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Fri 13 December 2019
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Peter Jukes looks back over three years of information warfare around the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum and asks: how do we distinguish real journalism from disinformation?


Truth Telling or Weaponised Propaganda?

With the revelation this weekend that a 19-year-old, who changed his Twitter biography from ‘activist’ to ‘journalist’, was apparently behind one of the most tumultuous Government leaks in years – culminating in the resignation of Britain’s most senior diplomat, the US Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch – the question of disinformation and journalism is now at the forefront of our politics.

When does truth-telling turn into weaponised propaganda? How does information become disinformation? 

These questions will become even more pointed as the UK courts hear Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s case against extradition to the US over espionage charges for his role in releasing another set of diplomatic cables – over a quarter of a million sensitive files from Private Chelsea Manning. The leaks created tumult and led directly to the overthrow of the Tunisian President and a chain reaction of in Egypt and Syria as part of the ‘Arab Spring’ movement. At the time, Assange argued against Guardian journalists who wanted to redact the cables. He was the avatar of maximum disclosure. 

Katie Hopkins and ‘Tommy Robinson’, the bastard children of Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre.

Five years later, things were very different. During the 2016 US presidential campaign, Assange timed the release of emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee to cause maximum damage to Donald Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, just before that summer’s Democratic convention.

Later that year, in receipt of emails hacked by Russian Military Intelligence from the email account of senior Democrat campaign manager John Podesta, Assange was in constant contact with the Trump campaign to ensure the release of the emails was timed to distract from bad publicity around Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, which recorded him boasting of sexually assaulting women. 

Who is the real Julian Assange? The full transparency hero from 2010 who is for maximum disclosure and letting the truth go where it will? Or the one who weaponised information, sharpening it like shrapnel, and ensured it exploded with maximum reputational damage? How do we tell the difference? 


Fourth Estate Becomes the Fifth Battlespace

Publication as a form of intellectual violence is as old as the printing press.

While Reformation scholars were burnt at the stake for translating the Bible, Elizabethan pamphleteers were stabbing each other on the streets of London over some scurrilous libel. The journalist and politician John Wilkes was declared an outlaw in 18th Century London for a pornographic poem about a peer. Meanwhile, the founders of the Manchester Guardian were charged with seditious libel over accurately documenting the Peterloo Massacre a generation later. 

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As the press became more industrialised, it became an ever more important political tool. In Maupassant’s novel Bel Ami the anti-hero becomes a journalist and is conscripted in a plot to topple a corrupt French government and replace it with the newspaper’s corrupt friends. And, of course, the iconic newspaper mogul of the 20th Century, Citizen Kane, boasted of creating wars for his journalists to write about. 

What’s changed in the information age is that there are low barriers to entry to becoming a publisher. All Assange needed was some servers and Wikileaks went global. And, with all the data available for micro-targeting – the now defunct data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica had up to 5000 data points on each US voter – it’s easy to bombard individuals according to their psychological weakness for false stories about Sharia law, marauding refugees or the dangers of vaccination.

The fourth estate has become the fifth battlespace of information operations and cyber warfare. 


A Journalist’s Truth Isn’t Partial

If information has become war by other means (the ‘fifth battlespace’ is how military thinkers describe the domain of information, after land, sea, air and outer space), how do readers and journalists navigate through objectivity, fairness and truth?

The stakes are extraordinarily high because the capacity to bend reality is the basis of totalitarian power. The philosopher Hannah Arendt and the journalist William Shirer both observed that the rise of fascism in 1930s Germany was accompanied by a conscious and willing distortion for truth. To gain power over the world, the Nazis first had to dominate the media with a will to power over how the world was represented. 

Activism shouldn’t be confused with partisanship and manipulation. The photographer Nick Ut, who snapped a nine-year-old young girl covered in Napalm, not only changed the world and perhaps the future of the Vietnam War with this image. He also saved the girl, Phan Thị Kim Phúc, and took her to hospital. She now lives in Canada and runs a charity for child victims of war.

Apart from humanitarian intervention, all journalists shape and weaponise their scoops and disclosures to a certain extent. They get amped up quotes from politicians. Maybe they work with lawyers and political parties to propagate and accelerate the story. They hope to time their disclosures for maximum impact. The borderline between activism and journalism is a fine line. If you believe some scandal has been buried or some wrong covered up, you’re going to do all you can to bring attention to that. 

But, there is a fairly simple way to tell the difference between disinformation and journalism: transparency and honesty throughout the process. Truth isn’t partial. It inheres through every part of a journalist’s trade. And that’s where the determination can be made as to whether a journalist is trying to enlighten or gaslight you.

Or is Assange the one who weaponised information, sharpening it like shrapnel, and ensured it exploded with maximum reputational damage?

With the help of Republican trickster Roger Stone, Fox News and the Russian troll farm in St Petersburg, Julian Assange helped create a fake story about the origin of his Democratic National Committee leaks: that they came from a DNC employee Seth Rich who was murdered in Washington in 2016 during what the police suspect was a robbery. The investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who was investigating Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election has since proved that the promulgators of the lie that Rich was Wikileaks‘ source knew it wasn’t true and that they were willing to use the death of a young staffer and his grieving family to hide their collusion with the intelligence services of a hostile power. 


Bastard Children of Murdoch and Dacre

From the accounts of police reported so far, it’s unlikely that the Darroch Cables were hacked and, most likely, they came from a senior source who had ‘historic access’ to these sensitive and encrypted communications. However, from the newspaper which published them to the journalist who originally claimed the credit, the Mail on Sunday and Isabel Oakeshott, there has been nothing but mystification and inconsistency about their origin.

Of course, journalists must protect their sources. That is the cardinal rule of ethical journalism. But, this only makes it more damaging and unseemly when the protective mask of anonymity of a source is used to cloak wrongdoing. 

I sat through eight months of the phone hacking trial at the Old Bailey five years ago as a parade of journalists and editors from the News of the World and the Sun maintained that they got a scandal or story from a ‘confidential source’ – when, in reality, that source was the illegally accessed voicemails of politicians, celebrities and victims of murder and terror attacks. 

The weaponising of personal disclosures for political ends is not new, but Britain has a uniquely partisan press – the least trusted in Europe – and it’s within this context that it remains particularly vulnerable to hybrid warfare through information operations.

Brexit is a culmination of 30 years of mendacious campaigning against the EU by non-domiciled press owners, and it has led to Boris Johnson, the prince of press lies while Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, to become the British Prime Minister. 

Given an untrustworthy former journalist now leads the country, it’s no wonder that a race-baiting former Sun columnist is being retweeted by the American President to his 60 million followers. Or that a founder of the EDL with an extensive criminal record wears a ‘convicted of journalism’ t-shirt before he is sent down for contempt of court. They are the ultimate expression of media partisanship. Katie Hopkins and ‘Tommy Robinson’, the bastard children of Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre.

The fourth estate has become the fifth battlespace of information operations and cyber warfare.

So the front lines on the fifth battlespace are clear. On one hand, there are the forces of liberal democracy and the cleansing power of the exposure of corruption and criminality by an open and investigative media in the public interest. On the other hand, the private interest of oligarchs and politicians who want to keep you in the dark and will use any tool of distraction or disinformation to obscure their awful truths.

Arm yourselves. A battle is raging for hearts and minds. And truth is not just the first casualty of this war, it is also our last defence.

Come and meet Peter and other Byline Times journalists at the Byline Festival this summer

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