This report draws on the seminar series “Media in the post-truth era” – part of the Russian Readings initiative, which focuses on contemporary issues shaping Russian politics and society.

Russian Readings was established in 2018 to provide a platform for high-quality academic debate on contemporary Russia at the world’s leading universities. It brings together academics, practitioners and policymakers to study contemporary social, urban and political developments in and affecting Russia. This seminar series on Russian media in the post-truth era was coordinated by the University of Leeds and the University of Oxford in partnership with the British Association for Slavonic and Eastern European Studies.

Russian Readings is supported by the Oxford Russia Fund – a UK charity established in 2005 to improve the quality of education in the Russian Federation. The Oxford Russia Fund provides scholarships to students and awards grants to educational establishments. More information on Russian Readings is available at: www.russian-readings.org.

Introduction

News media across the world face major challenges. Technological change has transformed the way that information is gathered and consumed, but it has also disrupted established business models and undercut traditional sources of revenue. At the same time, journalists, politicians and societies are grappling with the grand challenge of “post-truth” – the degradation of factuality and trust in established sources in favour of emotional, factionalised, opinion-based communication. Technological change, financial disruption and shifting boundaries between fact, opinion, politics and activism have confronted journalists with new ethical dilemmas. This raises difficult questions regarding journalists’ social position and the media’s relationship to politics and civic activism.

Russian journalists face the same structural forces reshaping the media environment in the West. These are compounded by more contingent factors arising from Russia’s authoritarian political regime and post-Communist heritage. The regime exercises tight control of the mass media, and broadcast media in particular, through formal and informal censorship, tight ownership control, punitive libel and anti-extremism laws.

This report draws on the work of leading academics, journalists and media specialists presented in the Russian Readings seminar series that ran in 2018-2019. It explores challenges facing contemporary Russian media in the context of de-democratisation, technological change, financial disruption and the rise of “fake news”. As the problems facing the Russian media are not unique, the participants set these issues in a global context.

The media, and independent media in particular, will play a crucial role in the evolution of Russia’s political regime. Media practitioners require a multifaceted approach to survive in an aggressive political and cultural environment and prepare for future regime change. They must adapt to current and future technological and social shifts that will further redefine systems of production and distribution.

The seminars provided an in-depth view of the challenges facing the modern media, and an insight into the internal (formal and informal) hierarchies within media outlets and journalistic communities. The goals of the seminar series included:

  • exploring the social, cultural, political and economic factors that influence the media in Russia and Eastern Europe;
  • studying diverse media business models (such as paywalls, native advertising, donations, grants);
  • considering news ways of promoting media literacy and critical thinking through the media;
  • surveying and sharing the experience of practitioners from Russia, the EU and the US about the evolution of media in the age of fake news and the declining popularity of traditional media;
  • determining the local and global factors that influence Russia’s media environment.

Executive Summary

Journalism as a profession

Independent media operating in non-democratic environments must manage the challenges arising from technological change and dwindling revenue, while also fighting a restrictive legal regime and censorship. This raises acute questions about the societal and ethical role of journalists. Without a clear determination to pursue socially important issues, journalism can deteriorate into the transmission and amplification of propaganda.

It is instructive in this context to compare the experience of independent media in post-Communist Russia and Poland, including some of the miscalculations that independent Polish media had made during the country’s post-Communist transition. In both Russia and Poland, there was a failure to give adequate and early attention to democratic decline. This raised questions about the societal and ethical role of journalists. In the case of Russia, journalists also need to give attention to this issue and consider what journalism would and should look like in a post-Putin era: will journalists be reporters of change, or also agents of that change?

There is, however, little capacity or potential for external actors to support journalism and media development in Russia, owing to both limited interest from donors and the significant restrictions on foreign funding.

Money

The traditional business models of the news media, which developed during the industrial era, now appear to be unsustainable. Falling paper circulation and advertising revenue has led to cuts in the number of journalists and the closure of some outlets. This also has major implications for newspapers’ editorial and ethical choices. In Eastern Europe and Russia, the situation is further exacerbated by the fact that governments provide substantial funding to state-owned media outlets. Nominally private media are acquired by businessmen sympathetic to the regime. The purchase or withdrawal of advertising by major corporations is used to manipulate the editorial line and punish “undesirable” coverage.

However, dwindling advertising income is also driving innovation and experimentation in Russia and Eastern Europe, with new models of revenue generation appearing. There are numerous examples of sustainable business models that work. These include digital subscriptions, “audience clubs”, donation-based and membership models. Successful case studies include The Insider and Proekt.Media, which are registered outside the country and therefore benefit from grant-based funding support; Republic (formerly Slon.ru), which is funded through a subscription and membership model. Other outlets have managed to survive and thrive in the restrictive environment.

