Interview with Elizabeth Wahl: How technology has changed media - expectations vs. reality

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Elizabeth Wahl is an American journalist who had famously renounced her position on air at Russia Today. Today, she's an adamant supporter of critical media consumption. We had the chance to talk to her before her visit to Riga for the Digital Freedom Festival.

Has journalism changed over the past years? If so, how?

I think journalism definitely has changed - it has totally changed the game in terms of politics. Not too long ago we had an election that really brought to light just how much journalism has changed and the way journalist have to go about covering the news, politics, and elections in this new digital media environment.

On the one hand, It's wonderful that we have all these new sources and these new methods to gain information but unfortunately we're seeing that people aren't necessarily becoming more informed and that there are more opportunities for people to become misinformed. Unfortunately, we're seeing that a hostile foreign government is using it as a weapon.

It took something like the 2016 presidential election to bring it to public consciousness here in the United States. I know that there in Eastern Europe, information warfare is something that has been studied long before, and journalists and public officials are more aware of it.

Here it took a while for the United States to wake up and say wow, this is a real problem. It's not just a bunch of stupid trolls online being a nuisance but in fact, they can really use platforms like Facebook and Twitter to spread false information, weaponize information, to try to manipulate public opinion in a way they want it to be perceived.

What is it that alarms you the most about the trends you're seeing in journalism and the media?

That it works.

Before Facebook, Twitter and Google had admitted to the problem, I would go online and see just how prevalent misinformation was. And how I could see overlapping narratives between the more extremist, far-right, hyper-partisan conspiracy theory sites, exploiting and working in tandem with Russian media and Russian trolls.

I could see how these messages were merging, and it became very troubling. Because it came to the point where you couldn't even draw a distinction between alt-right and Russian messaging.

It's so troubling because it's very hard to combat. We value freedom of speech so highly here in the United States, that even that is being used against us. Whenever we do try to take steps to combat disinformation or rid the web of hate speech or conspiracy theories, we'll be accused of trying to hinder people's freedom of speech.

So it's a difficult balance and something new that journalists have to deal with.

We're seeing increasingly new and innovative tactics to spread fake news. What should we, as media consumers, be sensitive towards?

First of all, it's awareness.

When you surf through social media you have to be very careful and cognizant that it's being manipulated by bad actors. By people with extremist views, conspiracy theories, hostile foreign governments, people that are trying to shift the narrative for purposes that are not in the best interests of the country, the readers, the public. So when you're getting information online, this is something to be very familiar with.

What is trending isn't necessarily something you should be paying attention to. There's an extra layer of analysis and responsibility now required.

Is there anything that can be done to stop the spread of fake news and misinformation?

I've been saying for years now that the social media companies have to step up. Because without platforms like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter, fake news isn't able to spread as rapidly as it does.

And it can only be done through public pressure. Because these platforms operate as companies - they want to maximize user interaction at whatever cost.

Nothing will change unless there is enough pressure from the public to say that all this misinformation and fake news is actually hurting the democratic process. We have seen that because of this public pressure that Facebook and Twitter are finally stepping up and have taken steps to remove a lot of content that has been tied to Russian trolls, for example.  

Governments also need to take notice, and to figure out the best practices and perhaps even put in place some regulations. Journalists have to become more aware of how social media is used so that it doesn't impact their reporting, and there needs to be a strong push for media literacy so that the average user can become more aware of what the information that they're consuming is.

What is media literacy?

People need to be taught how to spot fake news online. How to spot a bot. How to check your sources. How to become a critical thinker.

Really think about where you're getting your info. Who's the author? What' their reputation? What's the reputation of that news site? What have they written in the past? Do they have a history of spreading fake news?

It's a practice of being critical about the information that you consume, as well as taking responsibility for what you share on social media. I think collectively we can all try to make a difference in this.

In an interview, you stated that you “knew what you were getting into” when going to work for Russia Today. What did you mean? And why did you end up joining them?

I knew that it was funded by the Russian government. But also I checked out their reporting, and it was what they said it was. They said it was like Al Jazeera, sharing new perspectives. And that appealed to me. It appeals to a lot of young people to see an alternative news source. It wasn't until the conflict in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea where it took a turning point.

Unfortunately as the years went on it became increasingly propagandized, and well, we all know what action I took at that point.

How do you see the future of media consumption being impacted by existing or new technologies?

Well, I'm trying to stay optimistic.

It's very easy to become pessimistic. When social media was credited for the Arab Spring, there was this idea that social media was going to bring about this democratization of information, that is was going to give a voice to the voiceless.  Unfortunately, we're seeing that social media is being manipulated by bad actors, also foreign governments.

But it's a reality that people are increasingly getting their news from social media and conducting more of their lives online. So we're seeing the consequences and the negative repercussions of it. I'm hoping that with great minds coming together at festivals like the Digital Freedom Festival that we'll brainstorm together how we can use these new technologies for good.

You've been to Riga before - what are you looking forward to this time you come?

I'm excited to come back to Latvia. I've been to the Baltic states a few times now. My quest is to raise awareness about the dangers of disinformation, and it's great to see the Baltic states being leaders in this. You're small countries, but make a big impact on this. I think it's because of your proximity to...a certain country on your borders makes you more vigilant. It's not so abstract for the Baltic countries.

I'm also looking forward to seeing and hearing new ideas, especially in tech. There's so much of a shift in the digital realm. I'm looking forward to seeing ways technologies can be used for good.