Disinformation
#FreedomFightsFake: Media Literacy In Bulgaria - What have we learned from the crises

Keynote by Irina Nedeva, President of the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria
Irina Nedeva, AEJ
Irina Nedeva, AEJ Bulgaria

The keynote speech at the opening of the national conference “Media Literacy In Bulgaria - What have we learned from the crises” addresses the issues of disinformation and media literacy in Bulgaria.  The conference enabled the formation of key partnerships between organizations in different sectors and provided opportunities for cooperation between the stakeholders from business, civic society, institutions, international organizations. This initiative was organized with the Media Literacy Coalition and the Friedrich Naumann Founation for Freedom (FNF) together with the Ministry of Culture, Active Citizens Fund, Ministry of Education and Science, German-Bulgarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce, American Chamber of Commerce in Bulgaria, Bulgarian Association of Software Companies, Bulgarian Public Relations Association, and Branch Association of Bulgarian Telecommunication Operators. 

The conference is part of the global FNF’s campaign #FreedomFightsFake, which empowers citizens around the globe to think critically and “pre-bunk” disinformation. Furthermore, the event is the only one in Bulgaria, included in the worldwide initiative of the Global Media and Information Literacy Week.

 

Media literacy does not merely concern the general public, how it consumes media content and distinguishes between types of media. It also has to do with the media literacy of media themselves.

Irina Nedeva, AEJ
Irina Nedeva, AEJ Bulgaria
Media Literacy
Speakers and organizers of the Media Literacy conference

Irina Nedeva, President of the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria (AEJ – Bulgaria) and Special Representative of the AEJ on Disinformation Issues delivered the following keynote address:

I vividly remember a story posted by a friend of mine on the social media. The setting is an office of the National Revenue Agency (NRA). Everyone entering has to have their temperature read but a lady refuses to avoid damage to her third eye. When an official explains that temperature reading is a COVID-related measure, the lady starts yelling: ‘You, Illuminati, you. You won’t have me, you won’t’.

At the radio this morning, I happened upon an e-mail by a listener trying to convince me that there was no such thing as COVID-19 and that we, the media, were out to deceive the public.

The argument: TV stations do not show footage of patients in ICU. The e-mail contained links... to all manner of websites: tabloid and yellow press, the pseudo-scientific websites of allegedly scientific institutes which immediately upon inspection turn out to be anything but scientific. Websites churned out by the hundreds.  There were links to videos by pseudo-scientists and compilations studded with fabrications oddly mixed with an occasional text from a reputable publication.

Indeed, a crisis – be it a pandemic, a traffic accident, the plague of terrorism, war or a natural disaster – is also an information crisis which coaxes us into death by drowning in an ocean of disinformation and emotion.

Irina Nedeva's Keynote
Irina Nedeva's Keynote

It is the errata and corrigenda section that sets quality media and truly professionally edited newspapers apart from the rest. It shows that they are willing to devote time to issues, to slow down, rewind and check their facts.

Irina Nedeva, AEJ
Irina Nedeva, AEJ Bulgaria

It is not by accident that this conference lays emphasis on media literacy, on the faculty of discernment that our society has to foster as early as our school years.

Media literacy does not merely concern the general public, how it consumes media content and distinguishes between types of media. It also has to do with the media literacy of media themselves. This is where I lay my own emphasis since I am currently addressing you in my capacity as a representative of the Association of European Journalists, an organisation called upon to uphold the high professional standards of journalism. I am also here in my capacity as a journalist in a medium that is still relevant today, the Bulgarian National Radio (BNR).

Media literacy for the media themselves. Because tried and tested reputable media are not just becoming a target for the growing public distrust in institutions, politicians, elites and authorities. Indeed, this distrust is skilfully fuelled by social media, groups of people sharing similar interests, cults and all those active circles of ardent believers and communities that often hide behind the facade of alternative media.  Tried and tested reputable media cannot afford to look down on the rest from their ivory towers. What is more, no, social media alone is not to blame for this.

