16 Jun 2023

The challenge of media manipulation and disinformation

From Nine To Noon, 9:07 am on 16 June 2023

Photo: pixabay

An independent investigation is underway into how an RNZ digital journalist was able to insert Russian propaganda into stories about the war in Ukraine.

RNZ has stood down the journalist and since last Friday has reviewed 300 of 7000 international stories he edited and published on the RNZ website.

As of Friday 26 have been corrected. The Board of RNZ has also appointed a group of experts to carry out an investigation. Media law expert Willy Akel will chair a three-person panel. The other members are public law expert and former journalist Linda Clark, and former director of editorial standards at the ABC, Alan Sunderland. 

The review would also look at total editorial policy and "most importantly" practice as well, RNZ board chairman Jim Mather said. No stone would be left unturned, he said.

Dr Joan Donovan is at the forefront of research into media manipulation, disinformation and online extremism.

She is research director of the Shorenstein Centre on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. She has testified before Congress, and recently published Meme Wars, a book she co-authored with two other members of the Technology and Social Change Project.

Asked if it was surprising a major media organisation could have a staff member altering international wire copy without another person detecting it, she pointed out newsrooms around the world were experiencing cutbacks in certain areas. 

Wire stories were a cost saving for newsrooms, providing high quality well edited journalism. 

She said the journalist weaponised the trust the organisation placed in them. 

She said in every institution people trusted their colleagues would do the jobs they had been assigned to the best of their abilities. 

"So that trust that happens naturally in our newsrooms or other areas is something we're going to have to re-evaluate, and take a step back and make sure that the news differences between what came in on the wires and what's been published makes sense." 

Dr Donovan has met with the heads of several publishers of international wire stories in New Zealand this week. She agreed the RNZ experience was a wake-up call for everyone as media organisations grappled with mis-information and the possibility of their staff being misled.

"I think this is a global phenomenon. I think it is a consequence of the design of social media." 

Social media scaled information like a boom box or radio. People put content in and the algorithms cranked up the volume. 

"Sometimes journalists will mistake popularity for truthfulness and because they're all racing to be the first that moment of breaking news is when we see most often misinformation enter the news cycle." 

More training was needed and it needed to be repeated often, she said. 

"Things that are happening online might take a while to reach the national press or might take a while to reach politicians. 

"But for the most part many successful media manipulation campaigns are things have been tried out two or three times before  they are successful." 

In the US there were many examples of social media allowing politicians or bad actors to circumvent the fact-checking gatekeepers and reach the public directly. 

She referred to former president Donald Trump saying the 2020 election result had been stolen. In some instances his claims went unchallenged on social media and led on to the deadly Capitol riot. 

Anonymous and imposter claims were still being made on various issues and in some cases journalists still had to cover them, even when they were lies. 

"In a very paradoxical way, the journalists themselves become the amplifier of those mistruths and of those lies." 

The power of memes 

Dr Donovan's book on the power of memes shows how fringe groups are able to have "an outsize  impact on mainstream politics" and how some politicians take advantage of online culture and turn it in their own favour. 

It included the spreading of lies and propaganda not just on their political opponent but also the so-called culture wars, including polarising topics such as immigration and the status of LGBTQ people. 

They were topics that sparked a lot of hate speech online and had become bound up in US politics. 

"This is something that begins in a way with memes that are supposed to be funny ... but slowly over time they become the mantra of political parties." 

Dr Donovan said the book covered the period from Occupy Wall Street to the Capitol riot from the perspective of how the hard right adopted the technologies as pertaining to mainstream US politics. 

Prominent players including Steve Bannon and Alex Jones feature in the coverage. 

Memes were tracked to show that they weren't intended to just advertise, but they were meant to mobilise and in the case of the insurrection they became "a dark moment" used for incitement and violence.  

Instead of being a force for something positive, such as encouraging a civil rights campaign, they were used to  "degrade, defame or wreak havoc on vulnerable populations". 

She wanted politicians held more to account for their use of terminology coming out of fringe internet sub-cultures and they should be told it was hate speech. Another option would be to make tech platforms accountable for what they have built that allowed hate speech and incitement to be amplified and journalists and other campaigners to be harassed. 

"Watch out for big business, big tech coming in and lobbying our politicians to do nothing and unfortunately we have seen this quite a bit  in the United States..."   

Dr Donovan is in New Zealand with the support of the US State Department speaking at a series of meetings and workshops in Auckland, Christchurch, and Wellington.