Media can help fight misinformation, says Harvard’s Joan Donovan

THANKS TO GLOBE-SPANNING SOCIAL PLATFORMS like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, misinformation (any wrong information) and disinformation (intentional misinformation like propaganda) have never been able to spread so rapidly or so far, powered by algorithms and automated filters. But misinformation expert Joan Donovan, who runs the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, says social media platforms are not the only ones who play a critical role in perpetuating the misinformation problem. Journalists and media companies also do, Donovan says, because they often help to amplify misinformation when they cover it and the bad actors who create it, often without thinking about the impact of their coverage.

There is clearly more misinformation around than in previous eras, Donovan tells CJR in a recent interview on our Galley discussion platform, because there’s just a lot more media, and therefore a lot more opportunity to distribute it. “But quantity never really matters unless there is significant attention to the issue being manipulated,” she says. “So this is where my research is fundamentally about journalism and not about audiences. Trusted information brokers, like journalists and news organizations, are important targets for piggybacking misinformation campaigns into the public sphere.”

Donovan’s research looks at how trolls and others—whether they are government-backed or freelance—can use techniques including “social engineering” (lying to or manipulating someone to achieve a specific outcome) and low-level hacking to persuade journalists and news outlets of the newsworthiness of a specific campaign. “Once that story gets picked up by a reputable outlet, it’s game time,” she says. Donovan and other misinformation experts warned that the Christchurch shooter’s massive essay about his alleged justification for the incident in April was clearly designed to get as much media attention as possible, by playing on certain themes and popular topics, and they advised media outlets not to play into this strategy by quoting from it.

ICYMI: I went to prison for leaking state secrets. Now, I want to make sure sources are protected.

Before she joined the Shorenstein Center at Harvard last year, Donovan was a member of the research group Data & Society, where she led the Media Manipulation Initiative, mapping how interest groups, governments, and political operatives use the internet and the media to intentionally manipulate messages. Data & Society published an extensive report on the problem last year, written by Syracuse University media studies professor Whitney Phillips, entitled “The Oxygen of Amplification,” with advice on how to cover topics like white supremacy and the alt-right without giving them more credibility in the process.

“Sometimes, I want to throw my hands in the air and grumble, ‘We know what we know from history! Journalists are not outside of society. In fact, they are the most crucial way the public makes sense of the world,” Donovan writes in her Galley interview. “When journalists pay attention to a particular person or issue, we all do… and that has reverberating effects.’” As part of her postdoctoral research, Donovan looked at racial violence and media coverage in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Ku Klux Klan was active. “The Klan had a specific media strategy to cultivate journalists for positive coverage of their events,” Donovan says. “As journalists pivoted slowly to covering the civil rights movement with a sympathetic tone, Klan violence rises—but also public spectacles, torch marches, and cross burnings. These acts are often done with the potential for media coverage in mind.”

Sometimes, I want to throw my hands in the air and grumble, ‘We know what we know from history! Journalists are not outside of society. In fact, they are the most crucial way the public makes sense of the world.

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While mass shootings are clearly newsworthy, Donovan says, the internet introduces a new dynamic where all stories on a topic are instantly available to virtually anyone anywhere around the globe. And the fact that they are shared and re-shared and commented on via half a dozen different social networks means that “journalists quickly lose control over the reception of their work,” she says. “This is why it is even more crucial that journalists frame stories clearly and avoid embedding and hyperlinking to known online spaces of radicalization.” Despite this kind of advice from Donovan and others, including sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, a number of media outlets linked to the Christchurch shooter’s writings, and at least one even included a clip from the live-streamed video of his attack.

When it comes to what the platforms themselves should do about mitigating the spread of misinformation and the amplification of extremists, Donovan says the obvious thing is that they should remove accounts that harass and use hate speech to silence others. This “would go a long way to stamping out the influencers who are providing organizing spaces for their fans to participate in networked harassment and bullying,” she says. On YouTube, some would-be “influencers” use hate speech as a way to attract new audiences and solicit donations, Donovan says, and these attempts are aided by the algorithms and the ad-driven model of the platforms. “These influencers would not have grown this popular without the platform’s consent,” she says. “Something can be done and the means to do it are already available.”

