The 2020 International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East concluded today, with a vibrant online panel discussion exploring how trends in the systematic spread of untruths have changed the way traditional news outlets cover the Israel-Palestine conflict, and created avenues for citizen journalists to quickly push out stories to express their lived realities.
Organized by the United Nations Department of Global Communications, the Seminar, held virtually over two days, explored the prospects for peace amid dramatic shifts in the political, technological, cultural and media landscapes. A panel discussion on 8 December explored the theme, “The Israel-Palestine conflict and challenges of the new decade”. (See Press Release PAL/2238.)
Opening today’s panel discussion — “A tale of two narratives: misinformation and disinformation” — Nanette Braun, Chief of the Department’s Communications Campaigns Service, said the face of journalism has changed dramatically. New platforms and technologies have transformed the way news is made, delivered and consumed, she added. “Anyone with a cell phone can broadcast information to the public with one click.”
However, she cautioned, doing away with a rigorous editorial process has also fomented the spread of disinformation — content created to cause harm, often through sophisticated campaigns — and misinformation, information that is false but not aimed at causing damage.
Addressing those issues, panellist Walid Batrawi, an award-winning media and communications consultant, said Palestinian journalists often do lack the tools to verify the information they receive. In an era of speed, technology and “what is cool”, they do not believe that “being second, while right, is better than being first, while wrong”, he added. The lack of official information from Palestinian authorities, coupled with their lack of access to information in Israel, leaves the Palestinian public with little choice but to tune into other news sources. Israeli journalists use that gap to spread disinformation, he noted, citing the Saeb Erekat’s arrival at an Israeli hospital as a case in point.
As a result, continued panellist Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Editor with Haaretz, Israelis and Palestinians are mis- and disinformed about each other. Pointing out that her’s is the only mainstream newspaper to use the term “occupation” and to cover related events, she said: “Most others shun or ban its use.” If acknowledged at all, it is by right-wing Governments warning that discussion of the occupation constitutes anti-Semitism — yet another form of disinformation, she added, pointing out that many Israelis do not realize that the Palestinian Authority depends on Israel for funds, or that a Palestinian State does not yet exist.
Julie Posetti, Global Director of Research, International Center for Journalism, described a new information ecosystem in which nefarious actors have weaponized platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to foment information chaos. Reporters, who now favour using social media to engage sources and respond quickly to information, also encounter disinformation, she said, also citing research showing that political actors are the top sources of false claims. Newspapers too have taken positions, notably on the issue of climate change, fostering “climate denialism” in ways that undermine truth and disclaim science, she added.
Rounding out the discussion, Damian Radcliffe, Professor of Journalism at the University of Oregon and an experienced digital analyst, said those trends have led to a “flatlining” of the media. It is difficult to discern fact from fiction in the social space, and the risks associated with confirmation bias are heightened, he noted, warning that conversations that move to private environments like WhatsApp compound fact-checking challenges for journalists. Such issues have taken on a new dimension in the era of COVID‑19, he emphasized, citing the deaths of hundreds of people in Iran who ingested methanol on rumours that it could treat the coronavirus.
Panel: “A Tale of Two Narratives: Misinformation and Disinformation”
Nanette Braun, Chief, Communications Campaigns Service, Strategic Communications Division, Department of Global Communications, moderated the panel discussion titled “A tale of two narratives: misinformation and disinformation”. It featured presentations by Walid Batrawi, Media and Communications Expert; Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Editor on the Haaretz website and Supervisor of the newspaper’s daily English-language print edition; Julie Posetti, Global Director of Research, International Center for Journalism; and Damian Radcliffe, Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism, affiliate faculty, Department for Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Oregon.
Ms. BRAUN opened the discussion by noting that the face of journalism, and news more generally, has changed dramatically in recent years. New platforms and technologies have transformed the way the news is made, delivered and consumed, she added. “Anyone with a cell phone can broadcast information to the public with one click.” However, doing away with a rigorous editorial process has also led to the widespread dissemination of untruths, she said, notably through disinformation — content that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, group, organization or country. It often comes in the form of a sophisticated campaign intended to manipulate. Misinformation is content that is false but not intended to cause harm, she added. Noting the panel’s aim to explore those themes in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, she raised questions about the causes of misinformation and disinformation in the current media and public discourse, and how they play out in relation to the conflict.
