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.

Journalism in Cuba: Unstoppable Change

By John Dinges*

Jaume Escofet / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Jaume Escofet / Flickr / Creative Commons (modified)

Cuban journalism is changing rapidly – both in and outside the official media.  Developments in media reflect the dynamic changes taking place in Cuba and are likely to drive even deeper change in the future.  Journalists outside the system have long been seen as eager to create alternatives to the centrally controlled media that have dominated for decades.  Now, although many inside the government-run media still generally seek continuity of the Cuban revolution, a timid but slowly growing number of them are showing signs of openness to shifting away from their traditional role as a propaganda machine for a one-party state.  Together, the non-official and official journalists are part of a process of change that is robust, unstoppable, and healthy from the perspective of journalistic values.  Among the indicators:

  • The official Communist Party daily, Granma, now dedicates a page each Friday to letters from readers with a host of complaints about daily life – inefficiency of government offices, long lines at stores, and delays in government benefits. In Cubadebate and other official blogs, there are been numerous analytical articles that could be called “loyal criticism.”
  • Yoani Sánchez – a star among the non-governmental bloggers – and others are sharp critics of the lack of political freedoms and proponents of radical but peaceful change. Their audience in Cuba is small, because of low connectivity on the island, but their voices occupy an important part of the spectrum of the country’s new journalism.
  • A new kind of media – individuals who identify as journalists and not as political dissidents – appears likely to have an even greater impact. The most successful of these, OnCuba, is a glossy bimonthly magazine distributed on the daily Miami-Havana charter flights.  It runs commercial covers – one recently featured a woman smoking a Cohiba – but also carries articles on sensitive political and economic issues.

OnCuba is an extraordinary experiment launched three years ago by Cuban-American businessman Hugo Cancio and employing 12 full-time Cuban journalists in a well-appointed Havana office – all with the necessary Cuban government approvals.  The editors say the publication’s only objective (other than paying its bills) is to serve as an intellectual bridge between Cubans in Cuba and Miami, casting a critical eye to both.

OnCuba and its nascent genre probably judge that walking the line between the two extremes – rejecting both “officialist” and “dissident” labels – increases their chances of landing on their feet if and when deeper change occurs in Cuba.  A recent episode involving leaked government documents, however, underscored the complexity of their balancing act.  An independent blog called La Chiringa de Cuba published a PDF of a sensitive Ministry of Communications plan to massively expand broadband access in Cuba by the year 2020, and OnCuba prepared a long article describing and analyzing its importance.  Despite the importance of broadband for the nation, the official media have so far neither reported on the leak nor – importantly – have they condemned it.  While the course of all these changes is uncertain, one thing beyond doubt is that, when it comes to journalism in Cuba, it’s now “Game on.”

June 19, 2015

*John Dinges teaches journalism at Columbia University and is the author, among other titles, of “The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents” (The New Press 2004).