Several outlets have sought to maintain consumer interest and revenues by building audience engagement, either through online communities or events. The financial sustainability of independent media is an issue of serious concern across the world, and Eastern Europe and Russia are no exception. However, even under pressure from government propaganda, many readers and viewers are eager to access quality information, alternative opinions, good storytelling and impassioned debate.

Technology

The rapid development of technology and exponential growth of data provides opportunities for suppression and surveillance, on the one hand, and on the other new tools to challenge disinformation and expose government abuses, and even war crimes. Modern investigative journalism in this area has developed into a hybrid system that engages human rights organisations, satellite companies, people sharing pictures and technical specialists.

While public attitudes to technology and its impact on society have become markedly more pessimistic, there is nothing inherent or deterministic about the technology itself. There is a danger that in seeking to regulate the perceived negative effects of new technology, policymakers pay insufficient attention to the way it empowers new forms of investigative journalism. Embedding tools to automatically delete offensive content and hate speech also risks deleting data of strong public interest relating to key historical events. Amid growing public anxiety over fake news, some of the concerns regarding technology and mis-information can be overstated – the threat posed by bots, for example, is exaggerated.

Technology has led to an increasingly digitally mediated relationship between the journalist and the event; the distance between reporter and event also affects the way the event is perceived. The Internet age has led to a proliferation of content and segmentation of audiences. As a result, it is the attention of the audience that is becoming the focus of competition. In a media ecosystem defined by an information surplus, the response is often either apathy or conspiracy, both of which are drivers of populist politics.

The social position of journalism in the “post-truth era”

A recurrent theme of the Russian Readings series was question of the ethical responsibility of journalists, and the relationship between journalism, politics and activism. To what extent should journalists be civically and politically engaged? Should they seek to be independent chroniclers of contemporary society, or its co-creators? How have technology and financial disruption impacted on the ethical choices and responsibilities facing journalists? Adam Michnik, the Editor-in-Chief of Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza, considered the role that journalism has played in Poland’s post-Communist transition. Professor Nicholas Cull of the University of Southern California examined how journalism interacts with public diplomacy, international relations, and transboundary communications. These and other speakers considered the ethical dilemmas faced by journalists, particularly in autocratic or democratising states.

Michnik argued that while Poland has undergone rapid and successful modernization, much of the country’s independent media have ignored the growing sense of frustration and marginalisation experienced by parts of Polish society, along with the Catholic clergy, which later provided support to the now-dominant ‘Law and Justice’ Party (PiS). The Polish elite and a large part of the media class assumed that democracy had been consolidated and underestimated the threat posed by PiS to basic democratic principles. This led to the de-mobilisation of liberal forces, which have been pushed onto the back foot.

In Michnik’s view, there are parallels between recent developments in Russia and Poland. In Poland, PiS has exploited society’s traditional conservatism and economic growth to expand the welfare state in some areas, while debate over the rule of law, freedom of expression and institutional development has been marginalised. This was echoed by Tatiana Lysova, former Editor-in-Chief of Vedomosti, a Russian business daily. In her view, there was a similar failure among the media class in Russia, which did not pay adequate attention to the roll-back of democracy and freedom of speech in the 1990s and early 2000s. Michnik emphasized that journalists need to show intellectual leadership:

“independent mass media must defend their intellectual capacity and their leadership capacity: give people honest data, truth-based reporting, thought-provoking opinions and help communities organise’.

Turning to the relationship between journalism and international relations, Professor Cull of the University of Southern California explored the types of policies employed by governments to exert political influence abroad and shape perceptions of the country. In the case of Russia and Eastern Europe, journalism continues to be heavily shaped by international relations. It is an object and subject of “soft power” projection and “information security”. As in the Communist period, the media are considered a channel for exerting foreign influence over domestic politics and opinion. US and EU media organisations were present during the post-Communist transition and continue to affect if not shape public opinion in many post-Communist countries. Inevitably, the response in authoritarian regimes such as Russia (and to a lesser extent Hungary and Poland) has been to adopt laws to exclude or strictly limit foreign ownership of the mass media.

In the case of Russia, the regulatory measures implemented by the government make it very difficult for foreign actors to support or influence the development of domestic media. This was underlined by Eric Johnson, the co-founder of the Russian branch of Internews, an international non-profit organisation that supports the development of independent media. In his view, there is little prospect for foreign actors to support Russia’s media: there are many other places in the world where Internews can apply its expertise and achieve much more with less risk. Considering the existing and growing difficulties of working in Russia, the minimal interest of donors, and the aggressive posture of Russia’s state-owned media, Mr. Johnson concluded that:

“the West is not able or willing to give significant support to the Russia press. Russia’s media and opposition need to find ways to operate independently”.

Ostap Protsyuk, the director of the Lviv Media forum and one of the founders of the Samopomich (Self-Help) Party, discussed the impact of the Maidan revolution on journalism and activism in Ukraine. He demonstrated how the Maidan revolution gave impetus to numerous initiatives that combined elements of journalism (informing, educating and communicating with audiences) with politics (building civic engagement, direct action and participatory politics). Protsyuk suggested that:

 “Russian journalists need to think about what a post-Putin reality would look like”.

