinformation, especially to elections.

In a session on election reporting in the disinformation age, Kyle Pope (editor and publisher of CJR), Whitney Phillips (assistant prof. at Syracuse University), Hamilton Nolan (journalist on politics, inequality, labor), Masha Gessen (staff writer at The New Yorker), and Hayes Brown (world news editor and reporter at BuzzFeed News) discussed the question of trust being not only about rationality but about emotions and faith – hence the filter bubble effect tends to remain. The kind of in-depth conversations needed to bridge rifts in views, and to create trust, are not scalable. The participants discussed the current situation with the metaphors first suggested by Phillips who noted that dis- and misinformation as terms are confusing and imperfect. Rather, today’s information crisis is very much like the environmental crisis in that pollution knows no borders. It is also good to remember that both crises have a long history; they did not just appear, but they are both now heating up, escalating.

The new mechanics of voter suppression, discussed by Jelani Cobb (staff writer at The New Yorker), Shireen Mitchell (diversity strategist and founder of Digital Sisters/Sistas and Stop Online Violence Against Women), and Jonathan Albright (Director of the Digital Forensics Initiative at the Tow Center) highlighted the fact that the origins of propagandist content are hard to uncover. It does seem, though, that foreign “troll factories” are now coupled with local actors; a situation worsened by the diminishing local news organizations.

The keynote discussion featured Carole Cadwalladr, the features writer for The Guardian and The Observer, whose coverage of Cambridge Analytica was central in bringing the the role of the company in the 2016 US elections and in Brexit to public limelight. In conversation with Kyle Pope, Carole Cadwalladr referred to the upcoming elections in the U.K. and noted the avalanche of targeted misinformation right before the election. Her view was that journalists may be somewhat naive about their role: To make people care, facts and outrage are not enough. Platforms tend to ignore the news coverage on their misdeeds. But so much of the information about those misdeeds is not hidden; it needs to be reported and explained better. Cadwalladr’s view was that the time of scoops is over, replaced by the time of collaborations between different journalistic outlets.

The last panel – with Emily Bell (director of the Tow Center), Rocky Cole (researcher at Jigsaw), Jiore Craig (vice president of the strategic consulting firm GQR) , Leon Yin (data science editor at The Markup), and Olaf Steenfadt (of the Media Ownership Monitor project and the Journalism Trust Initiative at Reporters without Borders) – asked whether platforms can get it right. Yin noted that the spread of disinformation does not necessarily require sophisticated technology but that many free, commonly used tools are utilized. He also highlighted local news as a vulnerability and noted that most responses by the platforms are mere bandaids. Craig highlighted the use of ‘privacy’ as an excuse by the platforms to avoid addressing their misdeeds. Cole pointed out the rise of malicious PR companies.

Steenfadt, taking a global outlook, asked why the platforms should care as profit-making organizations? There is quite consensual what good journalism is around the world. Compliance is one problem. We can’t blame platforms but we can blame them for algorithm amplification of bad. We should follow the money and focus on the economy, most importantly, platforms would listen to their advertisers that are not currently too happy about the way the platforms work, and/or use taxation as a tool.

In sum, many of the participants highlighted the complexity of the problem that can’t be solved by mere “quality journalism”. Some participants felt there may need to be a new approach to journalism, many called for new approaches to regulation.

CJR Special Issue on disinformation.

Minna Aslama Horowitz of Cordi attended this one-day conference on 11 December, 2019, in New York. The 6-hour conference can be streamed in its entity here:

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