Social media and the digital sphere offers a great new opportunity for journalism, enabling reporters to tell stories in different ways, while working with data to create better experiences for their audiences.

However, propaganda activists are also doing this successfully, deliberately fueling the misinformation ecosystem to push their own agendas, leading to a loss of trust in the media in the process.

Although journalists and news organisations are mostly recognised as victims of disinformation – false information spread deliberately to deceive – they can also be accidental aides to it, said Lisa-Maria Neudert, researcher, Computational Propaganda Project, Oxford Internet Institute, speaking at the International Newsroom Summit in London today. 

"The media are a target, a target in a way that many journalists don't realise they are, in a way that they are actively aiding propaganda and purposes of political activists," she said.

The computational propaganda we are now seeing, she explained, uses algorithms, automation, and human curation to purposefully distribute misleading information over social media networks.

"Social media is one of the main sources of media that we are engaging with, and I don't think we are critical with the way this new medium is working."

For the Computational Propaganda Project, Neudert's team carried out a big data analysis, researching the use of social media for public opinion manipulation, interviewing experts and analysing tens of millions of posts on seven different social media platforms during scores of elections, political crises, and national security incidents.

Among other findings, results showed that 50 per cent of shared news in America was misinformation, with every piece of authentic, professional journalism matched with a piece of 'fake news', while the UK and Germany had 20 per cent of their social 'news' shared as misinformation.

So where does this leave journalists – are we all puppets, with our social media feeds dominated by bots? Neudert listed three myths that need to be understood in order for journalists to work against the misinformation ecosystem.

She warned delegates to be critical of the information that they are seeing online, as failure to do so will lead to journalists and news organisations becoming part of the problem and thus fueling the spread of disinformation.

Myth #1: All bots are stupid

"There are bots on social media that are communicating just as well as a human can, while distributing fake news on a scale that no human can do," Neudert said.  

Many bots are so well designed that users on social media cannot identify them as being such, she continued, noting that President Donald Trump and Jack Dorsey, one of the founders of Twitter, have been known to be engaging with bots on the social platform.

"Bots are getting smarter. A lot of money and resources right now in technology are being invested in technology interfaces – just look at Google Assistant, Siri and Amazon Alexa.

"This tech is the future and devices are being developed in a way that also means political propaganda activists can access it as well, and make their conversational bots just as good."

Myth #2: In data we trust

"Yes, data forms a key part of any newsroom and helps journalists understand what is going on and which issues are important right now, but the problem is often that the data we are seeing is being gamed," she said.

"A lot of bots don't focus on communication, they drive metrics – likes, views and shares, which manipulate your metrics. When it is on a large scale, it is very difficult to detect those bots.

"It is becoming problematic for both algorithms, which use metrics to see what is trending, and for journalists to see what is happening, particularly during political elections. If journalists are taking those manipulated metrics, and are carrying out the agenda and inflating it, then that is a big part of the problem."

Myth #3: The fake news era will pass

"I think we are still in the situation where we are repeatedly being fed the information that fake news is an over inflated problem, but it is a difficult trend that will pass.

"But it's not something that is going to go away," she said.

"Even debunking does not work as it makes topics appear larger and gives them a bigger audience to engage them." If journalists are debunking a piece of misinformation, she added, they will spread it to different social networks than those of the original piece itself.

She advised newsrooms to focus on educating their audience to be aware of disinformation, and being vigilant themselves to not run quickly with what is trending – to think twice before they set the news agenda.

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