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What's wrong with the fight against fake news ‘Meduza’ publishes an essay written by opposition activist Leonid Volkov in a Moscow jail

Source: Meduza
Yevgeny Kurskov / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Leonid Volkov, a former campaign manager for Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny, is currently serving a 20-day jail sentence. He was charged this year for actions that supposedly took place during a September 2018 protest against Russia’s increased retirement age: police officers accused Volkov of “inspiring” protesters to scratch a car. The protest was organized by the Navalny-led Anti-Corruption Foundation.

While in jail, Volkov wrote an essay on the subject of fake news, a topic that has drawn ever more attention in Russia since the passage of a new law that penalizes sharing fake stories. Volkov agrees that now is the time to push back against fake news but argues that there are far better means to that end than censorship. Meduza received Volkov’s essay from Anti-Corruption Foundation employees. It is translated here in full.

In 1870, 150 years ago, Mark Twain published one of his best-known satirical stories. “Running for Governor” ironized the role that U.S. media of the time played in political campaigns. (I don’t have the book with me here in jail, but if I remember correctly, there’s a quote that goes something like this: “Not two weeks had gone by since my announcement, and voters could already learn from fliers and newspapers printed by my opponents that I had never been married and had left six different wives; that I was fantastically rich and also bankrupt; and so on.”)

In other words, Mark Twain was writing about the phenomenon of fake news: news stories known to be false that are intentionally circulated through mass media with the aim of disinforming citizens and, in some cases, changing the results of elections.

Fake news, therefore, is hardly an invention of the 21st century. It is hardly a child of the Internet Age. Nonetheless, it is in our era, especially since the 2016 American elections, that fake news has begun to be seen as a problem — and not only as a problem, but as one of the primary threats to contemporary civilization. Forums have been held, articles written, and solutions proposed (primarily bans), and somewhere in the distance, the roar of a chainsaw can already be heard: an entire new industry for the “fight against fake news” is being born. This industry is a marvelous opportunity because one can spend extremely large amounts of money on the fight against fake news without much of a chance at winning, which makes the task ideal for budget development. Both in Europe and in Russia, a substantial number of regulations have passed that threaten enormous fines for Internet companies that do not strengthen their control over the content published under their auspices, and that is doubtless only the start of a long and winding road. Here in Russia, we already know very well that when a government produces a button that allows it to block information of some kind on the Internet, it can’t stop itself; it begins applying that one-time mechanism ever more often and more widely.

But let’s return for a moment to Mark Twain and 1870. Say a gentleman from New England gets a newspaper that says all kinds of bad, defamatory things about a politician. What can he do with that information? Nothing. He can either believe it or not. He can’t go on Wikipedia; he can’t Google anything. Say they write, “Twain is slow to speak, and he has a stutter. He will be unable to work effectively in the legislature.” It would be enough to spend three minutes watching any of the many YouTube videos of this candidate to determine whether that accusation is correct or easily refuted. The problem is just that YouTube didn’t exist in 1870, and it wouldn’t exist for a very long time.

It’s no coincidence that as soon as the Internet Age took off (especially once it got YouTube and smartphones with built-in video cameras), UFOs immediately stopped descending on our planet, Yetis stopped appearing in the Himalayas, and people stopped seeing Jurassic-era reptiles in Loch Ness. Why? Because our standards of proof had changed drastically: the words of a respectable gentleman and a washed-out black-and-white photograph are no longer enough. Now, we demand high-resolution videos with metadata for all to see, and whatever isn’t on the Internet never really happened.

Our time is the best time to fight fake news in all of human history — and not the other way around, as all the media hype around the issue might imply.

Never before has every ordinary person, every consumer of information, held in their hands such a large quantity of accessible, free, and convenient instruments for checking the quality and trustworthiness of the information around them. Never before have the channels by which information spreads been so transparent. Never before has information traveled alongside such a density of metadata that makes it verifiable. Never before have such masses of reference, scholarly, and library materials been publicly accessible.

Google and Wikipedia, online libraries and electronic research journals, YouTube and Instagram, open budgets and all manner of other government-provided big data: these are the very instruments that can help us fight fake news, and they are accessible both to end-of-the-line information consumers and to their middlemen; that is, to journalists.

