Journalists are sounding an alarm about the spread of disinformation in society and how it affects their jobs on a daily basis, along with skepticism on whether traditional methods to combat it really work.
The free speech advocates PEN America found in a survey of journalists released Thursday that 90% said their jobs have been affected by false content created with the intent to deceive.
Disinformation takes many forms: former President Donald Trump’s false claims that he won the 2020 presidential election, unproven COVID-19 treatments spreading online and wild QAnon theories about pedophilia. It could be as simple as a local politician lying about an opponent’s record or this week’s debate over whether video showed bird poop landing on President Joe Biden’s jacket during a speech.
When more than 1,000 journalists returned the survey, PEN America was struck at how images in written responses “kept coming up with people being flooded with disinformation,” said Dru Menaker, the organization’s chief operating officer.
“Clearly, we have touched a nerve,” she said.
Four in five respondents labeled it a serious problem and most say they deal with it regularly, either through sources passing along false information or the need to debunk something spreading online.
False information can be spread through bots, or in doctored photos and video that needs to be verified, Menaker said. It has spread in large part because its purveyors find it effective.
Luke O’Brien, a journalist and fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, is now an expert on a beat that hardly existed a decade ago. He said he’s been stunned at how fast misinformation spreads into the media.
“It just gets worse and worse,” he said.
While most journalists work to combat it, 11% of those surveyed admitted that they had unwittingly passed along false information, and 17% said they avoided doing a story because they feared being subject to a “fake news” backlash that would seek to discredit their reporting.
Asked by PEN America about sources of the most egregious misinformation they’ve encountered, 76% of the journalists cited right-wing conspiracy theorists (35% said left-wing conspiracy theorists). Seventy percent said government officials or politicians, 65% said advocacy groups and 54% mentioned organizations specifically designed to create disinformation.
Public hostility toward journalists and a business climate that has reduced ranks in the field, particularly outside of big cities and among those who cover minority communities, has amplified the issue.
One Los Angeles Times reporter who returned the survey told about reporting on a militia-backed group that was using disinformation to gain power in local government. The group’s leader went on a podcast to call the reporter and a colleague Nazis who needed to be “taken care of,” and she now keeps a bulletproof vest in her closet.
O’Brien said he first became aware of bad actors operating online in the mid-2010s when covering the harassment of women in the video game industry.
Several news organizations have strengthened their efforts to root out disinformation in recent years. The Associated Press, for example, has a 12-person verification unit that investigates claims spread online, along with a separate fact-check operation and reporters that cover disinformation as a news beat.
AP has a weekly column, “Not Real News,” that dissects the most popular but completely untrue stories circulating online.
Many don’t have the capacity, though. “We need more journalists,” one survey respondent said. “The ones who are left are overwhelmed and do not have the time to take on the entire world of disinformation.”
Many of the journalists don’t think enough is being done to train people on how to deal with these issues. Yet there’s also little unanimity in how to do this.
While some believe it’s important to report on false claims, others believe that only gives them greater circulation. O’Brien said there are ways to report them without amplification, by not including links, for example.
It’s important to report on what is going on for the historical record, he said. Journalists should also devote resources to reporting on who is behind disinformation, both bankrolling and executing it.
Fact-checkers are often met with resentment, and have to guard against readers who feel they are being talked down to, Menaker said. Some of those surveyed concede that journalists have to do a better job showing to readers or viewers that they’re not remote, that they are part of the community.
Frighteningly, there may be no way to combat this effectively. And some people simply won’t accept it if presented with facts contrary to what they believe.
“Some people are despairing that people have just become unmoored from facts, that there is a substantial part of the audience that may be unreachable,” she said.