Fake News: Threat to Democracy

By John Dinges*

Newspaper stand in Mexico City

A newspaper stand in Mexico City. As traditional news media faces growing competition from social media and emerging technologies, fake news poses a threat to legitimate news media and democracy itself. / Pablo Andrés Rivero / Flickr / Creative Commons

Fake news threatens to destroy the fundamental values of a free press throughout the hemisphere, and only a redoubling of efforts to build and protect investigative journalism would appear to offer hope in stemming its growing influence.  Journalism faces a number of challenges, including violence, authoritarian pressure, manipulation by commercial interests, and competition from “social media.”  But the combination of fake news and new technologies to spread it pose an asymmetric threat to legitimate news media and to democracy itself.

  • In its strict – and now largely unused – definition, fake news is fabricated information that’s designed to look like journalistic content but whose real purpose is to twist the truth and manipulate people’s behavior. Also called “black propaganda” and “disinformation,” it was engendered principally by intelligence agencies.  The CIA used it during the Cold War in Chile and other Latin American countries.  The Soviet Union’s KGB disseminated fabricated documents with authentic-looking formatting and signatures from Chile’s secret police.  Cuba’s Radio Havana promoted the false narrative that socialist president Salvador Allende was murdered in the 1973 military coup – he actually committed suicide.
  • The phenomenon now is broader and more threatening. Fake news has evolved to include attacks on the legitimacy of independent media, and its agile use of social media spread rapidly through personal electronic devices enhances its impact.  U.S. President Donald Trump has alleged (as recently as July 15) that the “media are the enemy of the American people.”  Latin American politicians have used accusations of fake news to attack legitimate media.  In Venezuela, the Chavista government invented the concept of “media terrorism.”  Fake news techniques are found most commonly in campaigns by authoritarian parties and governments.  Russia’s intelligence services, under President Vladimir Putin, have weaponized the techniques and are now systematically using them to intervene in European and U.S. elections, notably in supporting the 2016 victory of Donald Trump.

There is no consensus among journalists on a solution.  Tough experiences have shown, for example, that government regulatory actions tend to backfire against a free press; political leaders all too easily resort to actions that lead to the imposition of political hegemony and control.  Media laws in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Argentina were hailed as progressive in some quarters – mandating fairer distribution of broadcast spectrum, for example.  But they were most effectively used to impose political control on opposition media.  Journalists, moreover, have been thrown off balance by the phenomenon of fake news.  They have struggled to respond to effective attacks on their credibility and so far have failed to develop the tools needed to mount an effective counterattack.

  • The double challenge is how to enable consumers of media information to distinguish between false and truthful information – especially because the fake news products are designed to resonate with their biases – and how to strengthen legitimate journalists’ ability to rebuild their beleaguered credibility. Talking Points Memo journalist Josh Marshall, speaking of politically motivated falsehoods in a memo published by the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence last February, said:  “Conventional news and commentary [are] incapable of handling willful lying in the public sphere.”  In the case of the committee’s misleading memo, most observers agree, the legitimate media published accurate fact checking, but apparently the accurate stories had little corrective impact on public perceptions of the memo – handing a victory to fake news.

The other serious threats that journalism faces – such as the murder of dozens of Mexican journalists with practically total impunity, and the consolidation of ownership of the media in the hands of very few owners in most countries – are not insignificant.  Fake news, however, presents a more serious, even existential, threat because it short-circuits all three of the main functions of journalism in the preservation and consolidation of democracy – as sources of information the public needs in voting, as forums for political debate, and as investigators to monitor and evaluate government and private power.  In the ongoing asymmetric war between journalism and fake news, investigative journalism, if protected and funded, would appear to offer the most efficient defense for democracy.  Digital platforms have created new tools and platforms for investigative journalism, and new organizations, such as ProPublica, the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism, among others, are raising the skill level of professional journalists and enhancing their best practices.  Investigative journalists have the methodology, international base, and decades of experience needed to be the guard dogs against fake news – to investigate its purveyors, lay bare their agendas, and, over time, re-establish the truth upon which all democracies depend.