As in Ukraine, this may require journalists in the future to not only act as reporters, but also to be agents of change.

This argument was supported by the research of Taras Fedirko, whose work on the Ukrainian media examines the reality of journalism in post-Maidan Ukraine and journalists’ experience of political influence. Fedirko argued that journalism is distorted by several forms of political influence. This ranges from subsidies to favoured outlets, which are provided by either the state or oligarchs, to outright corruption, where articles are bought by corporate or political interests (dzhinsa in Russian and Ukrainian). There are deep divisions within Ukraine’s media community over issues of professionalism and journalistic solidarity. Drawing on interviews with journalists currently working at Hromadske TV, an independent television station, Fedirko concluded that post-Maidan journalism is heavily affected by the phenomenon that Fedirko defined as moral economy:

“professional determination happens both through attempts to separate the profession as a whole from detrimental political-economic pressures; and through internal differentiation. This internal differentiation can take the form of ethical differentiation, in which the advancement of particular ideas of professionalism can undermine solidarity, without which it can be difficult to defend the profession as a whole”.

Conclusions

Three main conclusions can be drawn from the presentations and accompanying discussions. First, while all journalists must consider the political and civic role that they play, this issue is even more acute in transition and illiberal states. It is also closely linked to technological change and the erosion of public trust. When operating in non-democratic environments, journalists and the mass media must deal with the twin challenge posed by censorship and repression on the one hand, and the impact of technological change and disrupted business models on the other. This can erode the boundaries between journalism and activism, and journalists must ensure that they maintain clear boundaries between them. If they fail to adhere to clear ethical principles – multiple sourcing, distinguishing between fact and opinion, avoidance of conflicts of interest – independent journalism can degenerate into propaganda and lose its credibility.

Second, journalists and media outlets need to re-think and re-frame their relations with their audience. They are now engaged in a dialogue with their readers and viewers and must recognise that the mass media is just one voice amongst a myriad of authors, sources, ideas and opinions. At the same time, to be successful, journalism must adhere to the fundamental skills on which it is built: the ability to listen, to inquire, and to process information in a timely, fair and accurate manner.

Third, contemporary media communication must be understood within multiple contexts: social change, (de-)modernisation, globalisation and the evolution of new social Media organisations need to avoid becoming instruments of state power or international influence (“soft power”). They must also avoid being compromised by the pressures of the post-modern (and post-factual) political economy. In reporting the new, it is essential to maintain a sense of ethical responsibility and professional integrity, coupled with high-quality of content and political neutrality.

Money and the Media in the Digital Era

The new media’s traditional business model, which developed during the industrial era, is no longer sustainable and its demise has led to the closure of many publications and media resources. The rapid shift digital has hollowed out advertising revenues for traditional media organisations, while pushing print subscriptions into rapid decline. Exponential growth in online content has made it difficult for media outlets to persuade their audience to pay for online news. At the same time, digital advertising has been monopolised by just two companies, Google and Facebook. In 2016, Google and Facebook are estimated to have captured 64 per cent of the global advertising market, and 90 per cent of all new digital advertising revenue.[1]

The impact of declining subscription and advertising revenue is well illustrated by the UK news industry. Between 2000 and 2014, British newspaper advertising revenue fell by 45%, while the number of journalists shrank by over one-third.[2] There are now more people employed in the PR industry than there are journalists in the UK. The result has been an increased in what the investigative journalist Nick Davies calls “churnalism” – the recycling of press releases, wire copy, or other articles with little or no fact-checking, analysis or further reporting.[3] A study by the University of Cardiff of a sample of 2,000 articles found that 80% were mainly or partially constructed from second-hand material, with little or no original reporting.[4]

The financial disruption has also been keenly felt by Britain’s local press, which is particularly reliant on revenue from classified advertisements. Digital platforms have captured a large share of the classified advertising market, leading to a sharp fall in margins. While there remains vibrant and diverse range of national titles in the UK, the number of regional and local newspapers has fallen by half in ten years. According to the Press Gazette, between 2005 and 2015 there was a net reduction of 181 local newspapers.[5] There is a risk of a decline in the scrutiny of local authorities, even as the government seeks to devolve more powers to the regions. Many newspapers are now dependent for their survival on subsidies from local authorities – one of the principal institutions that they are supposed to be holding to account.

UK media outlets have adopted a variety of responses to this challenge. Some have imposed pay-walls, restricting most or all their content to paying subscribers. This has proved particularly successful for more high-brow publications such as The Times, Sunday Times, Financial Times and the Economist. They target a wealthy audience that is able and willing to pay for high-quality, specialist news and have succeeded in making a profitable digital transition. This model has proven less successful for tabloid outlets, which have seen disappointing subscriber numbers. The Sun, which has the highest print circulation of any paid-for daily newspaper, put up a paywall in 2013 but was forced to remove it just two years later.

