Chris­tine Du­goin: “Com­pletely sep­a­rat­ing pro­pa­ganda from jour­nal­ism will never be easy”

“Com­pletely sep­a­rat­ing pro­pa­ganda from jour­nal­ism will never be easy”

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - In­ter­viewed by Alla Lazareva, Paris

French cy­ber­se­cu­rity ex­pert on mech­a­nisms for fight­ing fake news, the prospects for cer­ti­fy­ing true in­for­ma­tion, and the like­li­hood of sep­a­rat­ing pro­pa­ganda from jour­nal­ism

The Ukrainian Week talked with French cy­ber­se­cu­rity ex­pert Chris­tine Du­goin-Clé­ment about mech­a­nisms for fight­ing fake news, the prospects for cer­ti­fy­ing true in­for­ma­tion, and the like­li­hood of sep­a­rat­ing pro­pa­ganda from jour­nal­ism once and for all.

The French leg­is­la­ture is de­bat­ing and re­vis­ing a bill on fake news. What do you think of such an ini­tia­tive?

— We’re talk­ing about a very com­pli­cated prob­lem. Of course, it’s a good idea to try to limit fake news, whose con­se­quences we have all seen. How­ever, I think that try­ing to es­tab­lish a suit­able leg­isla­tive base could be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive in the long run, an idea that only seems good. Why? The cur­rent bill pro­poses an emer­gency pro­ce­dure. This means that a judge needs to de­ter­mine very quickly whether what is be­ing pre­sented is news or fake. But to re­ally fig­ure out what is true and what isn’t you need to spend time look­ing up in­for­ma­tion, re­search­ing the facts, and track­ing down the orig­i­nal source. All this takes time. Even with the best in­ten­tions in the world, a judge won’t be able to un­cover the en­tire chain in 48 or even 72 hours, or even an en­tire week in some cases. So what will the judge do? Con­clude that it’s im­pos­si­ble to guar­an­tee the truth­ful­ness of the in­for­ma­tion. If we look at how swiftly fakes that are in­tended to sow doubt go vi­ral, we risk end­ing up with the op­po­site re­sult, that is, peo­ple will use the judge’s rul­ing to say, “Since we can’t con­firm that this news is false, it could very well be true.”

Based on your own ob­ser­va­tions, how ef­fec­tive are the big so­cial net­works in coun­ter­ing the dis­sem­i­na­tion of false in­for­ma­tion?

— Those who man­u­fac­ture fake news typ­i­cally hide be­hind the prin­ci­ple of free­dom of speech. The big plat­forms say that they can’t track every­thing that goes on and is pub­lished on their sys­tems. How­ever, if we take a sys­tem like Twit­ter and an­a­lyze the data, it’s clear that there are en­tire net­works based en­tirely on bots. At the same time, it’s very dif­fi­cult to re­move them. This is why we need to con­sider whether so­cial nets have the de­sire and in­ten­tion to spend the nec­es­sary time on this.

More­over, be­yond the clo­sure of ac­counts an­other is­sue arises—the le­gal as­pect. The ques­tion is, what law can be used with re­gard to in­ter­na­tional en­ti­ties? The same prob­lem arises with cy­ber at­tacks. Should we ap­ply the le­gal norms of the coun­try where the en­ter­prise was set up or the coun­try that is the source of the dis­in­for­ma­tion? OR should it maybe be a third coun­try, where those dis­sem­i­nat­ing the in­for­ma­tion are phys­i­cally lo­cated? It’s hard to de­ter­mine this.

For over a year now, the ma­jor so­cial net­works are try­ing to re­store the trust of their users, which de­clined not just be­cause of the wide­spread fak­ery and ma­nip­u­la­tion but also be­cause of busi­ness sites that were col­lect­ing in­for­ma­tion about them to fur­ther in­flu­ence peo­ple. The Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica scan­dal forced Face­book to put into ac­tion a new sys­tem to pro­tect its users.

Fi­nally there’s the ques­tion of de­mand for a cer­tain kind of spun in­for­ma­tion. This may sound com­pli­cated or even para­dox­i­cal, but when peo­ple are firmly con­vinced of some­thing, they some­times look for the very facts that will strengthen their con­vic­tions. Such peo­ple of­ten find ad­di­tional ar­gu­ments on sus­pect re­sources, with out con­cern­ing them­selves about how real the in­for­ma­tion is: the main thing is that it co­in­cides with how they see things. They are clients as much as any­one else is.

How ac­tively is false in­for­ma­tion be­ing use in pol­i­tics to­day? It seems like gov­ern­ments have be­gun to be­come aware of just how much dan­ger this rep­re­sents. France, for in­stance, is set­ting up a spe­cial unit un­der the De­fense Min­istry just to com­bat cy­ber crimes. Per­haps coun­ter­ing needs to be pri­mar­ily on a tech­ni­cal level?

— Mil­i­tary pro­tec­tion and us­ing fake news in in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics are very dif­fer­ent things. How­ever, there is an ini­tia­tive that seems quite in­ter­est­ing in this re­gard. Jour­nal­ists have devel­oped a project that in­volves in­tro­duc­ing cer­tifi­cates of ac­cu­racy. Such cer­tifi­cates can be posted by en en­tire me­dia as well as in­di­vid­ual jour­nal­ists and blog­gers. They com­mit them­selves to care­fully con­firm in­for­ma­tion be­fore dis­sem­i­nat­ing it. I don’t know whether this project will ac­tu­ally be re­al­ized. The im­por­tant point is that it pro­vides in­cen­tive to look up and check in­for­ma­tion in var­i­ous sources, the way any con­sci­en­tious jour­nal­ist nor­mally does. It’s pos­si­ble that this kind of ap­proach will teach peo­ple to be more re­spon­si­ble, both those who write the news and those who read it.

False facts are di­rectly re­lated to yet an­other is­sue: a steep de­cline in trust in the main­stream me­dia. Many stud­ies have shown that most peo­ple who watch TV of­ten ac­tu­ally check what they’ve heard on the in­ter­net. For in­stance, only 41% of French peo­ple trust tele­vi­sion news. This means that the big­gest me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions are not guar­an­tors of ac­cu­racy but only one of sev­eral sources that view­ers then feel need to be checked on­line. The way peo­ple con­firm in­for­ma­tion is also in­ter­est­ing. Some go to news­pa­per sites, oth­ers to so­cial nets or YouTube, the rest check blogs on al­ter­na­tive in­for­ma­tion sites. Yet al­ter­na­tive blogs vary widely. The other im­por­tant point that in­flu­ences peo­ple, based on nu­mer­ous con­ver­sa­tions, is that peo­ple more and more of­ten look for in­for­ma­tion on openly opin­ion-shap­ing re­sources even ide­o­log­i­cally ori­ented ones, be­cause they are con­fi­dent that they will be able to sep­a­rate clearly stated ide­ol­ogy from pure in­for­ma­tion.

Is this pre­cisely what Sput­nik and RT are count­ing on when they claim, “We show what oth­ers hide”?

— That’s ex­actly it: “We show you what the big me­dia don’t show.” This is one of the clas­sic themes of those who love con­spir­acy the­o­ries, who are pre­cisely the peo­ple who most visit al­ter­na­tive sites. But, just to re­peat, this cat­e­gory of peo­ple is con­vinced that they can glean the facts from the over­lay of pro­pa­ganda, hoping to find in­for­ma­tion that oth­ers don’t write about. But what we don’t know is how ex­actly pro­pa­ganda af­fects hu­man aware­ness.

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