Credit: Courtesy Sky News. Pictured: Deborah Haynes

"You have to make sure your reporting is accessible even if you are trying to grapple with a subject that cuts slightly obscure language," said Deborah Haynes, Sky News foreign affairs editor, on an episode of the Journalism.co.uk podcast. "You need to break it down and understand it yourself in order to explain it."

Since 2019, she has been wrestling with terms such as 'hybrid warfare', 'sub-threshold threats', 'unconventional conflict'. This accurately describes a murky type of danger facing the public at large, journalists and nations themselves - but fails to help people understand the severity of the threat. Haynes settled on three words much easier to understand: the grey zone.

She hosted a limited-run podcast series that concluded in March of this year called Into The Grey Zone, produced by Chris Scott at Sky News. In those nine episodes, the series explores high-profile assassinations, cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns over the years which fall under this blanket term.

The WannaCry ransomware attack on the NHS in May 2017 and the Salisbury poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March 2018 are two recent examples that crop up in the episodes. But other themes include corrupting academia, buying stakes in companies to lobby governments or building equipment for national infrastructure containing spyware.

"The whole point is to do it in a way that is ambiguous, invisible and deniable. It's having an effect that people don't know about," explains Haynes.

Complex jargon is not helpful to understand the problem. The podcast strives to explain the covert techniques that can be used under the threshold of war, by states and a variety of other actors. The reality is that these techniques have been used for decades since Soviet-era 'active measures' to peddle disinformation and propaganda.

In a digital era, however, the methods only got murkier and journalists can get pulled into the firing line. In 2018, Haynes herself became a target of trolling and accusations of being a propagandist of the state in response to her reporting on a data leak surrounding an anti-Russian disinformation charity.

The grey zone reveals another key ethical question for newsrooms: what do they do if they receive important information from a hostile foreign state looking to destabilise the government or a political party?

"Do you still publish it because it's in the public interest, or do you not publish it because then you become part of the weapon system?" Haynes asks. "The public interest is such a fundamental value for journalists, there's censorship and suppression of information there which is a dangerous area."

That is something that newsrooms must weigh up but there are questions individual journalists must ask themselves too. Haynes' investigation revealed that throughout the pandemic, freelance journalists can become targets of bad actors purporting to be genuine news outlets.

She spoke to Ben Nimmo, head of investigations, Graphika, an online analytics company, about harmful tactics involving apparently genuine work briefs.

"We've seen operations from Russia in particular but also Iran, trying to hire unwitting individuals. So rather than posing as an American troll online, they might pose as a Hungarian website, or a progressive-leaning news website somewhere in Europe," Nimmo said on the Into The Grey Zone podcast.

"Rather than post lots of stuff publicly, they'll contact people on professional networking sites like LinkedIn and say 'hey, do you want to come work with us? Here's what we need you to write'. And then a freelancer gets offered money to write, they're probably going to say yes, especially in a lockdown when lots of jobs have gone.

"The trolls, rather than publish it themselves, they'll get you to write it and get you to publish it but start doing edits. They'll say 'we think the political tone here should be different. Why don't you add a paragraph here about this candidate or that candidate'. They'll post that when it's been shaped or editorialised."

Then the journalist in question has an article that has been slanted but their name is on it.

These threats amount to an increasing need for newsrooms to clue up their staff on the hazards and perils that lurk online. Haynes said that the online environment must be treated as a hostile environment. In the same way that war correspondents are put on training courses including basic first aid training, online journalists must be equally well prepared.

"Things like being able to send emails securely, what apps are the most secure to use, how best to ensure your phone isn't going to be penetrated and your contacts compromised," Haynes suggests.

"Firstly, it's not going away. Secondly, checking the provenance of information is so important. If you are getting trolled or harassed, make sure people are aware of that because it can be really uncomfortable when people are attacking you. It can, at the very least, feel scary to publish certain things and we should never be scared off doing our job by online attacks."

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