Mr. BATRAWI, noting the global nature of misinformation and disinformation, said the specific Israeli-Palestinian experience includes “mal-information” — news based in reality and intended to harm. Touching on the reasons behind the spread of such behaviours, he cited the availability of technology and the notion of citizen journalism, which has been encouraged in the Palestinian territories as an alternative to mainstream media. “Anyone with a phone can broadcast news and play the role of a journalist,” he pointed out. In addition, most Palestinian journalists lack the tools to verify the news they receive, he said, adding that, in an era of speed, technology and “what is cool”, they do not follow the rule that “being second right, while right, is better than being first, while wrong”. He went on to describe the lack of official information from Palestinian authorities as problematic, because information is then sought from Israel. That country’s journalists are able to access information about Palestinians more often than Palestinians can, he said, adding that the latter receive their information about reforms from Israeli news.
“Palestinian journalists cannot be the source of information to the Israeli public,” he continued, adding that they also cannot access information in Israel. When Israeli journalists visited to report on the night life Ramallah, for example, the story spread virally on social media, he recalled. “Because of the lack of access to information from Palestinian officials, the Palestinian public tends to tune into other sources,” he explained. Israeli journalists also use that gap to spread disinformation, calling attention to a story published by an Israeli journalist about the transfer of Saeb Erekat, the late Palestinian Chief Negotiator, to an Israeli hospital. While factual, the story omitted the fact that United States doctors recommended he be sent there, despite the Palestinian Authority’s ban on the transfer of Palestinians to Israeli hospitals, he noted. “The complete story was not there,” he emphasized. As a result, Palestinians perceived the story as being against the Palestinian Authority, he said, adding that the example speaks to the broader need for the Authority to be transparent with the information they provide to the public and the media.
Ms. FISHER-ILAN said Israelis and Palestinians are so mis- and disinformed about each other that young people on both sides are growing up with a largely distorted sense of reality. “We could blame distorted education systems,” but the problem is bigger, she added. Since the occupation began in 1967, several generations of Israelis have grown up thinking that is the normal state of affairs, she noted, acknowledging: “For Palestinians, it is more tortuous.” Because right-wing Governments in Israel have run the education system for years, she explained, the ongoing mythology is that all Palestinians are at fault. Most Israelis do not know what occupation entails — the brutality or experience of waiting hours at a checkpoint. In turn, Palestinians think Israel is entirely at fault. “You can hardly blame Palestinians for their anger and frustration,” she said. She went on to note that the sheer number of conflicts in the region has also diverted attention from the Palestinian question.
Most Israelis do not have a sense of the occupation or realize that the Palestinian Authority is not an actual government, but rather a self-rule entity that depends on Israel for funds, she continued. Many think an independent state already exists, an alternative reality fuelled by their near-total isolation from each other, she said. The big problem is that there is no longer any effort to resolve the conflict or build a Palestinian State, she explained. “Israelis are talking about new elections, Palestinian statehood is not an issue, even among “left-wingers.” Moreover, one seldom hears the term “occupation”, she pointed out. “Do not listen for it in the newscasts.” If acknowledged at all, it is by right-wing Governments warning that any discussion of occupation constitutes anti-Semitism, she said, citing that as another example of disinformation. “You can’t live in a democracy if you have an occupying Power ruling over you,” she stressed, pointing out that Haaretz is the only mainstream newspaper to use the term “occupation” and to cover related events. Most others shun or ban its use, she added.
Ms. POSETTI touched on three causes for the global “infodemic” — termed as such by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), because of its prolonged and viral nature. — describing a new information ecosystem in which nefarious actors foment “information chaos” through systems that have failed to account for human rights responsibilities. Peer-to-peer information has eclipsed independent critical journalism — the essential means for holding power to account, revealing corruption and accessing reliable, credible information, she cautioned. The profession of journalism has been challenged in the last 5 to 10 years by the weaponization of social media platforms, with reporters relying on Facebook and Twitter to respond quickly to information they receive. She advised investing in the sustainability of journalism as a potential bulwark against disinformation. This new ecosystem entices journalists into a space where they can engage audiences, and at the same time, encounter disinformation, she warned, pointing out that societies are becoming more polarized by the information warfare taking place on social media platforms.
