Elections and the media
Media freedom is under great threat, despite some significant shifts over the last few years, we would be foolish to assume that we are winning the battle. The dark forces are strong and are using technology to advance their causes and undermine democracy. As I begin it is important for me to stress my core assumption, that media is central to democracy, it is a public good, you cannot have a democracy without a free and independent media. We cannot talk about democracy, about free and fair elections unless we talk also about the role of the media and media freedom.
Looking at media freedom we see the threats are significant, they are supported and accompanied by the rise of populism. This is not unique to us in this part of the world, indeed we have witnessed the rise of populism in Europe and the USA. To some degree the rise of populism is also accompanied by the denial of scientific thought and rational thinking, and undermining of all core elements of democratic state. Just the other day Guardian published a story on how populists are more likely to believe conspiracy theories. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/01/revealed-populists-more-likely-believe-conspiracy-theories-vaccines?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other. In our experience we know populists work against rational thought, against our world as a complex place, yet they see the failures of our democratic systems, of the inequality and they use these to trade on our fears and anxieties and then present easy answers. There can be few better examples than President Trump and his use of the wall. Crime, human trafficking, drug abuse – easy to solve build a wall and stop the evil people form coming in. It’s so deceptively simple, and also so clearly inappropriate. We know it cannot address the complex issues, which require policy, commitment and all key stakeholders to work together. The approach is to trade on our fears, our emotions in the hope and often legitimate belief that we will then make irrational decision to allay our fears. These are the same approaches of the disinformers, those people who seek to undermine democracy. They push emotional buttons, in order to encourage you to fall for whatever they are selling. Identifying the emotional elements, the fear stoking content is one of the most common giveaways of disinformation.
Part of their approach is an unbridled attack on credible media. It makes sense for them to do so as credible media are the ones who keep reminding us, bringing us back to reality that it is messy, complex and nuanced, positive and bad at the same time. This isn’t to suggest media and journalism are great, far from it, but for those who wish to disinform, and undermine democracy attacking media, it is a central element of their strategy precisely because once you can make people doubt any and all information, you not only paralyse them from taking action, you also undermine belief, support and value for other democratic elements like elections, parliament and the judiciary.
Another core trend we are witnessing is that in as much as disinformation and these attacks are increasing we are not really witnessing any sustained and equally strong arguments for media freedom. Yes this World Press Freedom day we face multiple challenges: In addition to the physical threats, the jailing and killing of our journalists, we are seeing growing distrust, credibility crisis, declining quality and failing sustainable business models, globally.
Perhaps the biggest shift we are going through is the rise of digital. The rise of social media has to some degree leveled the playing field. It allows for amazing things to happen, to connect and share and it allows for us to engage with colleagues around the world in real time. It means for anyone to produce great content all they need is access to the internet and a mobile device.
But, it has also allowed for the dramatic rise of mis and disinformation. We know these are not new, but social media has facilitated their rise on a scale we have not seen before. Social media has also facilitated increasing attacks on people in the public eye and journalists in particular. From political parties to trolls, and bots we know these attacks against our journalists aren’t just against them but the institution of journalism as a core element of democracy. We are witnessing new forms of censorship, why use thugs and a gun when you can just get thugs access to a mobile phone, then tell them to shout, shame and deny the voices of those who are trying to inform. So yes social media is amazing in any respect but platforms have facilitated these dark elements too and while they are acting more needs to be done.
At the same time, we have seen our own government being slow to shift to our emerging digital reality, and where realizing the right to access internet is still a core battle, we have often tended to neglect the growth and development of equally essential life learning of critical digital and media literacy skills.
The world for our young people has changed dramatically where we have shifted from information scarcity to abundance, and now more than ever we need the public to have the skills to filter and for our journalists to help unpack, demystify and explain our complex world.
What do we do about this?
We can give up, or give in to the populists or we can fight for our democracy. In the interests of keeping it manageable here’s a five-point plan on what we can and should be doing:
- For journalism to continue to improve one thing we need to do is monitor and help journalists to do a better job, we need to highlight the role of good journalists, the importance of credible media. Build up our public broadcasters – we know that country’s with strong public broadcasters have higher levels of trust, and more informed citizens. Journalists with better skills, who meet the needs of the public in terms of information are one of the best counters to disinformation and protecting media freedom.
- Digital life is and has been disrupting our world and will continue to do so and its impact will only deepen over the next decade. Social media’s impact is increasing and there is no doubt that it will become increasingly pervasive. So we cannot ignore it, rather we must work with it and engage but critically it means we need desperately to support organisations like Misa Mozambique, and others that fight for media freedom as they are vital to protect, promote and deepen media freedom.
- We must combat disinformation as it undermines democracy. We must do so in manner it is in line, in our case in South Africa with our constitutional democracy. There are a number of critical steps but to do this, I want to share with you a new effort around elections that our Electoral Commission is driving. I’m talking about the Real411 and Padre. But before I get into more detail on these, I need to clarify what I mean when I use these terms. Misinformation is spreading false information – what politicians might do, in campaigning, they exaggerate and knowingly or unknowingly spread false information. Disinformation is about seeking to spreads false information to causes harm, or undermine elections. It is a high standard and limited definition as we have to balance such speech against against ensuring right to freedom of expression is not undermined.
We have seen an increase across the globe of both mis and disinformation. It operates in the shadows, with dodgy characters. It has impacted USA, UK, France, Brazil, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe. It’s scale isn’t clear, nor are the enemies always obvious. One thing that makes it difficult is that its designed to look like other content. If done well most people aren’t even aware they are being targeted. So we face a few challenges. Currently no real means of reporting and dealing with it. Twitter has announced they introducing new category for reporting about elections disinformation and Facebook appears opt be following suit, but point is we shouldn’t be allowing or expecting global platforms to deal with our own issues. These are our elections and our democracies it simply isn’t appropriate that we expect companies to judge and asses what is and what isn’t disinformation for our elections. Imagine if we outsourced our judiciary to an international company, over whom we have no power no appeal, little transparency and little accountability?
- It’s easy to feel overwhelmed – to lose faith in all sources of information- in fact that is a sign that the disinformers have won. Best way to combat is to stop it in its tracks by not sharing. We need the public to be more skeptical and digitally literate, to have the skills to spot and report. This is why we developed Rover and why we also run digital literacy skills with young people called Webrangers.
- Finally, as much as media freedom is a right and principle, media freedom, its protection and realization is about the people and journalists. We have to deal with attacks on journalists, these are ongoing and systematic. It has to be our point of departure that we simply cannot tolerate it. Doing so is the clearest indication that we have given up on democracy, that the bullies and thugs have won. It’s why the work of organizations like MISA and others is so critical. Let us use this World Press Freedom Day to assert a common stand against attacks on journalists to out those who do and let them know we value our democracy more. Doing so isn’t just the right thing to do and it isn’t just the correct thing to help our democracy, it is also our guarantee for victory:
“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.” Ghandi