The Internet has enabled some UK titles that kept their content free to significantly expand their audience and international presence. The Daily Mail and the Guardian have become two of the most-read English-language news websites in the world. The Guardian is no longer a medium-sized British newspaper, but a major player in the US media scene, carrying international scoops such as Wikileaks and the Edward Snowden revelations, which have shaped global politics. The Daily Mail and the Guardian have consciously pursued a policy of “reach ahead of revenue”,[6] but monetising this reach has nevertheless proven extremely difficult. As the journalist James Meek has observed: “The Guardian is living through a strange time of both triumph and crisis. Its great increase in readers has come at the same time as the bust in its finances.”[7] The Guardian has responded by developing a membership/voluntary subscription model, encouraging readers to make regular donations to support its journalism. In 2019 the Guardian reported a small operating profit for the financial year, compared with a £57m loss three years previously.

Independent media in Eastern Europe and Russia face even greater financial constraints than those in the UK and other Western democracies. They must also contend with formal and informal censorship, and a media environment dominated by state-owned broadcasters with no commitment to balanced coverage. In Russia, all federal television is closely controlled by the Presidential Administration, and control of most major newspapers and websites is in the hands of businessmen closely allied with the regime. The government can also influence editorial policy through the placement or withdrawal of advertising, much of which is commissioned by state-owned companies. Besides political and legal pressure, independent media outlets have limited access to capital and the advertising market, and they can no longer rely on development funding from abroad. Nevertheless, as the first-hand experience of several speakers illustrated, there are a range of new and independent media that have succeeded in building sustainable financial models.

Grzegorz Piechota, a visiting research fellow at the Reuters Oxford Journalism Institute, examined the evolution of funding models for journalism across the globe. While advertising revenue continues to decline for many media companies, he noted that entrepreneurs are continuing to experiment with new forms and methods of mass communication. For example, Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza created a new school ranking with input from parents and children, allowing them to rate and compare their schools with others across the country. This created pressure for legislative reforms, including the mandatory election of school governors, mixed funding for school and a national grading system for teachers. In Belarus, where the operating environment for media is very restrictive, the bi-lingual Minsk Times was nevertheless able to establish itself as a channel for the large community of IT professionals. Using its unique position as the voice of this community, the Minsk Times was able to release stories that challenged the authorities on a number of issues. Piechota argued that donation-based revenue models can provide a good starting point for new media. However, he expressed scepticism that this model could be sustainable in the long term – people donate money when media resources cover issues that capture their attention, but this can quickly fade away. Piechota argued that donation-based revenue models can provide a good starting point for new media. However, he expressed scepticism that this model could be sustainable in the long term – people donate money when media resources cover issues that capture their attention, but this can quickly fade away.

The founders and editors of two donation-based outlets – Roman Dobrokhotov of The Insider (theins.ru) and Roman Badanin of The Project (proekt.media) shared their first-hand experience of establishing and maintaining new independent media outlets focusing on Russia. The Insider was founded in 2013 and focuses on investigative journalism that exposes malpractice by law enforcement services. It made its reputation with investigations into corruption and misconduct by Russian government officials. Recently, it has established a successful collaboration with the UK-based investigative organisation Bellingcat to examine the activities of the GRU (Russian military intelligence), including the poisoning of former intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018. Using a combination of confidential informants, leaks and open source investigations, Bellingcat and The Insider revealed the real identities of the GRU agents suspected of carrying out the attack.

For security reasons, The Insider is registered in and operates from Riga, Latvia. By basing itself outside Russia in the EU, it can receive international financial support and access development funding from EU and US grant-giving organisations. It also conducts fundraising campaigns using online platforms and seeks direct donations through advertising on Google and social media. Initially, The Insider was almost completely dependent on media grants for its operations. But as its readership has grown, it has increased revenue from banner advertising on its website. According to Dobrokhotov, this accounted for around 18% of income in the second half of 2018.

Like The Insider, The Project is based outside Russia and is registered as a non-profit organisation in the US. It is primarily financed through donations from individuals and institutions. It produces extensively researched, long-form investigations covering issues from corruption and bad governance to the persecution of religious minorities and failings in the health system. Badanin noted that The Project has built close relations with donors by having a clear mission statement and producing high-quality reportage.

Both publications are obliged to operate outside Russia’s restrictive legal system, which ensures greater freedom and transparency, but does not insulate them entirely from Russian law enforcement and regulatory agencies. Roskomnadzor, Russia’s Internet regulator, is currently pursuing 18 cases against The Insider. Badanin stated that his main concern is for the physical security of his journalists, who have been threatened by the subjects of their investigations.