On the topic of the recent Christchurch Call—a commitment to take action on extremism signed by the governments of New Zealand, France, Canada, and a number of other nations, along with tech platforms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter—Donovan says that until there are tangible results, the agreement looks like just another pledge to do better. “These companies apologize and make no specific commitments to change. There are no benchmarks to track progress, no data trails to audit, no human rights abuses accounted for.” Something the Christchurch Call also doesn’t address, Donovan says, are the fundamental incentives behind how hate groups are financed and resourced online, “thanks to access to payment processIng and broadcast technologies at will.”

Introducing The On Being Project

I feel like the world has changed so much. So, in the mid-’90s, late-’90s, having been a journalist, coming out of divinity school — so this was the Moral Majority — this was this moment where a lot of very loud, strident religiosity had claimed its place and was everywhere. And actually, religion was in the headlines. And then, in the years I was creating the show, we went through September 11. We had an evangelical president in the White House. So there was a lot of religiosity in the headlines, and a lot of new curiosity about it, but also, a lot of religious people getting quiet because they didn’t want to be associated with —

MS. PERCY: With the loud voices.

MS. TIPPETT: And journalists, I felt, colluding with handing over the microphones and cameras to the loudest voices.

MS. PERCY: What time period would this be? This is the early 2000s?

MS. TIPPETT: This would be like mid- to late-’90s…

MS. PERCY: Got it.

MS. TIPPETT: …and then, into the turn of the century. And I just felt that this is such an important part of life, this huge part of life which we call religion — where religion happens, spirituality, moral imagination, and that we didn’t have any places where we were talking about the sweep of that. And even when these voices hit the news, you didn’t get the spiritual content of this part of life, much less the intellectual content of this part of life, and the nuance and really, the breadth of the ways this is lived. And so that was my desire, to do that, and I thought public radio would be a place to do that.

But I think what we started doing, from the very beginning, was drawing out a different kind of conversation, voices that weren’t being heard. It was very focused on religion per se, and then we moved through the backlash to that, which is what I think the New Atheist was, New Atheist movement. What was interesting to me about all of that, this kind of very strident anti-religion — coming through all of that, this new conversation that’s happening across these lines; across religious lines, across boundaries of religious and non-religious, all kinds of scientific inquiry, and theology and spiritual inquiry. And so, when you ask me what this is and what it’s become, it’s been so fluid and evolving.

.. here we are in 2018, in a fractured world, in a hurting world — and yet, we’re in this moment of passage, and we’re in this moment of generational change. And I think we’re in a moment where there’s huge culture shift happening, and right now the destructive aspects of that are really on display and better-covered; but there’s a lot that’s new that’s being created; there’s a lot of denial that’s dying. There’s a lot of generative possibility and people living into it, and I think the Impact Lab is just gonna equip us that much more intentionally and practically to meet that.

.. we’re really exploring this, in some ways, very old-fashioned word of “formation,” of becoming the kind of people that we are meant to be, in some way; that we are called to be, especially in this moment, and thinking about what are the spiritual technologies that can help us develop those virtues.

MS. TIPPETT: And a way of even being with strangers.

MR. TER KUILE: Absolutely. We had these long tables where people sat down at meals, and it made me realize, dinner is one of our spiritual technologies.

.. MS. PERCY: I love that you mention, Erinn, two things, which is hospitality and, also, community. As a Hispanic person, that is the tenets of being Hispanic, is — eating, as well; so it’s community, hospitality, and food. But I think those are two key things to everything that we do at The On Being Project. And community, in particular, is something that I feel so proud of, that we engage with our community in the way that we do.

.. Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. And somewhere he writes that if a community is only for itself, it will die — which I thought was so striking, because I think that’s one of the things that I’m most passionate about, as we think about building community and building relationships, is that it isn’t just for itself; it’s for a world transformed in some way.

Russia Finally Gets Its #MeToo Moment

The #MeToo moment has arrived in Russia. It took months longer than it did for many other countries that often take cultural cues from the United States. But, considering the near-total obliteration of public space under President Vladimir Putin, it is perhaps surprising that it has arrived at all. Russian media are almost totally controlled by the state; the social networks consist of genuinely disconnected bubbles. Still, a highly public conversation about sexual harassment and assault has finally begun.