Political populism is a second cause of disinformation, she continued, citing political actors in the West who seek to divide, inflaming fear and hate by acting as agents of disinformation. Much research has found that political actors are the top sources of disinformation, she said, referring to one study in which 82 per cent of journalists said they had encountered disinformation weekly on social platforms. Another study, by UNESCO and the Global Broadband Commission, outlines a similar set of responses. The third cause is the failure of journalism at large to combat disinformation, and the complicity of some parts of the media, she emphasized, noting that media owner Rupert Murdoch has dominated the media landscape for so long, his tenure is often referred to as the “Murdochracy”. That allegation has credibility, she said, pointing out that Australia’s Murdoch-owned national newspaper has been in a state of climate denialism in way that undermines truth and disclaims science.
Mr. RADCLIFFE said that a manifestation of the digital transformation under way is the sheer speed with which information travels, leading to an “infodemic” and a “flatlining” of media. It is difficult to discern fact from fiction in the social space, in part because the visual cues that characterized the pre-digital analogue age have disappeared, he noted. “We have access to a huge volume of news and information.” As well, there is now a risk of confirmation bias, which reinforces one’s existing views, he said, cautioning that many conversations are also moving to private environments like WhatsApp, making it difficult for journalists to access information, fact-check and offer different views. The emergence of such spaces has given rise to twin narratives, he said, while also pointing out dis- and misinformation existed for thousands of years. Marc Antony, in fact, took his own life because he was told that Cleopatra had already died.
The phenomena have taken on a new dimension in the era of COVID‑19, amid false hopes about vaccine development, he continued, recalling that rumours emerged in the United States as early as March that Israel had created a vaccine. In Iran, hundreds of people died after consuming methanol, on rumours that it could treat the virus. He went on to underscore the importance of intent, noting that, in November, Facebook removed accounts, sourced to Iran, that expressed support for protests against Israel’s Prime Minister. State actors commonly use cyberspace as an opportunity to push foreign policy aims and destabilize political systems, he said, also calling attention to platforms that reward traffic and engagement. “We see fake news, at times, about chances to make money,” he said. “It can be rewarding to traffic misinformation.” He also highlighted such systemic issues as access to a free press, the freedom of journalists to criticize leaders, and, in turn, attempts by Governments to spin narratives. High levels of distrust in the media and Government institutions are eroding the media’s ability to practise its “fourth estate” accountability role, he warned.
In a second round of questions, the Moderator sought the views of panellists on how to stop the spread of misinformation and disinformation.
Ms. FISHER-ILYAN, while agreeing that Facebook and Google should “clean up their acts”, cautioned against efforts to quash what one side sees as disinformation and another views as censorship. “We have to guard against censorship,” she emphasized, pointing out that there is a thin line between people criticizing Israel and those threatening or involved in causing damage or harm. Expressing discomfort with prosecuting people for their Facebook posts, she said that happens to Palestinian Arabs who publish writings that Israel considers problematic, tabbing them as “terrorism”. She went on to state that she does not have a negative view of citizen journalism, particularly since digital media have opened space for more people to express their views. Children should be taught critical thinking from an early age, she said, adding that initiatives such as the International Media Seminar should be expanded.
Mr. BATRAWI, emphasizing that there are no definitive solutions for ending the spread of disinformation and misinformation, said Governments should not understand the imperative to end the conflict as a reason to suppress free expression. “It is so easy for the Palestinian Authority to shut down websites affiliated with Hamas,” he said. However, “we cannot access them in the West Bank”, on the premise that they are against the Palestinian Authority. He called for investing in raising awareness, among journalists and citizens alike, on how to fight the spread of untruths, stressing the need to train and equip journalists with the UNESCO guidebook and other tools to verify news. Calling also for laws allowing access to information in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, he pointed out that there are two Israeli journalists living in Ramallah, but not one Palestinian journalist in Tel Aviv. As such, it is not possible to know of any suffering among Israelis in that city, but people do know about the suffering of Palestinians in Ramallah.