July 24, 2018

*John Dinges is an emeritus professor of journalism at Columbia University and lectures frequently in Latin America on media and democracy and investigative journalism.

Finding New Approaches to Media-Government Tensions in Latin America

By John Dinges

Press Conference in Lima, Peru Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Press Conference in Lima, Peru Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Establishment news media and government are on a collision course in a number of Latin American countries.  At the heart of the conflict is government rejection of the classic role of an ideologically diverse press as a check on government power and as a forum of citizen deliberation.  The media, in response, charge that government actions constitute violations of international free press guarantees.  But that defense has been ineffective and has not resonated at the popular level.  All of the governments involved are democratically elected, and most espouse left-of-center programs of progressive reform aimed to benefit the poorest sectors and address other forms of inequality.

The most severe conflicts are in Venezuela and Ecuador, where aggressive government use of laws and lawsuits has dramatically diminished the influence of independent television and newspaper organizations.  The once strident news media, not unfairly characterized as the de-facto opposition, have been cowed, and are cowering.  At the same time, governments are embarking on the redistribution of the broadcast spectrum to favor community and state-owned (“public”) channels.  The Morales government in Bolivia has achieved the upper hand over the media as it builds its own media network.  The Kirchner government of Argentina is fighting a legal battle –with mixed success – to cripple the media empire of Grupo Clarín, the owner of the largest newspaper in Latin America and the largest cable network.  The conservative governments of Honduras and Panama are also on the freedom of expression watch list, indicating that the phenomenon is not purely a matter of ideology.

The polarization and growing government dominance represents a serious problem for democracy in these countries.  For all the harsh rhetoric on both sides, however, the overall threat to freedom of expression (measured in censorship, direct control of media and imprisonment of journalists) is far less than was the case during the rightist military governments of previous decades.  Still, it would be a mistake to limit our promotion of healthy democracy to the defense of the traditional “legacy” media institutions in these countries.  Government leaders, especially Presidents Correa of Ecuador and Kirchner of Argentina, have used (some would say misused) democratic arguments in criticizing the traditional media.  They charge that the concentration of media in the hands of the private sector (with ownership participation of banks in the case of Ecuador) is itself a violation of democracy, and that they are trying to “democratize” the media by delivering increased access to citizens in the form of public and community media.  Not surprisingly, these new media creations are beholden to the government and lack political independence.  But they are not going away.  In an effort to defuse the tension, institutions such as the Carter Center and others have developed an alternative conflict resolution approach that is quietly garnering support.  The idea is to promote an honest dialogue between governments and wide sectors of the media.  It would create a process to explore the substance of government positions as well as investigate alleged abuses. To this end, the Carter Center organized meetings earlier this year in Ecuador and Bolivia, and a conference was held at Columbia University’s School of Journalism this month bringing together leaders of government, media institutions and international organizations to debate media regulation and press standards as a platform to reconstitute consensus about media in democratic societies.

Venezuela Update: Confusion in Caracas…and Washington

Photo credit: INTERNATIONAL REALTOR / Foter.com / CC BY

Photo credit: INTERNATIONAL REALTOR | Foter.com | CC-BY

Three weeks after elections to choose Hugo Chávez’s successor, confusion still reigns in both Caracas and Washington.  The Venezuelan opposition has rejected the results of the election, which the electoral tribunal says Chávez’s handpicked man – Nicolás Maduro – won by only 1.8 percent.  Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles originally asked only for a vote recount – considered reasonable by many because of the narrow margin – but his lawyers upped the ante on 2 May when they officially demanded that the vote be invalidated and new elections be held.  Isolated incidents of political violence turned up the heat in Caracas, although the Götterdämmerung scenarios in the streets that some analysts predicted have not yet materialized.

