Quality, professional journalism is the most effective tool for addressing the already well-known phenomenon of fake news. This is the key point shared by the participants in the international conference “Europe vs Disinformation: Is the Bendy Cucumber a Real Threat to the European Project?”, which the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria (AEJ-Bulgaria) and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation organized in Sofia on November 9, 2017.
French journalist Jacques Pezet (Libération and Correctiv.org) presented his work on debunking false information circulating in the media. “My work is called journalism, as every journalist has to check the facts,” he said. In his opinion, fake news is a piece of information one publishes with the awareness that it is false. “Everybody can make a mistake, especially politicians, because the more you talk, the more likely you are to say something wrong, but if you publish something you know is false, this is fake news,” Pezet said.
Irina Nedeva, a journalist from the Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) and chairwoman of AEJ-Bulgaria, insisted that the media should acknowledge their mistakes when they have got something wrong and notify their audiences about these mistakes.
Daniel Kaddik, director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Southeast Europe, used an interesting metaphor to illustrate the problem. He said he could not start his car that morning due to a transmission problem. “We cannot have a proper democracy if the transmission of information is broken and we cannot have a good transmission of information,” he said. “In order for media in Bulgaria not to be broken even further, not slipping down the slope of [freedom of expression rankings such as the one by) Reporters Without Borders, we have to fix the engine.”
We do not do anything different from what journalists usually do, namely checking the facts, said Velislava Popova, editor in chief of Dnevnik.bg. “We discussed the idea of creating a rubric for debunking fake news, but we gave it up, because the lies are so many that it will be difficult for us to decide which one to refute and which – not to refute,” Popova explained.
Nova Television, one of the two largest national TV stations in Bulgaria, has its own initiative for refuting false stories, which journalist Marina Tsekova presented during the conference. Nova Television regularly receives signals from viewers and its reporters and editors then check the truthfulness of various claims which appeared in the media. According to Tsekova, the rise of fake news also provides professional media organisations with an opportunity because more and more people will be relying on them in the search of quality information.
Mediapool.bg has also initiated a special campaign aimed at drawing the public attention to the phenomenon of fake news. According to its editor in chief, Stoyana Georgieva, checking individual facts when a big media group produces not just fake news but propaganda. “We cannot pretend we are not seeing the elephant in the room,” Georgieva said. We should not allow to end up in situations similar to those in China or Russia, she added.
Nelly Ognyanova, a media law expert and professor at Sofia University, quoted European Commission Vice President Andrus Ansip who has suggested that a ministry of truth would be worse than fake news. While Ognyanova does not see any indications that the European Commission is willing to introduce special regulations on fake news, she noted that the media directive is currently being revised and that the EU may introduce legal responsibility for social media platforms such as Facebook. Ognyanova also raised the question as to whether private companies should be allowed to decide what is truth and what is not. She gave as an example the panel of fact-checking experts Facebook is planning to establish, urging the audience to think about the extent to which we can trust such bodies when they are linked to a private company.
Another speaker at the conference was Ida Eklund Lindwall from the East Stratcom Task Force of the European External Action Service (EEAS). Lindwall talked about the unit’s tasks and activities and highlighted the ridiculousness of some fake news stories, such as the one about the EU purportedly banning snowmen on the ground they are racist, which appeared in some Bulgarian media in early 2017.
Bulgarian media analysis company Perceptica demonstrated the path of some popular false stories to the media in the country. Georgy Auad, director of the company, showed how a piece of information that originally appeared in 2004 is being republished every few years as if it is new. In most cases, the sources of fake news are from Eastern European countries such as Russia, Ukraine, and Macedonia, Auad said.
According to Jacques Pezet, traceability is very important in the fight against propaganda. “If you manage to understand the organization of information, you have done half of the work,” he said.
He further elaborated on his experience as a journalist who managed to infiltrate a secret chat group of supporters of Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the French National Front in this year’s presidential elections. These supporters received concrete instructions about what they should publish online to discredit Emanuel Macron, who eventually won the elections.
Pezet stressed that the work of fact-checkers like him is not to tell the people whom they should vote for but to check the facts, share them with voters, and thus help them make an informed choice.
In the two days following the conference, Pezet led two training sessions for Bulgarian journalists in Sofia (10 November) and Plovdiv (11 November). During the sessions, he provided the participants with the latest techniques and instruments for fact-checking and reporting on fake news.
The conference and the training sessions were organized with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and the America for Bulgaria Foundation. Media partners include the Bulgarian National Radio (BNR), Dnevnik.bg, and Club Z.