Maxim Kashulinsky, the former editor-in-chief of Republic, discussed the effectiveness and limitations of subscription-based funding models in Russia. Republic is not the first Russian publication to use a subscription model, but it is currently the only one that operates a “hard paywall”, where payment is required to access almost all content on the site. Republic (formerly known as Slon.ru) was founded in 2009. It took only six months for the website to gain enough subscribers to break even. However, retaining them has proved challenging – the value of the content was not enough to attract and retain subscribers for digital-only media. A substantial proportion of the subscribers signed up to demonstrate their support for the mission and values of the publication. Moreover, a heavy focus on tracking subscriber engagement meant the publication started to serve a narrow set of interests and topics. This made it difficult to attract new subscribers.

After a series of experiments, Republic has settled on a new cooperative model, where content is divided into six themes, each overseen by a different editor managing a collective of contributors. Author fees are calculated using an automated system that measures the total number of hits for a given article, length of user engagement, and user return rates. Republic currently breaks even, but it will need to innovate further if it is to grow its subscribers and expand its revenue base. As Tatyana Lysova, former editor-in-chief of Vedomosti, noted, readership rates tend to grow more slowly under a subscription model. The news agenda can become shortened, and the pace of technological innovation is constrained as a result of lower revenue.

Independent, non-news media have also managed to operate in Russia, while maintaining high editorial standards and ethical reporting. Dmitry Navosha discussed the experience of Sports.ru, the most popular sports website in Russia (and also a dominant player in other parts of the former Soviet Union, such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova and Ukraine). Navosha argued that building and maintaining online communities was critical to the success of the project. The website has numerous discussion boards covering every sport in Russia, which are curated by a teams of volunteer editors and reporters. Navosha argued that creating a moderated conversation between users was critical to the website’s success. Sports.ru has the best retention rate of all Russian-language media, with an average user spending 40 minutes on the site every day. Higher engagement brings more advertising money, more sponsorship and more diversity of content. At the same time, Sports.ru does not restrict the editorial and user-generated content to sport. Contributors also discuss social issues such as education, racism, xenophobia and collective action. Sports.ru has organised campaigns to encourage responsible behaviour at stadiums (cleaning up after matches, helping staff and ensuring a positive experience for fans).

A second case study is the local news and culture website Bumaga (www.paperpaper.ru), a grassroots media project focused on St Petersburg. Bumaga was founded ten years ago by a group of students that wanted to cover local news and events in their city. As with Sports.ru, Kirill Artemenko, the Editor-in-Chief of Bumaga, underlined the importance of community engagement. In addition to reporting on city news, Bumaga organises a range of events for its members and the general public, as well as a city-wide festival. This provides a stable revenue stream that has allowed Bumaga to build a sustainable business model and support its journalists.

While neither Sports.ru nor Bumaga is overtly political, the fact that they actively encourage reader engagement and user-generated content carries risks. Sports.ru maintains hundreds of forums that generate millions of user comments each week. Centrally moderating such a large volume of content is impossible and there is a risk that some of the user posts may violate Roskomnadzor’s regulations. Sports.ru uses a system of collective moderation that helps to minimize the workload of moderators by almost immediately burying bad comments. Nevertheless, Navosha concluded that there is a significant risk that Roskomnadzor could sanction the site. Over the past year, Sports.ru has received numerous demands from Roskomnadzor to take down user comments and articles written by its own journalists.

Conclusions

In Russia, many journalists face intimidation, censorship, and other limitations on their operations (such as restrictions on foreign ownership). In 2015, the Russian government adopted a law that limited the share of foreign ownership in the Russian media to 20%. This has created serious financial problems for independent media, which are exacerbated by competition from online media and news aggregators (in particular Yandex news), making it difficult to charge for content. Financial pressures are among the biggest constraints on independent journalism. Independent media must also compete against state-owned media, which dominate the media landscape and receive high levels of public funding.

Nevertheless, even in Russia’s restrictive media environment, there is a clear demand for quality media outlets, alternative sources of information, good storytelling and passionate debate. This exists across regions and themes, from politics to specialised interests such as science journalism, IT, and sport. As participants in the discussion showed, subscription-based models have demonstrated their ability to operate and generate income, but growth tends to be constrained and it can distort editorial priorities. It is difficult to build a subscription model from scratch, as you can only develop a subscriber base once you have a proven track-record and have established a loyal readership. Several donation-based media outlets have recently had a big impact, but they are obliged to register and operate from abroad to access foreign funding and ensure the security of their staff. Finally, the success of projects such as Sports.ru and Bumaga point to the popularity of media that engage readers and build online and offline communities.

Jeff Jarvis of Newark University argued that journalism can be entrepreneurial, and this panel showed that even in Russia independent media initiatives can achieve financial sustainability. There are also examples of high-quality media outlets in Russia that have created meaningful collaborations with public institutions: museums, universities, schools, municipal services and even Roskosmos (the Russian space agency). There is always a risk that such partnerships can compromise independent news outlets, but they also provide safe havens for journalists who wish to provide socially useful and interesting reporting without engaging in investigative reporting, which carries significant risks in Russia.

