Media


Doubt learn ask

What are fakes in the world of media? Can one cope with the fake news influx and should one do that? Is it always so that a fake news consists in manipulation? Is that true that all the social network users live in an information bubble? Maxim Kornev, the associate professor of the Mass Media Institute of the Russian State Humanitarian University, a partner of the analytical consulting company MediaToolbox, answers these and other questions asked by Converter.
 ©  Dmitry Ligay Daria: Let us first define what a fake is.

Maxim Korneev: a fake is an antipode of a fact. It is a non-existent event or element which completely distorts an event. In my classification, fakes are of two types: misinformation fakes and disinformation fakes.

A misinformation is a fake by mistake, without intention and manipulation involved. It is passive, does not resist disclosure and can be trapped by the editing filter.

A disinformation fake is an intended fake, for which there is a motive, and this means it is manipulation. It is proactive, aggressive and it resists disclosure. By the way, in Europe some journalists prefer using the word ‘disinformation’, not ‘fake’, because of the connotation in many ways triggered by the US President Donald Trump. In the sociological community, researchers tend to use a neutral term, a factoid. Actually, I had used it before the word ‘fake’ began to dominate in the mass usage.

— Does it mean that fake news is non-existent news?

— Exactly so. I do not like evaluative words, like ‘lie’ or ‘fib’ – let us not act like Donald Trump. By the way, in his coordinates, ‘fake news’ is the product of those media which the American President does not like. Later, Elon Musk added fuel to the fire by his Pravda project. In fact, he had similar motivation: “As they write about me and my project what I do not like, I will make a platform which will verify facts in the news”. To anticipate, I do not believe in the model of people’s fact-checking, unless Musk is able to attract authoritative and experienced experts. Otherwise, we will get an effect of ‘post-truth’: Musk’s fans and haters will come out to defend, in spite of the facts, their own vision of the world. Indeed, the main principle of ‘post-truth’ is to assert one’s position, not to find out the truth. Another logic works here: it is the logic of rhetoric, close to sophistic: what difference does it make what kind of facts these are, if the effect is real and you are ‘right’?

— Why do fakes win over audiences so easily and so quickly? Are there any psychological reasons for that?

— An important subject related to the world of post-truth and fakes consists in human perception. Perhaps, everyone has heard about filter bubbles and the effect of the echo chamber. These phenomena are related to mental distortions and selective perception inherent of humans. We hear what we want to hear. Whereas earlier people had to read, watch news and analyze information, considering different viewpoints, now the modern algorithms are created to suit people’s tastes: media push what people want to see and hear. The search engines Yandex and Google, the algorithms of social media, recommendations in the mass media, the possibility of suspending or disliking what we do not like — all this creates a “comfortable” and non-conflicting environment around us in which everything OK. This is a filter bubble. What is the hazard of it? It begins to seem to us that the whole world and all the people think exactly as we do, as we see the daily confirmation of it in the internet. So, the effect of an echo arises: we keep receiving the reinforcement of our “right” position. This is why sociologists are now talking about the problem of consensus in the society, the inability to hear another person, the loss of the skill of critical thinking, of constructive dialogue, and of agreeing with alternative judgements. Here the role of the mass media becomes important: to create a common space, to unite different groups of people into the society and to help them find consensus.

— Let us go back to history. Have fakes always existed?

— The phenomenon is as old as the Homo sapiens. As soon as the economic benefit emerged from creating pseudo-reality and from distortion of facts, fakes appeared. Another thing is that now this concept is closely connected with the mass media. Earlier a fake could affect several people or a group of readers or viewers. Only some media workers could create fakes, by chance or on purpose. Now, when each one of us is an online writer, the number of potential fakes and the size of their potential audience are unrestricted.

— What is the cause of the peak of interest for this problem now?

— The political events during the presidential campaign in the USA. Production of strong disinforming news requires serious investment. In this case, fakes perform a utilitarian function — to manipulate the society or certain groups and people. Politicians, big business, and states have high stakes and large winnings in case of victory. Therefore, the biggest fakes always come from these players.
 ©  Dmitry Ligay — What happens after a fake has been created? Why is it so difficult to identify it?

— A fake maker creates a fake not to be disclosed; therefore, when the information war is waged at the level of states, politicians, corporations, and large brands, it is difficult to understand where the fakes are and to carry out good and objective fact-checking (sometimes it is just impossible). Why does it happen? The stakes are too high for the opponents, too many resources have been invested by them, and the goals to defend their vision of the world are set once and for all.

The society, that is, its members, does not want production of fakes: they distort the image of the world, it becomes irrelevant, and the decisions taken under the influence of a fake lead to the loss of money, time, health, and opportunities. However, if someone loses, someone else, according to the law of conservation of energy, wins, making profit and feeling happy about it.

