Building trust in times of mistrust: Interview with SNSPA Professor Alina Bârgăoanu
Fake news has made the headlines of real news for a while now, ironically becoming a topic in its own right. Disinformation assaults us like hailstorms or strong winds. How can we efficiently build trust in times of the fake news phenomenon?
How does this affect higher education values? And how can universities address this issue for the future?
These crucial questions are at the core of the CIVICA Public Lecture Tours d’Europe that SNSPA plans to host in Spring 2022. SNSPA chose this topic to create a knowledge toolbox for the broader public, local and international. Knowledge is the necessary first half of the battle against fake news.
To find some answers, we interviewed Professor Alina Bârgăoanu, Dean of the College of Communication and Public Relations, SNSPA. She is also a member of the European Digital Media Observatory advisory board and an affiliate member of the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, Helsinki. Recently she served as a member of the High-Level Expert Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation at the European Commission.
Dr Alina Bârgăoanu, you are a Romanian communication scholar with a strong interest in digital transformation, strategic communication, and fighting disinformation. What makes a news story fake?
Fake news is an umbrella term that has been used to refer to a broad spectrum of information disorders, covering a continuum from “false, true and anything in between”, from misinformation to external enemy propaganda, and sometimes even with references to clickbait-y and satirical content.
That is why the rather fashionable term “fake news” is replaced in research with that of disinformation. There is an accompanying distinction between:
- misinformation (information that can be false, incomplete, vague, but not created to cause damage or harm, for example, journalistic errors, data coming from loosely documented or undocumented sources);
- disinformation (false information or fabricated content that is deliberately created to harm a person, social group, country or an organisation); and
- mal-information, meaning information that can be based on real facts, but is knowingly and strategically shared to cause harm to a person, government, social group, organization (press leaks, information taken out of context).
I prefer the term of disinformation while keeping in mind that the qualifier “fake” draws our attention to the fact that the power of disinformation and its products is derived from their capacity to mimic legitimate concerns very closely, and even mimic the shape and morphology of legitimate, factual news.
But is disinformation a new phenomenon?
Disinformation, encompassing various forms of false, misleading or manipulative content, lies, hoaxes, conspiracy theories, has been around for some time, accompanying war efforts, social disruptions, political upheaval or economic crises.
However, current disinformation campaigns are structurally different from similar efforts deployed only 50 or 70 years ago. Unlike these efforts, which took place under circumstances of information scarcity, new disinformation, what I call “disinformation 2.0”, takes places under circumstances of information over-abundance.
Disinformation 2.0 is consubstantial with the explosion of digital technologies, which allows for the massive instantaneous dissemination of multiple contradictory narratives to create „information overload” / „information fatigue”. The main goal of contemporary disinformation endeavours is not necessarily to convince the targeted publics of something, but to strategically shape public discourse, create confusion, sow distrust and create an emotional environment where people no longer care about facts, they disregard them (what J. Kavanagh and M. D. Rich call „truth decay”).
Disinformation 2.0 relies both on new tools for interfering with content (increased possibilities for content creation and text, photo and video manipulation) and on tools for interfering with content amplification (automated accounts, trolls, bots, fake profiles, fake crowds, click factories).
Understanding the new phenomenon of disinformation 2.0 as interfering both with content (along the true – false continuum) and with its amplification (organic, i.e. done by humans and inauthentic, i.e. done by machines) becomes an essential skill for navigating today’s information environment as a responsible citizen.
Why are we so profoundly noticing this now? Why is fake news attracting so much attention in our society? Is it something like a tribute that we have to pay to an interconnected world? Where do we have to look for solutions to the fake news problem?
You are right in pinpointing that the topic of fake news has attracted a lot of attention for the past few years. As we all know, the term was brought into the global spotlight by a former US President, who used it with the meaning of negative/hostile/unflattering media coverage („CNN, you are fake news!”). That is one reason why, in light of structural changes to the recent information ecosystem, most research prefers less politically charged terms, such as disinformation, information disorder, information chaos.
Disinformation 2.0 thrives in a transnational information ecosystem, driven by digital platforms, big data, algorithms, and increasingly by machine learning and Artificial Intelligence. It takes place in an environment where traditional distinctions between external and internal boundaries, between war and peace, between reality and hyper-reality/virtuality can hardly hold.
The new, technology-enabled disinformation campaigns weaponise both information (creating an information-rich ecosystem where for each fact there is a plausible counter-fact, for each narrative, a plausible counter-narrative) and our digital behaviour/fingerprint (using our data and our previous digital behaviour to feed us only with hyper-personalised, bias-confirming content). Based on each user's digital fingerprint, recommendation algorithms prioritise the more familiar post to platform users while driving information based on popularity, or likelihood of engagement, rather than accuracy, facts or public interest.
Moreover, digital platforms offer ample opportunities to amplify and spread disinformation on an industrial scale with the help of various tools and practices: bots and networks of bots, sock puppet accounts, fabricated and automated accounts, like factories, troll farms, click farms, fake followers / fake crowds (both for validation and defamation), SEO for fabricated search results.
Therefore, we are looking at a complex phenomenon which - while exploiting our old cognitive biases, our mental shortcuts in dealing with information, our shorter attention span, our predisposition to give in to group pressure - is enabled, on a massive, industrial scale, by technology (tools, technologies and dominant practices for big data-driven amplification, algorithmic engagement, precision segmentation, micro-targeting, psychographics profiling, computational persuasion).
At the same time, despite being a phenomenon deeply rooted in technology, its resolution is not only technological, but social, economic and political at the same time.
There are different categories of responses, among which the most prominent ones are:
- Evidence-based research
- Information and awareness
- Literacy and education
- Critical thinking
- Diversification of the information ecosystem
- Voluntary codes of conduct
- Transparency and accountability of digital platforms
- Establishment of permanent oversight structures
- Co-regulation and regulation
No matter the timing, the intensity or the combination of these possible responses, they should be supported by the understanding that contemporary disinformation is a content fraud (blurring the distinctions between facts and pseudo-facts) and a user engagement fraud, which can be amplified by resorting to big data, algorithms and artificial means.
Speaking about fake news is, in fact, a discussion on how we can practically build trust in times of mistrust. Is it about developing critical thinking?
Their primary goal is to deploy cognitive war, to attack a society’s capacity to act on a shared epistemology, on a shared reality, to create an emotional environment where everybody can feel entitled to their facts.
As I have already underlined, the major casualty of contemporary disinformation campaigns is not so much truth as trust. Trust in institutions (not in particular institutions, but in the idea of institutions), trust in formerly respected sources of facts, knowledge and expertise (such as academia or the scientific community or mainstream media, for that matter), or trust in the possibility of rational debate and a fact-based political and public life.
Critical thinking helps, and universities should be at the forefront of developing critical thinking curricula in line with the changes in digital environments and with the new learning habits of younger generations. Simultaneously, focusing on critical thinking skills covers only one half of the problem, that of the age-old cognitive biases that I briefly referred to.
What is needed is a whole-of-society approach, in which thought leaders, decision-makers, educators, platforms’ representatives, among others, should sit together at the table to see what to do with the unleashed power of the Internet, algorithms, big data technologies and with the new information ecosystem that these have enabled.
Interview conducted by Catalin Mosoia (SNSPA)
Photo credit: Calea Europeana