.. During the course of the last four weeks, several women, including journalists who work in the Duma—the Russian parliament—have come forward with stories of being harassed and assaulted by a prominent Duma member, Leonid Slutsky, who is the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. The women’s accounts were published by TV Rain—a once thriving independent television channel that is now almost exclusively online—and on the Web site of the Russian service of the BBC. The BBC Russian Service correspondent Farida Rustamova published the transcript of an audio recording in which she tried to resist Slutsky’s advances.

.. In the days following the publication of Rustamova’s story, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova—ordinarily no friend of journalists from opposition media—spoke about having been harassed by Slutsky herself. The politician’s pattern of harassment thus became a matter of officially sanctioned public record. The journalists who had come forward, meanwhile, filed formal complaints with the Duma; on Wednesday, the Duma ethics committee took up the issue.

.. On the one hand, nearly half of the Russian workforce is female. The Soviet Union was probably among the first countries to ban sexual harassment: a 1923 law introduced penalties for men who used a woman’s financially or professionally dependent position to coerce her into having sexual relations. At the same time, sexual harassment is common and often blatant. (Four years ago, for example, another prominent Duma member, the head of the misnamed Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, was caught on camera directing one of his aides to “go rape” a pregnant Duma reporter who had asked him a question.)

.. The TV Rain producer Darya Zhuk then told the story of being harassed by Slutsky four years ago. When she was finished, Arshba said to her, “Your emotional statement has no factual value.” In conclusion, the committee voted to take no action against Slutsky.

.. In response to the committee’s decision, Russian media outlets began, one after another, to pull their correspondents from the Duma. As of Friday, thirty-six outlets had joined the boycott. It was an extraordinary occurrence. The Duma is effectively an appointed body that rubber-stamps the Kremlin’s legislation. The overwhelming majority of Russian media outlets are either directly and openly or indirectly but still relatively openly controlled by the Kremlin. But now the fake parliament and the state-controlled media were engaged in what looked like real conflict.

.. The Russian Duma has approved the annexation of Crimea, has enabled wars in Georgia and Ukraine, has rubber-stamped laws that fuelled the persecution of dissidents and queers—and much of this legislative action involved violations not only of human rights but also of norms of decency and of legal procedure, such as it exists in Russia. Why, then, would allegations of sexual harassment be able to break a compact between the authorities and the journalists?

.. Perhaps because, unlike the wars and the political persecutions, the harassment is part of the journalists’ own lived experience.

.. In this case, Russia provides an illustration of both the limitations and the power of the politics of lived experience: it does not guarantee solidarity, political empathy, or even decency, but it can rouse people to action when all else has failed.

Foreign spies are watching — and probably targeting — Fox News Channel

So if I were a spymaster in the employ of a hostile foreign service, I’d devote some significant effort to penetrating one specific private institution: Fox News Channel.

.. It’s no secret that Fox News — specifically, shows such as “Hannity,” “Fox & Friends,” “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and “Justice with Judge Jeanine” — have outsize influence on the inner workings of how certain policies are carried out by the U.S. government.

.. Mediate recently argued that the most influential people working in the media today are “Fox & Friends” hosts Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade and Ainsley Earhardt, because “they have captured the President’s attention — which often then gets tweeted and covered by the media — the topics they cover essentially set the national agenda for the rest of the day.”

.. When Fox News broadcasts, the president often reacts impulsively. His tweet threatening North Korea with his “Nuclear Button” at 7:49 p.m. last Tuesday appeared to have been spurredby a Fox News segment on the very same topic that occurred 12 minutes beforehand

.. The Kremlin has indicated that Russian President Vladimir Putin reads Trump’s tweets and views them as official White House statements. Pakistan recently summoned the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad to account for Trump’s tweet bashing what he called the country’s “lies & deceit.”

.. Trump’s unfiltered Twitter feed provides world intelligence operatives with “a real-time glimpse of a major world leader’s preoccupations, personality quirks and habits of mind” — traits to be exploited in further dealings on the global stage.