Mr. RADCLIFFE said that another problem is that media platforms develop different policies to govern moderation. Content that has been removed, flagged, or blocked on YouTube, for example, might be running on Facebook. Calling for greater collaboration and consistency of methods used across platforms, he noted that they are adapting nonetheless, citing WhatsApp’s “significant” move to restrict the number of people to whom one can pass a message, from 50 to 5. That makes it possible to cascade correct information. Highlighting the important role of human moderators and editorial decision-making, he said much of that “frankly is not fast enough”. Two weeks is too long to wait for an answer about a flagged Facebook post, he emphasized. There is need to focus on news consumers, and journalists should thoroughly check sources and pause before tweeting, he said. More collaboration is needed, as is similar messaging across platforms and a study on why some information is shared. “Is it all the fault of algorithms giving us what they think we want,” he asked, or do gaps in news coverage lead people to Facebook and private WhatsApp groups because there are no conversations that appeal to them? Calling for reflection on the fast-changing skills needed to verify facts, he warned that, because un-doctored images can be taken out of context, reverse image search tools are now “incredibly important”.
Ms. POSETTI similarly called for more research on what prompts people to share misinformation and disinformation, noting that orchestrated State-linked campaigns have targeted, journalists, particularly women, with hate speech and physical violence that spills offline. She stressed the need to monitor Government responses and trends towards introducing or exploiting fake news laws as a way to “chill” independent journalism. Citing the findings of a UNESCO report to be launched on 10 December, Human Rights Day, she said 41 per cent of respondents from 125 countries said they had experienced online violence that they believe was connected to disinformation campaigns. Underling the need for sophisticated media literacy and forensic journalistic responses to exploit the technological capacities used by disinformation campaigns, she called attention to Rappler, founded by Maria Ressa in the Philippines, saying it has taken a high-tech approach to reporting on disinformation. She added that Coda Story has taken a deep-dive look at disinformation campaigns, often in partnership with academic and civil society organizations. She also pointed to the targeting of Al Jazeera journalists in the Middle East.
Ms. POSETTI responded to the Moderator’s question about the need to integrate education on misinformation and disinformation into curricula by saying that the guidebook she developed with UNESCO — which went viral and was translated into 46 languages through crowdsourcing — has been integrated into both journalism and media literacy curricula. Programmes on combating misinformation and disinformation should be embedded at the core of journalism education, she emphasized, pointing out that reporting on those trends is among the top identified themes that attract online violence. “You get targeted when speaking truth to power,” she warned, stressing: “These are really challenging times.”
Mr. RADCLIFFEE said social media platforms are increasingly a source for stories, as newsrooms around the world come under pressure to produce higher volumes of content with reduced resources. In terms of training, he said mandatory courses on discerning fact from fiction must be woven into every part of a curriculum. “This impacts on every single class and programme,” he added. The biggest skills gap that organizations seek to fill are those around managing misinformation, he said, stressing that issues around trolling, surveillance and attacks are very real. This is a great space in which journalists can develop expertise, he added.
Ms. FISHER-ILYAN, in response to a final round of questions, underscored the importance of journalists learning critical skills, noting that most media outlets are no longer too focused on the super verification process. “Journalists are not being paid to do that kind of thing,” she said. “Everybody’s just trying to hold on and not spend the extra money.”
Mr. BATRAWI, responding to a question about a study conducted by The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, which found that 72 per cent of Palestinians have been exposed to misleading news, said that is not surprising. In the Palestinian context, there is a thin line separating journalist, politician and activist, he added. That is a key issue in terms of accepting fake news about “the other”, or even internally between Fatah and Hamas, he emphasized. “It is easy for any side to really believe or make fake news towards the other,” he said. He called for the inclusion of media literacy in journalism school curricula, and of young journalists in conversations about what drives them to share fake news or