Christine Dugoin: “Completely separating propaganda from journalism will never be easy”
The Ukrainian Week talked with French cybersecurity expert Christine Dugoin-Clément about mechanisms for fighting fake news, the prospects for certifying true information, and the likelihood of separating propaganda from journalism once and for all.
The French legislature is debating and revising a bill on fake news. What do you think of such an initiative?
— We’re talking about a very complicated problem. Of course, it’s a good idea to try to limit fake news, whose consequences we have all seen. However, I think that trying to establish a suitable legislative base could be counterproductive in the long run, an idea that only seems good. Why? The current bill proposes an emergency procedure. This means that a judge needs to determine very quickly whether what is being presented is news or fake. But to really figure out what is true and what isn’t you need to spend time looking up information, researching the facts, and tracking down the original source. All this takes time. Even with the best intentions in the world, a judge won’t be able to uncover the entire chain in 48 or even 72 hours, or even an entire week in some cases. So what will the judge do? Conclude that it’s impossible to guarantee the truthfulness of the information. If we look at how swiftly fakes that are intended to sow doubt go viral, we risk ending up with the opposite result, that is, people will use the judge’s ruling to say, “Since we can’t confirm that this news is false, it could very well be true.”
The time factor is very difficult to overcome. What’s more, the bill makes reference to existing legal limits regarding untruthful information and defamation that have already been worked up in legal practice. Given all these risks, I’m not sure that many judges will be willing to tackle the issue of fake news.
Based on your own observations, how effective are the big social networks in countering the dissemination of false information?
— Those who manufacture fake news typically hide behind the principle of freedom of speech. The big platforms say that they can’t track everything that goes on and is published on their systems. However, if we take a system like Twitter and analyze the data, it’s clear that there are entire networks based entirely on bots. At the same time, it’s very difficult to remove them. This is why we need to consider whether social nets have the desire and intention to spend the necessary time on this.
Moreover, beyond the closure of accounts another issue arises—the legal aspect. The question is, what law can be used with regard to international entities? The same problem arises with cyber attacks. Should we apply the legal norms of the country where the enterprise was set up or the country that is the source of the disinformation? OR should it maybe be a third country, where those disseminating the information are physically located? It’s hard to determine this.
For over a year now, the major social networks are trying to restore the trust of their users, which declined not just because of the widespread fakery and manipulation but also because of business sites that were collecting information about them to further influence people. The Cambridge Analytica scandal forced Facebook to put into action a new system to protect its users.
Finally there’s the question of demand for a certain kind of spun information. This may sound complicated or even paradoxical, but when people are firmly convinced of something, they sometimes look for the very facts that will strengthen their convictions. Such people often find additional arguments on suspect resources, with out concerning themselves about how real the information is: the main thing is that it coincides with how they see things. They are clients as much as anyone else is.
How actively is false information being use in politics today? It seems like governments have begun to become aware of just how much danger this represents. France, for instance, is setting up a special unit under the Defense Ministry just to combat cyber crimes. Perhaps countering needs to be primarily on a technical level?
— Military protection and using fake news in international politics are very different things. However, there is an initiative that seems quite interesting in this regard. Journalists have developed a project that involves introducing certificates of accuracy. Such certificates can be posted by en entire media as well as individual journalists and bloggers. They commit themselves to carefully confirm information before disseminating it. I don’t know whether this project will actually be realized. The important point is that it provides incentive to look up and check information in various sources, the way any conscientious journalist normally does. It’s possible that this kind of approach will teach people to be more responsible, both those who write the news and those who read it.
False facts are directly related to yet another issue: a steep decline in trust in the mainstream media. Many studies have shown that most people who watch TV often actually check what they’ve heard on the internet. For instance, only 41% of French people trust television news. This means that the biggest media organizations are not guarantors of accuracy but only one of several sources that viewers then feel need to be checked online. The way people confirm information is also interesting. Some go to newspaper sites, others to social nets or YouTube, the rest check blogs on alternative information sites. Yet alternative blogs vary widely. The other important point that influences people, based on numerous conversations, is that people more and more often look for information on openly opinion-shaping resources even ideologically oriented ones, because they are confident that they will be able to separate clearly stated ideology from pure information.
Is this precisely what Sputnik and RT are counting on when they claim, “We show what others hide”?
— That’s exactly it: “We show you what the big media don’t show.” This is one of the classic themes of those who love conspiracy theories, who are precisely the people who most visit alternative sites. But, just to repeat, this category of people is convinced that they can glean the facts from the overlay of propaganda, hoping to find information that others don’t write about. But what we don’t know is how exactly propaganda affects human awareness.
The question seems to be to what extent humanity has matured today and become capable of thinking independently, in order not to be easily manipulated by various technologies. What do you think?
— That’s precisely what is the most complicated, because all these aspects are tightly interwoven. Sometimes the alternative media uses real data that can be found on other resources. But these factual figures are given a completely different explanation. In such cases, having checked the figures in two or three trustworthy media, the visitors to these alternative may come to the conclusion, “Well, the numbers are accurate, so the rest also must be true.” It’s very important for all of us today that influential mainstream media restore the trust of their audiences. The less public opinion trusts them, the more people will resort to alternative sources and the circle of conspiracy believers will continue to grow. “You’re being conned. They’re hiding the truth from you”—this kind of fear-mongering is very trendy today. The fact of the matter is that we all tend to be more reactive than analytical today, because it takes a lot more effort to read and compare a few serious articles, than to glance over two tweets and a few snapshots. The minute you begin to respond emotionally, the quality of your analysis begins to get inaccurate.