.. A truly aggressive intelligence effort would not just monitor what’s being said on the network. It would target the on-air talent, as well as the folks behind the scenes who make the network’s programming possible: producers, bookers, associate producers, production assistants and the like.

..  Trump reportedly calls Sean Hannity after his show. If hostile foreign services compromise Hannity’s phone (or place a listening device in the room where Hannity takes his private calls), that could provide real-time intelligence on the American president and his thoughts.

.. For Russian intelligence, a systematic effort to threaten, coerce and co-opt journalists is a decades-old practice.

.. Kalugin wrote that the KGB’s Tumanov helped spread rumors and disinformation within Radio Liberty for years, turning staff against each other and identifying further potential targets for recruitment. He even had a hand in the bombing of Radio Liberty’s headquarters in Munich in 1981.

.. Compared to government workers, Fox employees would make easy targets.

.. Also, it’s television — full of trade secrets, big personalities and titanic egos. Most wouldn’t expect to be compromised by a hostile intelligence power, especially on American soil.

.. Few, if any, have the sort of counterintelligence training the U.S. government administers to people in sensitive positions

.. One of the major rationales for Putin’s behavior is to cause chaos, ultimately weakening and undermining his American adversaries. It’s his real long game.

 

“Fire and Fury” Is a Book All Too Worthy of the President

The problem is that Wolff’s approach is too well-matched to his material. As Andrew Prokop explains on Vox, Wolff’s writing is a rehashing of gossip. What the Times’s and Washington Post’s White House teams have been doing through painstaking reporting—producing stories in which the account of every absurd incident in the life of the Trump Administration is based on conversations with several different sources—Wolff accomplishes by absorbing the ambient noise, the self-aggrandizing statements, the overheard (or surreptitiously recorded) conversations, and reshaping them as a narrative all his own. This tone, more than the substance, is what gives the book the flavor of a peek behind the curtain

.. Wolff’s book seems to occupy a middle ground: between the writing of White House newspaper reporters, who exercise preternatural restraint when writing about the Administration, and the late-night comedians, who offer a sense of release from that restraint because they are not held to journalistic standards of veracity. That middle ground, where there is neither restraint nor accuracy, shouldn’t exist. That “Fire and Fury” can occupy so much of the public-conversation space degrades our sense of reality further, while creating the illusion of affirming it.

Wanna Know What Donald Trump Is Really Thinking? Read Maggie Haberman

The New York Times reporter may be the greatest political reporter working today.

 .. Trump wants what she can give him access to—a kind of status he’s always craved in a newspaper that, she says, “holds an enormously large place in his imagination.” Haberman, for her part, has become a front-page fixture and a Fourth Estate folk hero. “This is a symbiotic relationship,” says an administration official. “Part of the reason” Haberman is so read in the Times “is because she is writing about Donald Trump.”
.. Haberman’s father, Clyde, is a Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter, and her mother, Nancy, is a publicity powerhouse at Rubenstein—a communications firm founded by Howard Rubenstein, whose famous spinning prowess Trump availed himself of during various of his divorce and business contretemps. (Nancy worked on projects for Trump’s business but says she never met him.)
.. Haberman had her first byline in 1980, when she was seven years old, writing for the Daily News kids’ page about a meeting she had with then-mayor Ed Koch.
.. In those days, the future president was a fixture in Page Six, the Post‘s gossip column. In the midst of his second divorce, from Marla Maples, Trump was a maestro of controlling his tabloid image, calling in tidbits about himself.
.. The quick-hit rhythm that Trump and Haberman were both fine-tuning teed them up perfectly for today’s Twitter-paced news environment. “Maggie’s whole career has been about grabbing people by the lapels,” Burns says. She believes in the power of breaking incremental news—not holding every-thing back for a long read. She’s “wickedly competitive,
.. At first Thrush didn’t like her, mistaking her voraciousness for shtick. “My enduring image of her is, she’s standing outside the [press] van, she has a cigarette already lit in one hand, she’s lighting a second one because she’s forgotten that she has the first one lit, right? And she’s got a BlackBerry and a flip phone going at the same time. And I’m like, This is total bullshit, this is not a real person, nobody is this way,” Thrush recalls. Over time, however, as Haberman did not get beat, did not get beat, he realized she was for real.
.. In hindsight, Haberman was building a reservoir of knowledge and contacts that would make her probably the best-sourced reporter of the 2016 campaign. Significantly, she was accumulating sources who were close to Trump, who knew when he was angry and what he watched on TV and how he could only sleep well in his own bed. Her expertise wasn’t just Trump—it was the Trump psyche.