Every major country of the hemisphere has recognized Maduro as President – except the United States.  (Canada wavered at first but seems to have moved on.)  Washington has invested millions of dollars in “democracy promotion” programs over the years and has provided Capriles and the opposition enduring political support in their efforts to beat Chávez at the polls and later to beat Maduro as his hand-picked successor.  Since the April election, the U.S. government has endorsed the opposition’s call for a vote recount.  So has the OAS, which offered experts to assist in the process.  But only Washington has said that while it is “working with” the Maduro Government, it doesn’t recognize its legitimacy.  The State Department spokesman dodged the issue repeatedly last week, and in an interview with Univisión broadcast at the conclusion of his visit to Mexico last Friday, President Obama himself refused to say whether his Administration officially recognized Maduro as President.  He left little doubt as to his real position, however, when he said that basic principles of human rights, democracy, press freedom and freedom of assembly were not observed in Venezuela following the election.

As AULABLOG pointed out on 23 April, the irony of the United States demanding a hand-count of the ballots is not lost on millions of Latin Americans who remember Washington’s performance in the 2000 Bush-Gore vote – and that it was a politically divided Supreme Court that made the final decision.  The tightness of the vote, Venezuelan electoral realities (past and present), and President Maduro’s over-the-top rhetoric – last week he again accused Washington of backing “neo-Nazis” allegedly trying to overthrow his government and accused a filmmaker of being a spy – make it hard for observers to argue that the elections are legitimate.  President Obama’s statements, including his remark that the spying charge was “ridiculous,” have been measured and continue a noteworthy shift since the near-hysteria about Venezuela during the Bush Administration.  But the fact remains that the U.S. Government’s posture on Venezuela – perhaps unique in its bilateral relations with Latin America since the Cold War – has made it once again the outrider and, among people who remember the Bush-Gore decision, the butt of many jokes.  Importantly, Capriles may be reading Washington’s stance as an endorsement of his own increasingly puzzling demands.  As our 23 April post suggested, Capriles ought to see himself as having a historic chance to lead, poised to challenge Chavismo easily at the polls the next time around.  Yet, like Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2006, he may be squandering an opportunity to present himself to the Venezuelan electorate as the responsible grownup in the room.

Ecuador’s Difficult Choice on Assange

Photo: Julian Assange by Ben Bryan (bbwbryant) | Flickr | Creative Commons

Many observers have portrayed President Rafael Correa’s decision to grant asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as an act of defiance – a gratuitous slap at the United States – and, because of Correa’s mixed record of respect for a free press, as a sign of hypocrisy.  How can a President who has prosecuted newspapers for revealing damaging information about his government, according to Correa’s accusers, now stand up as the defender of Assange’s right to publish hundreds of thousands of sensitive U.S. Government documents?

The lack of clarity on British and Swedish intentions made the decision difficult.  American officials have minced no words about their hopes to prosecute Assange, although none has stated what the charges would be.  Even U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has referred to him as a “high-tech terrorist.”  Former Republican presidential nominees Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee have called for his execution.  (A former senior Canadian official said, “I think Assange should be assassinated.”)  The Swedish government, which seeks only to question Assange about allegations of sexual abuses (important offenses in Swedish law), has refused to conduct the interrogations in London or by video, or  to provide reassurances that he will not be extradited to the United States.  British officials at one point even threatened to enter the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, a flagrant violation of well-established principles of international law.

Correa’s ancillary agendas notwithstanding, the asylum decision would have been difficult for almost any country.  There is no evidence that Assange would not get a fair trial in the United States or that he would face the sort of abuse and torture that Bradley Manning – the alleged American source of the Wikileaks documents – has faced.  But the American silence on the charges Assange might face, the rhetoric tarring him as a terrorist and the lack of U.S. accountability for past abuses – the Obama Administration last week announced yet another decision to forego prosecution of U.S. officials involved in alleged torture – makes the absence of a pledge regarding extradition to the United States politically sensitive.  Ironically, the U.S., British and Swedish position risks thrusting them into the same ironic contradiction as Correa finds himself:  claiming to protect human rights, they may open the door to prosecution of a man who published leaked information – and who by any reasonable standard is an indiscriminate whistle blower but hardly an agent of espionage.  If their pursuit of Assange were to result in his exposure to U.S. prosecution related to the Wikileaks matter, these democracies would potentially risk being parties to a serious violation of fundamental principles of free expression.