How would you describe the challenges with disinformation as a threat to democracy and news media regarding valid and fact-based journalism?
We live at a time where people have access to enormous amounts of content, more than anyone could consume on their own. Technology has enabled this growth in both the creation and consumption departments, but that growth comes with downsides as well.
Many people cannot distinguish between accredited journalism and opinion based information, not to mention disinformation masquerading as news. With more choice also comes content bubbles, where people opt to only read what reinforces their existing beliefs. These factors have contributed to a detioration of trust in traditional journalism. When the people of a democracy can no longer agree on the facts, the entire institution is at risk.
How would you describe disinformation as a tool of war, for example as we see it now with the challenges with the freedom of the press in Russia?
Nation-states, particularly but not exclusively Russia, view influence campaigns as a tool in their toolkit when it comes to waging war. As in the case of Russia, for years they have combined influence campaigns against their own people together with legal restrictions on the independent press, to the point that the only news available to most Russian citizens is state propaganda. Years of this behavior has led to an environment where many Russian citizens believe an entirely false narrative about their neighbors that has been used to justify an unjust war.
This tool is not just for their own people, they leverage influence campaigns around the world to further their own interests. For example, in a recent report we released on the role of Russian cyber campaigns (inclusive of cyber influence operations) in Ukraine, we found that Russia has been targeting English speaking readers of its RT and Sputnik platforms with anti-Covid vaccine sentiments. However, the same publications, when in Russian, encourage people to get the Covid vaccine and advocates for safe Covid measures.
In your opinion, how can editorial staff and journalists become more qualified in navigating deep fake, fake news and disinformation in the best possible way?
In order for editorial staff and journalists to produce high quality news, the industry needs to continue to explore new funding models of operations for traditional newsrooms. Hybrid-funding models need to be considered, along with better regulatory frameworks that provide fair competition and a level playing field.
Additionally, in order to help support those editorial staff and journalists produce high quality news, we need to help consumers develop a more sophisticated ability to identify trustworthy and credible news from falsehoods. Of course, in general, news organizations need to continue to stress the importance of sourcing and fact checking in their reporting. In an information environment where journalists are targets of both cyber and influence operations, a continued commitment to unbiased fact-based journalistic principles is critical to differentiating between propaganda, disinformation and actual reporting.
Deepfakes remain an emerging, but not yet present, threat when it comes to politics and democracy. Many companies and researchers – Microsoft included – have spent years developing tools trying to detect deepfakes. Though some projects have had promise, researchers came to the conclusion that the better detection capabilities became, so did the technology to create the deepfakes in the first place. Instead, researchers have turned to the concept of content authenticity and provenance, mostly being driven by a coalition called C2PA. When the C2PA standards are built into media (video, audio, image), you can verify that the content you’re reviewing is itself authentic, rather than trying to prove if its faked.
How do you view social media in relation to the spread of disinformation?
Foreign propaganda has always existed, and it always will. What is different now versus, say, the cold war, is that propaganda and misinformation can spread at a speed and scale no one could have even fathomed 40 years ago. Social media is certainly at the center of that, but there are other ways that technology lends itself to – often inadvertently – enable the spread. We’ve been exploring and thinking a lot about the role of things like online advertising and internet domain registries for example.
Do you think that schools, governments and/or media should prioritize educating especially the young generation to distinguish better between facts-based news and disinformation?
If yes/no – how and why?
Yes. Media literacy is a critical component of today’s K-12 civics education curriculum. The ability for students to think critically, not just about the actual nature of the information they’re consuming, but also its provenance and the trustworthiness of its source are key to being educated participants in civil discourse. Those critical thinking skills are necessary for future adults to have informed conversations in a civil manner that lead to democratic consensus building.
Microsoft has recently introduced Search Coach, a simple, powerful, free app in Microsoft Teams that helps educators and students to form effective queries and identify reliable resources. Projects like this (and many others that are out there!) will hopefully build a more resilient population in the future.
But literacy education should not just be limited to young people, we all need to become more sophisticated consumers of information. For example, Microsoft has recently partnered with the News Literacy Project and the Trusted Journalism Program to promote their literacy campaigns on Microsoft platforms. The campaigns are built on industry research and best practices and are designed to help develop better informed consumers of news and information.
What is your opinion on the development of disinformation in the coming years from a media perspective?
It is likely that the challenge of disinformation will only become more sophisticated, more prevalent, and more effective. We will need to stay focused on long-term solutions that help to lessen the volume and counter the effects. It will never be eliminated but can and must be managed.
An environment without trustworthy information is one in which democracy cannot flourish. Our adversaries know this and will continue to target our information ecosystems with false or misleading narratives and sources in order to undermine trust in our democratic institutions like elections, courts and journalists. We need to work together as stakeholders across tech, the media, government and civil society to address these challenges with a long-term perspective, because this problem is not going away on its own.