.. Haberman jumped to Politico in 2010, where she covered him full-bore for the first time; he was then flirting with the idea of joining the 2012 Republican primary and beginning to spread the lie that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Three years later, she moved to the Times as it beefed up its political staff in advance of the 2016 campaign. By the time Trump formally announced his candidacy in June 2015 and Haberman was assigned to his campaign, she’d been reporting on him for a decade.

.. Whereas most of the country knows Trump foremost as a reality-TV star from his time on The Apprentice, Haberman remembers that he was a New York institution before he became a national figure. “The Triborough and Empire State view of Trump is very different from the national view of Trump,” she points out. “His whole thing has always been to be accepted among the New York elites, whom he sort of preemptively sneers at—that thing that people do when they are not really sure if they will be completely validated, where they push away people whose approval they are seeking.

.. “You’re going to bring this up every time, aren’t you?” she says she told him. He “kind of chuckled” and replied, “It’s like therapy.”

.. Haberman is growing weary of the DC establishment’s seeming inability to metabolize the president’s personality. “There has been a very protracted shocked stage in Washington, and I think people have to move past that. Because otherwise you’re just never going to be able to cover him,” she says. “Every moment cannot be, ‘Wow! Can you believe what he just did?’ Yes, I can! Because he is the same person he was during the campaign.”

Her measured stance infuriates Trump’s detractors, who harangue her on Twitter for “normalizing” the president. But it gives her added credibility when she argues, as she did when Trump fired Comey, that one of Trump’s aberrant moves is a big deal.

.. “What is amazing is capacity of people who watched the campaign to be surprised by what they are seeing. Trump is 70. Ppl don’t change.”

.. Just as he didn’t back down after being accused of sexual assault, she says he is unlikely to walk away from this fight or resign. “I do not think he is enjoying the job particularly, and that is based on reporting,” she says. “But I also know he can’t allow himself to ever quit.”

.. they see Trump’s presidency more as a “national mayoralty…it’s got that scale, it has that informality,” Thrush says. “And it’s not just any mayoralty; it’s a late-’80s, early ’90s New York mayoralty.” Adds Haberman, “Some Ed Koch. A lot of Rudy Giuliani.”

.. One communications staffer after another told me that they appreciate the fact that she never blindsides them. “Maggie doesn’t camouflage. She’s perfectly willing to walk like a redcoat into the middle of the field and let everyone know she’s there because she’s going to get [her story],”

.. She never hedges her angle to try to protect her access, only to give politicians an unwelcome surprise when they read the story in the morning—a practice some journalists follow that Haberman calls “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. They’re going to lose [their access] anyway,” she says. “What do they think—that it’s going in a secret newspaper?”

.. she doesn’t keep an actual calendar, not on paper, not on her phone; it’s all in her head.

.. Friends and colleagues say this is her standard operating procedure. “She is literally always doing four things,” says her friend and former New York Post colleague Annie Karni. Haberman once said in an interview that she talked to 50 people a day. Not true, says Risa Heller, a spokesperson for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner: “She speaks to 100 people a day.” One colleague says she didn’t realize there was a limit to how many Gchats you could have going at one time until she saw Haberman hit the maximum.

.. ‘Oh, did Maggie just tell you that?’ Because she was literally talking to 16 people within our campaign at the same time.”

.. She almost never turns her phone off. “She’s got it with her at all times,” says her husband, Dareh Gregorian. She’ll wake up in the middle of the night and, instead of rolling over and going back to sleep, pick up her phone and start working.

