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Authoritarian Media: Supercharged in a Digital Age

by Alan Heil

In this era of expanding use of new communications tools, accuracy in media matters as never before. Globally, truth and fairness in journalism is endangered in unprecedented ways.

Shanthi Kalathil, senior director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies, and Dean W. Jackson, assistant program officer on the research and conferences team of the International Forum for Democratic Studies. Photo by Bruce Guthrie.

Two specialists from the National Endowment for Democracy recently explained to a First Monday of the Month forum of the PDC and PDAA how China, Russia, and Iran are exercising “a purposeful use of false or misleading information to undermine political discourse in the West, aimed at democratic elections woven in the democratic square.” They aim particularly at the United States and Europe, but Africa and Latin America as well.

Shanthi Kalathil and Dean W. Jackson were addressing a capacity crowd at the George Washington University’s School of International Studies on April 1.

As Dr. Kalathil put it: “Bot networks clog public debate and amplify disinformation narratives. Russia-originated artificial intelligence engaging curious listeners in Ukraine, for example.”

Mr. Jackson added that about five years ago, the International Forum for Democratic Studies began focusing intensely on pre-existing divides and sentiments that attract masters of disinformation. Protests across Europe against immigrants, he said, were of particular interest. “Fear, anger and distrust,” Jackson added, “are powerful drivers” as concerns escalate.

He cited Russian activities in Ukraine, and even Spain, as target countries. “Educated audiences,” he added, “are not immune.” Debates over climate change offer another example. “Too often,” according to Jackson, “rumors and fabrications by the purveyors of disinformation get a leg up on accurate and honest journalistic content.”

So What are some Effective Responses?

In the NED specialists’ views:

  • Fact-checking and instilling media literacy are essential, but in the new media age, not sufficient.
  • There’s a need to address seriously the impact of the new technologies (artificial intelligence, for example, as well as reasons for the decline of traditional media).
  • We must figure out how to expand the supply of quality, well-sourced information that people need and want.
  • More person-to-person communication. In general, this can be more persuasive and more credible.

Asked about the role of U.S. government funded broadcasts such as the joint RFE/RL-VOA around the clock Russian program, Current Time, Dean Jackson felt that an emphasis on countering Moscow-originated disinformation on that program stream is helpful. Current Time originates at RFE-RL’S headquarters in Prague.

Earlier this year, VOA and RFE/RL launched a second, 24/7 multimedia stream in Persian, called VOA 365. This new largely digital multimedia venture (also with TV, radio and on-line programming) reaches more than a quarter of Iran’s population in addition to Persian-speaking consumers around the world. That diaspora can make a huge difference in personal relations with relatives at home.

On April 3, VOA Director Amanda Bennett appointed VOA veteran staffer Doug Bernard as Director of Press Freedom news. He’ll be working with Voice journalists in the central newsroom and with English and language division broadcasters to curate an agency-wide English web page featuring all Voice press freedom reports, weekly profiles of journalists under fire, and live social media feeds.

The new Press Freedom website will be inaugurated May 3 on International Press Freedom Day. It will be available to all U.S. funded international networks, including RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcast Network in Arabic and Radio-TV Marti to Cuba in Spanish.

In late March, Burundi (ranked 150th out of 189 countries in press freedom) announced it will continue to block broadcasts from the BBC and VOA as it had during the previous election year in that central African country. The BBC termed this “a serious blow against media freedom.”

VOA Director Bennett said: “We are alarmed that reporters in Burundi are now forbidden to communicate with VOA. We stand with the people of Burundi against those who are restricting their access to accurate and reliable information.”

I highly recommend a new book on press freedom by David E. McCraw, deputy general counsel of the New York Times. Its title: “Truth In Our Times.”
His conclusion: “The authors of the First Amendment were not naïve. They understood from hard-edged experience that lies were inevitable, the urge to deceive grounded in human nature. But democracy’s remedy was an informed citizenry that, in the fullness of time, would pull the lever for truth over falsity. The alternative — a government that used its power to decide who spoke and who was silent, what was real and what was fake — was untenable. We come closer and closer to learning that every day.”

Reprinted by permission from the Public Diplomacy Council

Alan Heil
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More

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