Saturday, October 8, 2016

Sabotage and Espionage by Proxy and Neglect

By Bob Ferris

I used to say that we need to be our own media.  If important issues are not covered or not covered appropriately we need to work to get the word out.  I still believe that but I should have added that in this we need to be better than the existing media in terms of ethics, facts and fairness.  Unfortunately many got the first part of this and did not think the second part was necessary.  Worse still others saw this as an opportunity to dupe the American public for political or financial gain.

In regards to this latter set of individuals, I am wondering how exactly spreading falsehoods anonymously in an effort to affect a US election in a manner that may harm our economy, environment and people differs from sabotage or even espionage when done by those outside our country? I do not ask this question casually as Freedom of the Press is certainly one of the cornerstone principles of our country.

Society of Professional Journalist Code of Ethics (see here for larger version)
There is in my concern some notion that there should be a push to save the tradition and integrity of investigative journalism as well as taking some action to level the playing fields for print, televised and electronically-transmitted media.  For instance, ownership information for print newspapers is provided to the public because they are often sent through the mail.  There are also ownership rules for televised media that use public airwaves.  My sense is that any website purporting to be or functioning as a news source also needs to disclose who they are and who they represent just as any other media source does and for similar reasons.

That likely might mean that we need to either regulate or shut down the anonymous “lie factories” that are enabled by operations like Domains by Proxy LLC and others that make it far too easy to fool too many people too often and not suffer any consequences for that deception.  I am not sure what the solution is for other sites registered in other countries other than vigilance and awareness particularly as we begin to more fully understand that the fighting fronts of the future might be more electronic and psychological in nature than defined by boots-on-the-ground or a rocket’s-red-glare.

This is a big issue with a lot of elements that have all come to play in this funky exercise we are calling an election this year.  Some of this has to do with the idea of equating news with entertainment and not understanding the true consequences of accepting that false equivalency.  Inherent in this is the double standard that seems to be employed which punishes legitimate journalists such as Dan Rather and Brian Williams but excuses serial offenders such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity as well as giving Megyn Kelly a virtual pass when she read raw excerpts from the recent Wikileaks documents without vetting them first (see above video).  While her after-the-fact apology was welcomed, it seemed a little Trump-like in terms of sincerity as the horses were running free in the pasture when she grudgingly shut the barn door.  Will Farrell’s Ron Burgundy character helps illuminate some of the problems here on some level, but perhaps it just helps us accept what we should never accept.

This illustration without this or the NOAA caption accompanied the below titled article.

The anonymous and faultless electronic frontier of the web also allows nearly anyone to say pretty much anything without being anchored to the journalistic ethics outlined near the top of this piece.  Sometimes this is done through pseudonyms on anonymous sites and other times it is done in the full light-of-day with precious few questioning what is said or the credentials of who said it.  The example above is non-political and has made the rounds.  Certainly the Fukushima incident is troubling and we need quality information about this event and the true risks.  But this “article” was written by someone who studied religion—not journalism or science—and who most recently worked as a waitress at an Italian restaurant in North Carolina before declaring herself a journalist.  Now this might seem a little snarky on my part but I really do object when someone takes an illustration—in this case a map showing projected tsunami height across the Pacific (see below)—removes the original caption so that folks equate redness with radiation threat and then blasts this all over the internet.  As someone trained in science, this pisses me off and as a thinking person I am bothered by someone pushing fiction as fact and not being called on it.  What is the societal benefit of someone without apparent ethics or qualifications spreading falsehoods?

Original NOAA map where reddish orange actually indicates lower risk of tsunami (see here). 
The proliferation and broadcasting of the above can be dealt with in various ways. Education and behavioral modification comes to mind. My teeth are set on edge when folks run water faucets needlessly because I grew up in a state with water issues.  What if we put similar efforts toward teaching folks that they need to check on internet stories before forwarding nonsense?  How do we trigger critical thinking that responds quicker than a re-posting finger?  How do we catalyze the asking of important questions such as what are the qualifications of the writer and are they held accountable for false information?  The end result of acceptance as truth of many of these posts could be more harmful than that of a carelessly running tap, but right now we seem to be incentivizing the spreading of sensationalist manure via the monetization of these sites.  I have not tested it but I suspect that there is a strong positive correlation between those sites that will ultimately bring us the most social, environmental and economic harm and the density of advertisements on those sites.  Just a guess.

The recent revelation by the Department of Homeland Security that the hacking of the DNC server is probably the work of Russians should send a sobering chill through most in the country.  Some will dismiss it by saying that we do it to them too which dismisses the act but ignores the intent: Russia would rather see a Trump presidency than a Clinton one just as Wikileaks would.  So when Fox News’ Megyn Kelly reads excerpts from the Wikileaks documents without taking time to consider or vet their content is she serving her audience or is she enabling the messaging of folks outside the country who want to influence our election and are fully comfortable with altering documents in order to accomplish that end?  All Americans regardless of philosophical and political leanings should be offended by this.  And when I look at some of the most outrageous and damaging rumors aimed at Secretary Clinton a good number of them originate on websites from outside our country.

Joseph Gales Senior
Freedom of the Press is indeed one of the rights granted us in the 1st Amendment.  I respect that right in part because I am a direct descendant of one of our nation’s early journalists Joseph Gales Sr. who paid a heavy price for expressing and publishing the truth originally in his native England.  But like all the rights that we enjoy under our US Constitution we only keep and honor that right by protecting it from threats "both foreign and domestic."  If we are truly going to protect our free press in the future we need to find ways for it to protect itself from the unqualified, unethical and the un-American that would do us and this cherished freedom harm.

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