Elon University

Plenary Panel Session – Nationalism, Disinformation and Free Expression in the Age of the Internet

Brief session description:

Monday, July 24, 2017 –  This panel took place during the plenary session of IGF-USA 2017 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Read the print story and see video highlights on this page. You can view the full, archived video of this panel session here.

Bad actors have co-opted vast aspects of the online realm, taking advantage of its community spaces and leveraging them to amplify false and misleading content. The cyber frontier has become in many ways a battleground where information (true and false) has been weaponized and micro-targeted to create uncertainty and doubt and to manipulate public opinion. Technologists, businesses, governments and civil society all have a role in protecting a free and open Internet that encourages free expression, spreads factual content and supports human rights, but mitigating harmful content while maintaining the free flow of information is proving to be an extremely challenging task.

Details of the session:

The session was moderated by Dana Priest, Pulitzer-winning reporter for the The Washington Post and Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Maryland. Panelists included:

  • Craig Newmark, Web pioneer, Internet Hall of Fame member, philanthropist funding trustworthy journalism and founder of Craigslist and the Craig Newmark Foundation
  • Amie Stepanovich, U.S. policy manager and global policy counsel for Access Now, previously a leader at the Electronic Privacy Information Center
  • Karen Kornbluh, senior fellow for digital policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as U.S. ambassador in Paris to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, served as policy director for then-Senator Obama, served in the Clinton administration as deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Treasury Department, and as director of the Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Federal Communications Commission

Panelists focused largely on the spread of disinformation, specifically disinformation in the sphere of American politics, and agreed that a lack of a vetting system for the trustworthiness of information online was threatening the nature of the Internet as a democratic device.

Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, weighed in on the role of trustworthiness and compliance to an ethical code in the operations of news producers and distributors. He suggested that news publishers attempt to stick to a rigid code of truthfulness and ethics, with fact checkers ensuring they uphold that code.

“What happens when you get news organizations that commit to a code of ethics, trustworthy behavior, ‘fair and balanced’ reporting, and then renege on those commitments?” Newmark asked. “We need networks of networks of fact checkers operating in a mode of ‘trust but verify.’”

Newmark suggested that news distribution platforms such as Facebook and Google News not act as arbiters of truth, but rather as judges of credibility. He proposed an idea of credibility scores that appear next to news stories. This, he emphasized, will give readers greater choice.

Disinformation Panel Discussion Group Photo“As a news consumer who doesn’t want to see anyone acting as arbiter of truth, I want to see enough information to decide ‘should I share that article?’” said Newmark.

Newmark hopes this model could succeed because of the benefits it offers advertisers. Advertisers want to pay to have their brand represented beside trustworthy, credible sources, he said, and might shy away from sources that are outed as unreliable or untruthful.

At one point, Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google, challenged Newmark on how his system of fact checkers would be moderated, asking “who would watch the watchers?” Newmark responded by emphasizing that the fact checkers would be a “network of networks” and that they would be held accountable by a system of transparency and redundancy.

Karen Kornbluh, senior fellow for digital policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is worried about what the spread of disinformation means for the Internet’s role as a democratic tool.

“What I see is this Internet that held out this great promise for democracy in danger as an opportunity for the powerful to be more powerful,” Kornbluh said.

Kornbluh also presented the research of scheduled panelist Yochai Benkler, who was unable to attend the session. Benkler, the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, found that “hyper-partisan sites combine de-contexted truths, repeated falsehoods and leaps of logic to create a fundamentally misleading view of world.”

Disinformation Panel Discussion Group Photo 2Kornbluh placed partial blame for the spread and growth of disinformation on human nature, noting that social media harbor a tendency for sensational and sharable information.

“There’s a nature in the lizard part of our brain that favors sensational,” Kornbluh said. “It favors something that would be new to your friends.”

In order to limit the spread of politically motivated disinformation, Kornbluh urged a continued push for transparency and accountability in political advertising to keep the motivations and actions of disinformation spreaders in the public eye.

Dana Priest, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist at The Washington Post, moderated the panel and suggested the time-honored journalistic practice of “following the money” as a means of uncovering the motivations behind disinformation.

Near the conclusion of the panel, the discussion shifted to possible solutions. Priest suggested that it might be difficult to convince consumers stuck in the conservative “red bubble” to trust the legitimacy or value of fact-checking.

“We have to get past the idea that we’re going to have quick solutions,” said Amie Stepanovich, U.S. policy manager at Access Now. She suggested that education and training centered on how and why false information permeates the public, as well as the inclusion of more marginalized voices in the conversation, should be part of the solution process.

Stepanovich also warned against government regulation as a means of preventing the spread of disinformation, saying it would only solve problems in the margins of the matter and possibly lead to censorship.

“We should veer away from taking things offline and [from] censorship in favor of critical thinking,” Stepanovich said.

– By Alex Hager

Click here to return to IGF-USA 2017 homepage.

The multimedia reporting team for Imagining the Internet at IGF-USA 2017 included the following Elon University School of Communications students, staff and faculty:

Janna Anderson, Bryan Baker, Camille Behnke, Liam Collins, Diego Pineda Davila, Colin Donohue, Maya Eaglin, Christina Elias, Meagan Gitelman, Alex Hager, Tommy Kopetskie, Deirdre Kronschnabel, Jared Mayerson, Emmanuel Morgan, Grace Morris, Jackie Pascale, Mariah Posey, Alexandra Roat, Ginna Royalty, Alexandra Schonfeld, Jamie Snover, Erik Webb, Brooke Wivagg