At one of his first press briefings, President Macron refused access to people from RT and Sputnik, saying that he considered them propagandists and not journalists. How likely is it that we will ever get to the point that we can once and for all separate propaganda from journalism?
— Ever since the first printing press, journalism and propaganda have been closely intertwined. At the same time, there is a simple principle: debate structures, polemics destroy. This may seem a bit abstracted, but it’s an accurate observation. Over and over again, we have to find the time to confirm and analyze facts, rather than reacting hotheadedly. Completely separating propaganda from journalism will never be easy, because personal views get in the way and no one can claim to have the absolute truth. It’s this very argument that the authors and promulgators of fake news make good use of. They insist that they have supposedly picked up on something that no one else has noticed. However, it is possible to be as honest as possible and as objective as we can.
How realistic is it to hope that one day Sputnik will lose its media license and be acknowledged, in Macron’s words, as “a propaganda-making business”?
— To achieve something like this, we have to prove the intentional violations, since everyone has the right to make a mistake. For instance, we’re in a hurry and we repeat a bit of news in Twitter, without checking it, because we’re sure it’s true...and it turns out to be fake, turning us into a useful idiot. This act can seem catastrophic, but it’s really just a mistake. Those who deliberately promulgate fakery are doing something different: they know what the truth is but they twist it. This is a philosophy or strategy whose purpose is to mask or distort the truth. In the first case, the desire was to inform but because the person was in a hurry, they failed. In the second case, the goal is to manipulate and shape public opinion. It’s hard to prove manipulation, because those who engage in it will always say that they were supposedly unaware, that they were only presenting one subjective position. We can look for the truth, but it will take a lot of time in each individual case. And if the case involves such themes as freedom of expression, it immediately becomes very delicate, indeed.
This may be true, but if we don’t do anything, doesn’t our inaction encourage mimicry of freedom of speech that is actually freedom of propaganda? Don’t we then strengthen the hand of the manipulators?
— Yes, but is it worth risking a move in the diametrically opposed direction? It’s very important to learn to deconstruct the opponent’s strategy and correct untrue news. We need to understand how to distinguish information media and opinion media, which promotes its own views, sometimes even an actual ideology, but admits this openly, from propagandist resources that manipulate information. To gain such skills requires a fair bit of patience, plenty of time and an ability to analyze content, and, when necessary, to file a lawsuit in court.
Can you provide some examples of the manipulation of real numbers?
— This is a very widespread form of disinformation. For instance, a poll is taken. The answers are real, but the region that was selected is not representative: it was chosen in order to get a specific result. Later, these numbers are used as though they reflected a much broader picture. That’s one approach.
Another is when the numbers are real but the context is not. For instance, during the first years of the war in Ukraine, a red herring was widely disseminated, that the Ukrainian forces were supposedly using ammunition infected with HIV. As an argument, data was offered about the number of AIDS deaths growing to epidemic proportions in the occupied territories. The statistics for such deaths were quite likely true. But the reason for the growing numbers lay elsewhere: a lack of medication in the war zone, the worsening state of health of those who were sick with AIDS, which was also true for diabetics and cancer patients. Fake-makers invented a false reason behind a very real trend. Such news is often reinforced by testimony from real people who talk about how those around them, neighbors and friends, really are dying of the disease. This is a pretty coarse manipulation. There are more subtle ones as well. It’s always important to look into the source of information and at how objectively the cause and effect are related.
What are your thoughts about public journalism? What potential does it have to influence public opinion?
— It already does. When opinion polls ask people about trust in information sources, it appears that the big social nets enjoy less of it than before. Instead, alternative and public media have been gaining in popularity. Why? Because they are seen as unbiased, as having no ulterior motives and driven by a sense of civic duty. They already have social capital in the form of public support and sometimes use this as a controlling factor. The situation is like this: the more popular such public media becomes, the more persistently fake news makers will try to take advantage of it. The more trust a given channel of information enjoys, the more actively propagandists will try to besiege them.
The other problem with public journalism is that often those involved in it lack the professional skills to confirm information and do research. And so, even with the best of intentions, they can easily fall prey to traps set up by cynical professionals from the opposite camp and turn into useful idiots.
While he was in St. Petersburg, President Macron stated, during a joint conference with Vladimir Putin, that he anticipated cooperation with Russia in cybersecurity. How realistic is this—a detective working with the criminal to uncover the crime?
— I remember the situation in Georgia in 2008, when Russians were accused of carrying out a cyber attack. They denied it, saying: “Sorry, but we don’t control our hackers. These are private initiatives not connected to government policy.” The same tactic was used later during the war in Ukraine, when it became clear that Russian military were operating in the Donbas. “They are free to do what they want during furloughs.”
President Macron’s statement actually pushes the Russians into a dead end, because he uses the very tone that they have been proposing. The idea is to say, “You have a problem? Let’s resolve it together. But in order to do so, you will have to show your documents, provide the necessary information and demonstrate a real desire to cooperate.” If the answer is negative, then everyone’s free to draw their own conclusions.
Do you honestly think that Moscow would agree to such honest cooperation?
— International politics is a long game. Unfortunately, we often have lots of time to spend on it. But I personally like the formulation.
Christine Dugoin-Clément graduated from the Sorbonne University in 2012 and worked in the Mayor’s Office in Bussy-St-Georges in 2013-2014. She audited a course at the Institut des hautes études de securité nationale over 2014-2015. In 2016, she completed a diploma course at the Institut français de géopolitique. Today, she works as an analyst and researcher at the École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr, covering topics related to cybersecurity and specializing on Ukrainian issues in defense, cybersecurity and influence.