.. “Maggie’s magic is that she’s the dominant reporter on the [White House] beat, and she doesn’t even live in Washington. She was the dominant Trump reporter on the campaign, and she didn’t travel with him. She’s so well-sourced and so well-connected that she doesn’t need to,”

.. Greenfield introduced Haberman by saying that he couldn’t remember a reporter having established a relationship with a president quite like hers with Trump

.. Lyndon Johnson gave preference to Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Walter Lippmann, and Lippmann had once gone so far as to secretly write part of a speech for Johnson—and then write a story praising the speech.

.. Kellyanne Conway defended Haberman last April in an interview, calling her “a very hard-working, honest journalist who happens to be a very good person.” Hicks echoed Conway, e-mailing me a few days later that Haberman was “a true professional.”

.. Haberman has reached the point in her career where sources are now chasing her, instead of the other way around—lying to her risks banishment and access to her news-promulgating prowess. “If you’re going to come at her,” says a Democratic operative, “you’ve got to come correct.”

.. “This is a president who is always selling. When I speak to him, it’s because he’s trying to sell me,” Haberman tells the audience at the 92nd Street Y.

.. “When we as a culture can’t agree on a simple, basic fact set—that is very scary. That [Trump] is unconcerned by that, I think, is the big issue,”

.. But effective salesmanship must be based in credibility—an area in which his administration has suffered significant set-backs in recent days.

Montana’s Charles Sumner Moment

One hundred and sixty-one years ago, in retaliation for a blistering speech against slavery, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a gold-tipped cane on the Senate floor until he was unconscious. The unapologetic Brooks (“Every lick went where I intended”) audaciously resigned his seat, and then was promptly re-elected in the subsequent special election, proving his constituents had his back.

Northerners were appalled, but Southern newspapers leapt to Brooks’ defense. The Richmond Whig hailed the caning as “a most glorious deed”; the Examiner said Sumner “ought to have nine-and-thirty [lashes] every morning.” The shocking attack, and the South’s fulsome embrace of it, became a rallying point for the abolitionist movement and fueled the rise of the nascent Republican Party.

Conservative radio host Glenn Beck has long warned that a polarized America would eventually suffer another violent and divisive “Charles Sumner moment.” Last June he said, “Mark my words. It will be someone like Ted Cruz or Louie Gohmert that gets the cane to the head. It will be a self-righteous progressive that will beat a liberty person almost to death.”

.. And he earned the approbation of President Donald Trump, who interrupted his trip to Italy to hail the “great victory in Montana.”

.. America’s already destabilizing political polarization has only gotten worse since November.

.. Gianforte’s solid win makes Trump’s election seem like less of a fluke. Trump encouraged beatings of protesters and was caught on tape bragging about groping women.  .. But maybe we should be contemplating the awful possibility that perhaps he won because of it.

.. Gianforte didn’t win in spite of his violent outburst. He channeled a rage against the media that Trump routinely stokes. “You’re lucky someone doesn’t pop one of you” one Gianforte voter told a CNN reporter on Election Day. A caller to Rush Limbaugh’s show from Billings insisted, “If every Republican candidate in the country picked up a reporter and threw him to the ground, it would increase my chances exponentially of voting for them.”

.. It’s about time that people started sticking up for our side. If enough of this happens, those reporters are gonna learn to back off a little bit.” Keep in mind that the question the Guardian’s exceedingly polite Ben Jacobs asked was about Gianforte’s reaction to a CBO report.

.. The largely college-educated scribes are treated, fairly or not, as representatives of a cultural elite that sneers at working-class whites who lack bachelors degrees.

.. Those who thought some economic populism and down-home folksiness would bridge the cultural divide got a rude awakening on Thursday night.

.. Republicans still yoked him to coastal liberalism.

  • After a report that Quist had once performed at a nudist colony, one super PAC ad snarked, “He’s not interested in Montana values. He’s more interested in Hollywood values.”
  • He was also hit hard for not always paying his taxes, which Quist futilely tried to explain was a result of financial troubles following a botched surgery. But even that was treated as evidence of his ties to national Democrats: “Can you trust Quist and Pelosi with your money?” charged another super PAC ad.