We discussed the effects of disinformation and the current health crisis on modern journalism and the way in which these strategies have changed over the years with Aleksandar Milosevic, a Serbian journalist who aims to combat the credibility crisis of the modern press.
1) When people talk about "fake news" or better "disinformation", there is often a lot of confusion. Among other things, there is then talking about distortions, lies, deception, propaganda or conspiracy theories. For clarification: What do you consider the core elements of "disinformation"? What defines it?
Either information that is factually incorrect (fake news in the most literal sense) or information that is submitted to the public taken out of context, with key elements of the information missing, with disregard to the counterviews, presented with bias or by leading the public to the desired interpretation of the given facts. In short, disinformation is any information that is incomplete, misconstrued, and false or presented in a way that hinders the recipient's ability to make his own free judgment based on facts and circumstances of the case.
2) "Fake news" or "disinformation" are not new phenomena historically. However, their influence and power have risen to unexpected heights due to the Internet and the enormous growth of social media. The sentence "Fake news is always just a click away" sums it up quite well. Will quality journalism still be able to hold its own against the background of this development?
I believe it will and offer Covid-19 as (hopefully) evidence to that. In Serbia for instance, the pandemic has caused the print circulation of most newspapers to drop. Tabloids, the kind of media most frequently engaging in fake news, had it worst, with the number of sold copies falling sharply. The only exceptions are the most serious and trustworthy outlets, which have managed to maintain their circulations, and in some cases to sell more than before the Covid, indicating that in the time of crisis, people still turn to quality journalism and run away from inferior sources. Online, quality media have seen even sharper spike in number of visitors.
However, I believe that fake news is here to stay as well. Speed of the internet and the social media, with the ability to "share" the ever so interesting and shocking fake news, plus the pressure on the traditional media to keep up with the hectic news cycle, means that there will be no easy solution to this expanding problem.
3) In this debate, there is always talk of "media competence". What do you recommend to your readers or the population in general: How can you still distinguish between serious and unserious, true and false in the quicksand of information?
For the media, go back to basics: Assess the credibility of the source, try to trace the "viral" story to its root, fact check and verify before publishing. Try to resist the urge to simply hop on the bandwagon in fear of falling behind your competitors. For the readers: Your brain is a powerful tool, so use it. Do not simply trust everything you read. Does it make sense? Is it contradictory to what you read somewhere else? If so, try to find out which of the two stories holds, usually, they cannot both be right. Journalists try to find several unrelated sources for their stories, so you do the same - read a few different newspapers with different editorial policies to get a wider perspective. The more shocking approach an outlet takes, the less you should trust it. Moreover, if you simply read something somewhere on the internet, take it as a rumour at best, never something you should immediately trust to be true.
4) "Fake News" is often used as a political term to discredit unpleasant reporting. What is the situation in Serbia? What strategy do you think the government follow in this context?
We have seen instances of this in Serbia, when the fully fact-based reporting is simply labelled fake news. However, I would say that the political actors in the country are actually much more versed in manipulating the news than just trying to discredit something by calling it fake. The government uses the full arsenal of media manipulation tools: controlling the most influential TV and print outlets, battling damaging news stories by "leaking" shocking counter-stories to shift public focus from the real ones, changing the narrative by portraying itself as a victim of media persecution, discrediting the media running the story as having a personal agenda or as being an agent of political opponents or unspecified foreign powers, running character assassination campaigns against independent journalists in media outlets under their control, etc.
5) Quality journalism is especially needed today - in times of Corona - because its information and control function is indispensable. What are your key experiences with official public relations work in these pandemic times?
The government's handling of the pandemic, media-wise, has been appalling. A journalist running a story on disastrous mismanagement in a key hospital in Vojvodina has been arrested. It was discovered that the government is running two parallel lists of infected and deceased people - one for their internal purposes and the other one, with significantly reduced numbers, for the public. Officials regularly give contradictory comments on the current situation, while any information from official sources is next to impossible to get, apart from press conferences, where we get those contradictory comments.
So, it's bad. Quite bad.