[1] Carl Miller, The Death of the Gods (London: William Heinemann, 2018).[2] Ibid.

[3] Nick Davies, Flat Earth News (London: Vintage, 2009).

[4] Alan Rusbridger, Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2018).

[5] Ashley Kirk and Nicole Chang, ‘Some 48 regional newspapers have closed since 2012 – but 39 have launched’, Press Gazette, 16 January 2015.

[6] Alan Rusbridger, Breaking News.

[7] James Meek, ‘The Club and the Mob’, London Review of Books, Vol. 40, No 23, 6 December 2018.

Real and fake news: how new technology is changing journalism

Technology has transformed how news is reported and consumed. Anyone with a smart phone can now become a citizen journalist, and anyone with an Internet connection can respond instantly to a story. This has enabled news organisations to experiment with new forms of reporting, such as “transparent journalism”,[1] where information and expertise are crowd-sourced from readers. But perceptions of technology and digital platforms have shifted significantly over the past decade. During the Arab Spring of 2011, technology was seen as a tool to undermine authoritarian regimes. By 2016, the proliferation of disinformation and fake news facilitated by modern technology was widely considered to be a threat to democracy.

Some of the most striking examples of the way technology has changed journalism can be found in the UK. This includes the investigative journalism website Bellingcat, founded in 2014 by Eliot Higgins. Higgins began as an amateur investigator, using open source data to track the use of weapons in the Syrian civil war. With the help of crowdfunding he was able to expand his organisation to five full-time staff members and fifteen volunteers. Using open-source data, often gleaned from social media, they have conducted intricate digital forensic investigations that have supplemented and informed mainstream reporting on the war in Syria and Ukraine.[2] This included tracking and locating the rocket launcher used to shoot down flight MH-17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014.[3] UK newspapers like the Guardian have been at the forefront of developing collaborative investigations with citizen journalists and websites such as Bellingcat. The Guardian’s reporting on the London riots in 2011, or the death of Ian Tomlinson, who was struck by a policeman during G-20 summit protests in 2009, combined traditional on-the-ground investigations with crowd-sourced reports and footage from social media.

However, the rise of digital technology and social media has also driven the rapid growth in poorly sourced and unreliable content and the proliferation of “fake news” – biased or inaccurate information spread with the intention of misleading the public or undermining public trust. One of the most infamous examples of this arose during the 2016 UK EU Referendum campaign, in which advocates of Remain found themselves unable to effectively rebut claims by the Leave side that the UK pays £350m a week in contributions to the EU. This figure fails to take into account the UK’s rebate, and funds remitted to the UK as part of EU spending. But all efforts to challenge the figure only served to amplify the message.

In the digital economy, websites that rely on digital advertising for revenue generate fractions of a penny for each page impression. As the British journalist James Ball notes, this model can only be made profitable by generating huge audiences and to trying to make each story as low-cost as possible. This is a model that mitigates against fact-checking, balance and original content, and encourages distortion, exaggeration and hype.[4] The result has been a sharp reduction in the number of journalists working in Britain, all of whom are expected to produce more content. The average UK journalist is now filing three times as much column space as he or she was in 1985.[5]

The evolution of the UK media scene thus provides useful examples of how technology has both enabled new forms of journalism and created new challenges to the fulfilment of its fundamental aims. Professor Steven Livingston of George Washington University has examined how public attitudes to modern technology and the proliferation of data have moved from utopianism to pessimism. He argues that there is nothing inherent or deterministic about technology itself, which is merely a tool that be used for good or ill. Instead, we should consider the “affordance” of the tool – in other words, the range of ways that the tool can be used and the potential it offers. The proliferation of data and sensors presents opportunities as well as risks. The technology enables unprecedented levels of state surveillance and allows journalists and human rights organisations to conduct investigations into abuses that otherwise would be impossible. The same raw material can be used for both suppression and surveillance and to verify reported events and challenge disinformation.

It has long been observed that the recording and reporting of human rights abuses by journalists and non-governmental organisations can create pressure on states to comply with domestic and international law. These organisations therefore have the capacity to change the behaviour of repressive regimes. New digital technology allows journalists to gather data in situations where it is difficult to gain physical access. This suggests that using data-collecting technology including Internet-based devices, earth observation satellites, CCTV cameras and location-tracking devices should help journalists to record, publicise and possibly prevent human rights violations and war crimes, even in remote areas.

Examples of organisations that use data effectively to expose abuses and hold governments to account include Bellingcat, the Digital Forensics Research Lab, the Syrian Archive and Open Source Investigations. Many of these organisations conduct investigations in collaboration with established media outlets, creating a hybrid assemblage that makes use of satellite imagery, footage from embedded journalists, social media posts and other data. For example, in 2018, The New York Times published a video investigation into a suspected chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma. Journalists were unable to visit the town, and instead forensically analysed video footage released by Russian sources. This was an example of a collaborative undertaking between the New York Times’ Video Investigations Unit and a range of experts, including Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary research group based at the University of London. Modern investigative journalism in this area has thus developed into a hybrid system that engages human rights organisations, satellite companies, people sharing pictures and technical specialists.

