As numerous high tech information solutions and media products have become widely available, one might have thought that humans would become choosier in the media content they consume; that they would be more critical of the information they receive, that they would diversify the information sources. However, indeed everyone searched for the very same content on-line that they have been watching on TV or through other traditional media. They searched and found it. Take my mom. Before we would have the internet, she was forced to watch those few Georgian TV channels that we had. Thanks to this I had been having my portion of Georgian news during a mealtime. However, once we got the internet, she went back to the Russian sources, as she is a native Russian speaker. It also was a big surprise for me that she still wishes happy 23rd of February (the day of Soviet soldiers, which later was transformed into the men’s day by a popular culture in the USSR and post-soviet space) her college and high school friends. Which languages we speak actually means a lot in terms of what kind of information do we have access to.
Unlike the past, when we were searching for the news, now the news find us. At the media conference held in Helsinki, Finland, in December 2019, which I attended, we heard stories by the Finnish Public Broadcaster staff, how they are sharing, and adjusting the news content, wording, and language to different social media accounts in order to engage the youth. They are even looking into posting on Tiktok. As we are receiving information constantly, we burn out emotionally, but also our brains don’t have time to process and criticize the information. We are swallowing it like a fish on the rod. This is why we are even more vulnerable to disinformation.
And there is a lot of it. Some of it actually is made for commercial purposes. For instance, we read an article on health issues, where certain medications are criticized, while others praised. It might as well be a hidden advertisement of a given brand. Photos can also be used falsely and out of context. For instance, a photo depicts militants burning up the children in Syria, while according to the caption the action is taking place in the East of Ukraine. Now with the development of artificial intelligence, it is even possible to create an original photo image, which will not be associated with anything else out of hundreds of thousands of other images on the internet within seconds. It will make it impossible to search for its original source of publication. At the media-conference in Helsinki, the attendees heard about the outcomes of fact-checking, when it was discovered that people portrayed as political analysts and experts by Russian media sources turned out to have an academic background and professional experience in Biology and other sciences not related to international relations or politics. They were simply told, what should they say on the media.
There are many questions raised around media literacy and ethics. One of them discussed at the media conference was that should an independent activist with decent opinion participate in the TV shows and debates organized by the media corporations that are prominent in spreading propaganda and disinformation. We again heard from the researchers, fact-checkers, and investigators that, for instance, on state-owned Russian TV channels the debates involving who appears to be anti-regime experts and politicians are fully staged. Namely, they invite people, who do not really oppose the government, but who are told to act as if they were. They try to choose people so that they seem to be inferior even in terms of appearance to play the role of an opponent. (they try to ensure that they look kind of short, funny, weak). When I myself was conducting a workshop on media literacy for the YEAs candidates, one of them asked if I thought that the religious preaching was disinformation. This caused a lot of discussions. I personally think that as the religions warn us right in advance that their dogmas are based on belief, not the scientific evidence, we cannot consider a religiously charged preaching a disinformation. Another question was whether or not there shall be state regulations on the social and traditional media to prevent propaganda. Again to me the freedom of information and the literacy of consumers are important tools of a healthy democracy. However bots and other non-human generated false content shall be removed. Due to the limits of human capacity, we cannot combat a technology that can speedily over-crowd the digital space with disinformation with intensity a human being will not be able to debank the lies. The bots can become opinion creators, if not regulated.
How to direct our choices on the information market? There are few tips, even though none of them is 100 percent reliable in all situations. I for instance try not to share the links of articles, which I have not read fully. I also try not to share information instantly, as soon as the event happens. Right away we might be emotionally charged, the information might not simply be accurate as things might change a few hours later (for instance the death toll after an accident or any other details). These details are harder to correct. Besides I like to read what others have to say about something before making up my mind and having my opinion. Media literacy experts also suggest limiting our daily consumption of information. This will allow us to really think, what do we think, and not be governed by the emotions and thoughts of others. Finally checking the original source that has cited is never an extra.