This is why fakes cannot be defeated: if there are economic grounds for producing them, there will always be someone who will want to make a profit, challenging the ethical principles and morale and distorting facts.

— But if something cannot be defeated, should we fight, after all?

— We should fight, but not all the assumed enemies. The bad news is that it is impossible to trap all fakes. Even the most common and explicit foundations of our outlook, when checked, may turn out to be nothing but an ideological construct. We have to put up with it, that’s it.

The good news is that we can create “environmentally clean” islands free from fakes. This is one of the key tasks for media today: from bloggers to publishing houses. Which media may be named such islands? Only those media which do fact-checking, which means they are responsible and verify the sources of information. This is part of the implicit contract with the audience: you trust us and give us your attention/money, and we check the information and help you form the correct perception of the environment, so that you could take correct decisions, advantageous for you.

— Can you give me an example of such an island which exists today?

— The internet media The Real Russia, Today (‘Meduza’) has a special fact-checker and a traffic lights system: news is marked by the level of veracity: the green color marks true-to-fact information (the media confirms it by its reputation and brand), the yellow color alerts the reader that the information is doubtful (there are facts but many things are vague), the red color suggests that the info is scandalous and urgent (it is not clear whether the news is true or not). The traffic lights system allows a balance between fastness of info delivery and its authenticity. Yet, it imposes obligations on the journalists: the obligation to bring the doubtful stories to their logical end and clarification of the situation.

— There is an opinion among journalists and officials that there should be fakes rating lists, and a special commission should be established which would consider presumably fake stories and pass a verdict to them. How effective are such methods in combatting fakes?

— To be sure, critically important cases should be made objects of public scrutiny and discussion: they should be examined, and the destructive power of such cases should be disclosed. However, at the level of formal organizations, I am afraid it will again turn into political games and ideological maneuvers.

— What is your favorite fake news?

— It is the totally fantastic story with the ‘murder’ of journalist Arkady Babchenko. Secret services often use the method of provocation, but the media effect, multiplied by social media, was astonishing. Those people who wrote honest sincere words of compassion and condolences or wrote large obituaries were especially vexed.

In this situation, a global super-media fake was created, followed by self-disclosure. The effects of this fake will continue to spread like waves in different planes.

— How is the trend of fake news developing and what is awaiting us in the future?

— Fakes will not disappear, and we must learn to develop immunity to them. Professional mediators, authors and brand managers have to learn to work with them: detoxicate them, create environmentally clean non-toxic information and keep an eye on those islands, for them not to be infected by fakes. This process may be compared to keeping our homes clean: we are supposed not to make a mess ourselves, clean the house regularly and forbid trespassers from coming.

— Let us talk about fact-checking. At the universities, students of journalism departments are often told that they should collect all the facts, consider all the opinions and show the situation from different aspects, so that the reader could form his/her own opinion. Does such fact-checking work in real life?

— It works, but only with well-prepared audiences. Less demanding audiences “swallow” everything they are offered — that is the problem. For demand for quality journalism to exist, there should be a need for it. From day to day, such a need becomes more and more urgent. So, I feel calm about our journalists.
 ©  Dmitry Ligay — The main principles of fact-checking

— The main idea underlying all the recommendations is to develop critical thinking. To survive in the world of toxic fakes in the world of post-truth, I would suggest sticking to three basic principles of fact-checking: doubt, learn, ask!

Doubt — develop a critical approach to everything that has not been proven, confirmed, or checked yet. This principle is quite scientific: if there is no verification and there are no cross references to authoritative sources, there is no trust for this piece of news.

Learn — be aware of the spheres where fakes emerge. If you work with information, trace down cases. The good news is that most tricks are well-known: they are simply packed differently. As you get more experienced, you learn to track similar fakes at early stages. In the modern world, everyone should be informed of prankers and trolls, the genre of fake news as a form of satire or as an art project and distinguish between mocumentary from documentary. If you do not know the meanings of these words, you should learn what they are.

Ask — develop you professional contacts (this is called networking), attend forums and conferences, as nothing unites people better than common positive experience. The Pressfeed, HackPack and NutCall services are able to speed up the work of a media communicator (journalist, expert, PR specialist) exponentially.

Feel free to look for new experts: the TheQuestion and Quora projects have been established to answer questions, However, such information should be passed through the first filter (‘doubt’).

— What to read/watch on the subject

— A special project has been recently published in the framework of a large project New Ethics at N+1— «Fake Almighty»

About fact-checking: «Fact-checking: 5 reliable ways to check information»

A canonical book — Verification Handbook — has been translated into many languages, including Russian

A project for development and training of media literacy: Media Navigator

Daria Aminova


Journalist, photographer, writes about Russia, is interested in Germany, constantly looking for interesting people worldwide

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