Livingston noted that policy-makers tend to focus on the negative outcomes of technology and fail to consider that the same platforms provide the raw material for ground-breaking forms of investigation. If the platforms such as Facebook and YouTube are forced to remove pictures and videos algorithmically, they will not only delete hate speech and disinformation, but also evidence of the abuse. Instead of fixing the problem they will remove the means of identifying, investigating and tackling the crimes. More work is therefore needed to understand the problem before forming policy responses.

Other participants at the seminar raised concerns that a reliance on digital forensic investigations changed the relationship between the journalist and the event, which is increasingly mediated by technology. Dr Gregory Asmolov of King’s College London noted that fewer journalists are now present in conflict zones. Instead, they rely on second-hand sources and digital trails left by others. Hence, the distance between a reporter and the event affects the way the event is perceived. Alexey Amyotov, one of the founders of Russian media conglomerate Look at Media, agreed that basing journalistic reports on second-hand sources submitted by others does not always work well. Taking life-style magazines and city guides as an example, Amyotov stressed the importance of first-hand experience and the personal and emotional involvement of the reporter. The same holds true as regards interviews, which tend to be much more successful when conducted by a magazine’s own reporter rather than a third party. Moreover, Amyotov noted that journalists of lifestyle magazines can break socially important stories and act as investigators, thus expanding their audience. This can also work as a way of creating new loyal audience engaged in political movements.

Turi Munthe, a partner in North Base Media, which invests in media and media tech, argued that Internet technology has led to an information surplus with broken models of content. He quoted James Bridle’s book New Dark Age,[6] in which Bridle argues that in a media ecosystem defined by an information surplus, the response to that surplus is either apathy, or increased belief in conspiracy theories. Both are key drivers of populist politics.

Another important issue is the legislative response to the emergence of fake news. Dr Moore opened the discussion by analysing the UK’s Online Harms White Paper, which sets out the UK government’s plan for a “world-leading package of measures to keep UK users safe online.”[7] In Dr Moore’s view, the legislation draws a useful analogy between online platforms and public venues (a break from the usual approach of viewing them simply as publishers). The analogy implies that whoever has control or ownership of the public venue has a duty of care to those who use it. However, applying the concept of duty of care to online platforms raises questions regarding the definition of online harm, interpreting duty of care, the ways in which duty of care can be enforced, and the types of companies and services to which it applies. The broad definitions used in the legislation in its current form create a space for significant government intervention and could lead to the censorship of legal content.

Dr Kalina Bontcheva of the University of Sheffield shared her research on the involvement of social media in the UK general election campaigns and the UK’s EU referendum. She noted that as a large proportion of political debate and campaigning is now conducted online, there is now a greater risk of losing data of public interest relating to key historical events. Comments that have been deleted by a user can no longer be retrieved; the same applies to hate speech which is often removed automatically. In addition to regulations relating to what the platforms should delete to protect the rights of users, there should be another set of regulations protecting the rights of researchers to retrieve and study records of historical significance. Online data should be preserved in libraries and made available for research.

Tanya Lokot of Dublin University discussed the involvement of journalists and social media in political campaigns, focusing on the 2019 election campaigns in Ukraine. The speaker discussed new platforms and tools that were used for campaign communication and reporting and pointed out the challenges that are posed by new actors entering Ukraine’s political scene with no previous experience in politics (such as Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a former actor and comedian, who won the presidential election in April 2019). Analysing the involvement of the parties in online debates and social media posts supporting different candidates, the speaker highlighted the need for improved regulation and measures to increase accountability and transparency. She also suggested that in view of the strategies employed in modern politics, the role of journalists in political campaigns should be redefined.

Denis Teyssou, editorial manager of Agence France Presse Media Lab, discussed governmental initiatives that use technology to tackle disinformation. Teyssou, who is an innovation manager for the EU-funded InVID and WeVerify project, discussed tools that can be used to verify images and debunk false information. He demonstrated how the InVID free verification plugin can help to identify fake videos and identify the original images used to produce it. The tool can be used in conjunction with a range of search engines and is already in use in 174 countries. The WeVerify project team hopes that it will soon be able to use the tool for monitoring social networks and intends to build a database of fake news for further and quicker recognition of such news pieces.

Participants also discussed the threat posed by bots – inauthentic, semi-automated accounts on social media, which are used to spread disinformation or undermine established narratives. Dr Sergey Sanovich of Princeton University discussed the impact of bots and their role in distributing disinformation in Russia. His research showed that bots are used by both the government and the opposition to shape the narrative, particularly around critical issues such as the conflict in Ukraine. He found that at certain times up to 75% of all social media posts are made by bots. He argued that although the situation cannot be ignored, regulation should be undertaken with care: individuals and organisations that spread disinformation have proven to be highly adaptable and can exploit policies undertaken to stop them. For example, in September 2018 following a request from Roskomnadzor, Google removed advertisements from YouTube paid for by the Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny to inform people about protests against a planned increase in the pension age.