The contemporary antivaxxer movement began in 1982 in the United States with a fake news story claiming that the pertussis vaccine in DPT can cause meningoencephalitis in children (Paul Offit, Deadly Choices. Moscow: Corpus Publishers, 2017). Neither the journalists who put that falsehood on air nor the parents who watched the film could turn to Google Scholar themselves to read article abstracts in peer-reviewed journals in 1982, and they could not independently confirm (or, in this case, deny) the reputations of the dubious experts who fanned the flames of panic on the air without having any relevant experience or expertise themselves.

Could the same thing happen in 2019? Alas, the answer is yes — despite all the information accessible to us and the tools we have available to fact-check it. In 2016, British voters approved Brexit, and many of them believed a fake news story claiming that EU membership costs the British budget 350 million pounds a week. At the same time, Britain’s e-government portal and its government services portal are considered to be among the best in the world; they are cited as role models for similar systems in a range of governments (including Russia’s). Those systems are peerless in the quality, relevance, and comprehensiveness of the government data they publish. Information about how financial flows between the United Kingdom and the EU are actually structured was an arm’s length and a couple of clicks away from voters that entire time. However, judging by the results of the referendum, that information was not in high demand.

But does that mean that humanity currently lacks the tools to fight fake news? That we must invent filters and blocking mechanisms, introduce fines and other penalties, censor platforms and force them into self-censorship? Of course not. The problem is that fake news is already centuries old, and most of the tools listed above that are effective against it have been around for less than 15 years. These are new (though simultaneously very powerful) tools, and naturally, many of us have not yet grown accustomed to them and learned to use them. This is an entirely ordinary gap between the appearance of a new technology and the point at which users finally master it. Fortunately, humanity has at its disposal an excellent means, tried and tested over millennia, to overcome that gap. That means is called education.

I, probably like many of my generation, remember the mixture of disappointment, disbelief, and astonishment that followed the fall of the Iron Curtain in the early 1990s when we post-Soviet schoolchildren learned what our peers in Western schools were learning. Often, these stories were told with a dose of grotesque exaggeration, as in [comedian] Mikhail Zadornov’s “oh, those stupid Americans!” But a fact was a fact: while “we” deftly solved quadratic equations, “they” could barely cobble together fractions; while “we” memorized the capitals of every country in the world and the dates of every battle, “they” couldn’t tell Italy from Spain on a blank map (oh, what am I saying— “they,” shockingly, didn’t even have blank maps!). “They,” from “our” point of view, learned some very strange things: in elementary school, instead of concrete tasks like multiplication tables, “they” were taught things like “don’t talk to strangers.” In middle school, while “we” studied valence, Boyle’s law, and programming in Pascal, “they” had debates, lectures about social organizations and parliamentary systems and politics, and the entirely bewildering concept of “week-long projects.” “We” won all the school Olympiads with ease and grace, but for some reason, “they” got all the Nobel Prizes.

Now, of course, I understand that it would have been no tragedy if I had learned to solve linear equations not in the eighth grade, but later, perhaps as a college student who had already decided to major in mathematics. (Freshman math majors study linear algebra from the beginning anyway, but for them, it’s an axiomatic theory, not a set of calculations to be memorized!) Instead, I would have had a school debate tournament in eighth grade. About global warming, perhaps, or maybe vaccines. Now, of course, we regret that many of our compatriots just didn’t learn in school how social institutions function, what politicians and political parties are for — and we often have to start building a trail from scratch where Europe already has a well-worn road. Nowadays, we think a lot about how we might change things in the bright, shining Russia of the future so that we can kill all our birds with one stone — so that our education system would allow young people both to gain knowledge and to prepare for life in the contemporary world, in contemporary society.

That conversation is where the problem of fake news belongs. Contemporary society is postindustrial and information-centered. Information is its most valuable resource. The ability to use information is its most valuable skill. There is a veritable mass of tools available to serve that skill. A society that teaches its schoolchildren how to fact-check their sources and how the institution of expertise operates among scholars and researchers will defeat fake news much faster than a society that stubbornly ruins its Internet with fines and censorship filters.

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Leonid Volkov

Translation by Hilah Kohen