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