James Ball, a special correspondent at Buzzfeed UK, argued that bots are not as serious a problem as commonly believed. Their behaviour is well-researched and predictable. Bots are easy to spot and, in most cases, appear to be largely talking to themselves. Most tweets by bots get only around 7-8 retweets, mostly from other accounts in the same bot network, and 80-90% of those viewing the tweets work in the same bot network, including the same person operating other bot accounts.

Our fear of bots is more dangerous than bots themselves – anxiety about the spread of disinformation undermines our trust in what we read. Bots only have a real impact when their postings resonate with a message which is already established in society. Several participants noted that the mainstream media still plays a decisive role in shaping public opinion and understanding of key events. The societal role of journalism remains a paradox: while traditional forms of mass communications have suffered a decrease in audience attention and trust, they remain at the centre of the current political and populist rebellion in many countries As Grzegoch Piechota noted earlier, while politicians have tried to circumvent the mainstream media, they cannot ignore TV and newspapers. In democratic states they exploit and manipulate them, while in autocratic countries they take them over.

Conclusions

The panel identified three key challenges posed by the technological advancements of the last few decades. The first is a proliferation of content, which threatens to debase and overwhelm established media outlets. Journalists are competing in an “attention economy” where the most sensational or controversial content can often cut through more effectively. Second, technology has led to an exponential growth in personal data, and a multiplicity of ways in which states and companies can monitor citizens. Third, technology has created the potential for fake news and disinformation to be rapidly produced and disseminated. Taken together, these trends mean that authenticity, accuracy and ethics are at risk of being debased and audiences have lost the skill of consuming long, narrative-based texts.

However, the panellists emphasised that technology has also enabled innovative forms of journalism and new ways of investigating and exposing abuses, particularly in war zones that are difficult or unsafe for journalists to visit. This has enabled hybrid collaborations between journalists, data analysts, and forensic scientists, who make use of a proliferation of sensors and data points.

Journalists, politicians and civil society has not yet found a way to manage the problem of fake news. Western societies are debating introducing censorship to prevent the spread of unverified content, particularly when (as in the aftermath of the US presidential elections or the EU referendum in the UK) the issue of fake news is at the centre of intense political contestation. However, further research may provide technological solutions to the problem, such as software that would allow government agencies and media organisations to rapidly detect and debunk unverified information.

[1] James Meek, ‘The Club and the Mob’.[2] Carl Miller, The Death of the Gods.

[3] Eliot Higgins wrote up an account of how the missile launcher was tracked: ‘Identifying the Location of of the MH17-Linked Missile Launcher from One Photograph’, available at: https://www.bellingcat.com/resources/case-studies/2014/07/18/identifying-the-location-of-the-mh17-linked-missile-launcher-from-one-photograph/.

[4] James Ball, Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World (London: Biteback Publishing, 2017).

[5] Alan Rusbridger, Breaking News.

[6] James Bridle, New Dark Age, Technology and the End of the Future (Verso: London, 2019).

[7] Online Harms White Paper, 8 April 2019, available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/online-harms-white-paper.

Policy recommendations

  • Journalists should not be afraid of engaging in thought-provoking and complex investigations. These are a way of creating and sustaining a loyal audience that can in turn provide the financing for these media outlets.
  • Journalists must be aware of the boundaries between journalism and activism and ensure that they draw a clear line between them.
  • The rapid development of digital technology poses challenges to journalism as a profession: journalists should look for ways to engage new types of actors, organisations and business in their work. Technical change may require them to develop new hard and soft skills, including the ability to adapt and collaborate in response to the new affordances of the technology. They must also maintain self-reflexivity regarding journalism’s role in society. Without this self-reflection, these skills and affordances lose their meaning.
  • Much greater care is required in crafting legislation relating to unverified information spread online (fake news) In its current form, much of the legislation creates a space for state censorship and the unlawful removal of information. Moreover, given the amount of politically important discussions held online, it’s important to protect the rights of researchers to retrieve and study records of historical significance. This would enable them to retain an archive of online events for future journalistic and academic research.
  • No matter how menacing the impact of bots might sound, their real impact on the distribution and reception of news is relatively low and can be tackled quickly by experienced journalists and researchers. Journalists should engage more actively with scholars and developers of new technologies to help them debunk fake news at an earlier stage of its existence.
  • Autocratic and illiberal governments see the advance of digital technology as a means to contain and further restrict both social activism and independent journalism. While journalists must avoid non-transparent activities, authors and editors should be educated in digital security, the use of encrypted communications and safe archive technologies.