Natalie Martin


UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day 2021 (#WPFD2021), which was on May 3rd, is a chance for journalists around the world to remind people of what they do – and why they do it. This year’s tagline was “information as a public good” - which it is if you value liberal democracy, of which journalism is a key component. Ideally, it gives people – the “demos” - a wide range of information so they can make up their minds about who controls their lives. It is ironic therefore that the purveyors of information are under threat - from so-called “disinformation” – and some of the threat comes from the news media itself.


“Disinformation” is not new - it has been the staple tool of intelligence agencies since intelligence agencies came into being – and more recently formed part of both superpowers’ covert strategies during the Cold War. It has come to the fore now because of suspected disinformation activity influencing the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election. The UK’s DCMS Select Committee Report on Fake News and Disinformation highlighted this threat during the Brexit campaign and the Intelligence and Security Committee raised similar issues in its now-notorious Russia Report. The EU also established a special “Stratcom” unit in 2015 dealing with issues of “strategic communication” and commissioned a report from a “High-Level Group” on fake news and online disinformation which was published in 2018. It is also on the agenda at the meeting of G7 leaders in London today.


However, as Wardle and Derakhshan (2017) have conceptualised, “disinformation” is not just one thing. It is three separate, but related, concepts dubbed “information disorder” - disinformation, misinformation and malinformation. Which is which, depends on intent to deceive (is it true or false) and intent to do harm (does it benefit someone politically).


Hence, disinformation is information intended to deceive (ie: not true) which is intended to do harm or leverage political advantage. Misinformation – which is often used synonymously with disinformation – is false information but it is not shared with an intent to deceive. The last category – malinformation - is true but intends to do harm. In other words, disinformation is blatantly false and politically devious, misinformation is false but less devious and malinformation is true but devious – the leaking of kompromat material would be a good example of this.


Just to make things more complicated, the news media can be both the conduits, and targets, of all three.


The main forms of news media as a conduit of mis, dis and mal information are:


  • State-controlled or dominated news outlets
  • Public diplomacy media outlets operating abroad – such as Russia Today (RT)


In these cases, truth is not usually being spoken unto power. Instead, states are using a veneer of journalistic legitimacy to peddle propaganda at home and/or abroad, using disinformation, misinformation and malinformation (Rawnsley 2015).


The news media is a target of mis, dis and mal information, usually, when states need to delegitimise their journalism - and deter it from producing more. Journalists may have their private lives revealed, be charged with spurious criminal claims – or accused of being terrorists (Martin 2020) (terrorism is a particularly potent form of disinformation as it can be used to justify extreme repression - and even murder). The Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova has suffered the indignity of a covertly recorded sex tape being made public and the injustice of being imprisoned on spurious charges for several years, for example.


In these ways therefore the news media can be both perpetrator and victim of information disorder in domestic and international settings. Ironically, often the controlled media is used to target journalism. In a domestic setting, states can use tame media outlets to target journalists, such as Ismayilova, who are still scrutinising those in charge. Further afield, the public diplomacy outlets can denigrate journalists abroad. Hence the media is not neutral in this equation and it is important to make a distinction between the catch-all term "news" and journalism - a subsection of news that does not toe the party line. There is the news media which produces “news” – and then there is news media which produces journalism. They are not always on the same side.


However, the involvement of the news media in information disorder in both ways described – conduit and target - poses a threat to news media freedom. The masquerading of state “news” as journalism can undermine trust in news over time and the smearing of journalism as “fake news” and the undermining of journalists with kompromat or spurious charges can delegitimise their work and reduce the number willing to take the risks. The overall result is a diminishing of respect for the job and, over time, access to the information sphere on which liberal democracy depends.


Given the propensity of disinformation merchants to work outside their own borders, liberal democracies – with plural media - cannot presume they are immune. Neither are all those concerned necessarily states (although they may be working on their behalf). As "demos” therefore, we need to be aware of this problem (if we value liberal democracy) and journalists also need to be aware of the potential to use them – and abuse them – with information of various kinds. It could be patently false disinformation, unwittingly shared misinformation - or wittingly shared malinformation – of which perhaps “Chatty Rat” – whoever that may be - is the latest purveyor….


In reality, we all need to be aware of what we are consuming as news and be aware of how it can be used nefariously by those around us – and further afield. This issue has become increasingly acute with the rise of social media – which amplifies the underlying problem by, ironically, democratising access to a general platform. If we don’t, this will gradually erode the foundations of liberal norms and values. Ultimately that means we have no one left to speak truth unto power on our behalf and give us the information on which to make informed electoral decisions.


So, if we value liberal democracy going forward, World Press Freedom Day 2021 is as important as it has ever been. Information is a public good only as long as we can rely on it – and it is trusted. Liberal democracy is based on these principles - and dis, mis and mal information pose a real threat to it by undermining trust in news and journalism - and reducing the trustworthy information we have access to. We must be aware of what they are – and who may be trying to use them.


Author biography

Natalie Martin is an Assistant Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. Image credit: Republic of Korea/Flickr.