Technology, the Internet, ever easier and ever quicker connectivity, multiple connectivity in fact (I am certain that you have at least two alternative applications allowing you to reach your contacts on your smartphones) and the increase in the speed with which we share and exchange information, a process which has become instantaneous by now, have all contributed to a complete overhaul of our way of life. Reality started ceding its positions to online communication much earlier than when pandemic and quarantine became commonplace. And the latter has long since exerted a pressure on the media.

Even the most robust media have sped up their work, having felt a need to catch up and produce appetising titles, and the time devoted to fact-checking has shrunk, effectively disappearing... Speed is everything... To remain relevant, to be read you have to put up material first and in a big way. The old rule of using three sources to check information is steadily becoming a bygone. This is not because finding three sources now is a challenge, but because you can access a full three hundred easily.  Yet, there is something else that we are now desperately short of... We lack something essentially vital now!... We lack the time needed for fact-checking. This is because of market pressure, rating considerations and clickbait...

Martin Kothee
Welcome address by Martin Kothee, Project Director for FNF Bulgaria

What does a reputable medium do, if its trusted source has misled it, or the source itself has been misled? I am reminded of the case of a highly respected German TV station covering the conflict in the Ukraine. And what of countries such as our won, where the media climate has been skewed just like the market itself, which has been twisted violently by the tainted trade-off between political and economic vested interests, where it all comes down to labels such as ‘shocking’, ‘bomb’ (the latter often spelt without the ‘b’ because the lack of media literacy runs parallel to a lack of literacy at large).

What is the difference between our situation and that of the German TV station? The latter did not mind its status as a renowned medium. It corrected its coverage and set up a fact-checking department to which it appointed its best editors. It is the errata and corrigenda section that sets quality media and truly professionally edited newspapers apart from the rest. It shows that they are willing to devote time to issues, to slow down, rewind and check their facts. This is their distinguishing mark.  It sets them apart from media and websites relying on peak audiences and shock value and thirsting to be recognised as the ultimate and quickest authority on issues. These last ones never apologise. To their mind, checking the veracity of information is a mere waste of time and information itself takes the form of anything that comes to mind to a reporter looking to make an impression, an editor seeking to suck up to their boss or an owner of a medium who sees it as a tool for tarnishing the reputation of someone they have been asked might think of.

Going back to the e-mail I received, I felt like writing the following reply: ‘Sir, you are not shown the faces of ill people because they are not in a position to give their consent, you cannot see what it is like in ICUs because access procedures and protecting teams of journalists are not an easy or quick task and our media seem to be after a quick story... They grow more alike to information fast food plants by the minute, they work with elements, be those footage or photographic material, stored on their visual databanks, at third party companies or, worse still, merely uploaded online.

This global media fast food plant now produces more information than at any given time in media history. More information than we can consume is produced, to paraphrase a famous phrase, stating that ‘(...) the Balkans produce more history than they can consume’. We can observe that this trend has remained evergreen, finding manifestation in our present-day foreign affairs’.

Panel Discussion
Panel Discussion at Media Literacy Conference

Indeed, let’s go back to our newsrooms! This will grow more and more important. Let’s invest the media with meaning again. It is not just the general public that is in need of media freedom. The same goes for the media themselves.

Irina Nedeva, AEJ
Irina Nedeva, AEJ Bulgaria

What can we do?

Three years ago, in 2017, the AEJ (of which the AEJ – Bulgaria Section forms part) decided that a collective brainstorming exercise involving participants from all national sections was in order. The aim was to look into the way journalists are to tackle the huge problem of disinformation.

We participated in public consultations organised by the European Commission but first we drafted a consolidated set of answers, collecting responses to all questions of importance to national sections, to know where we stood on the issue and what we wished to advocate. It turned out that we were not alone. Voices from academia and other international organisations of journalists joined the chorus, along with the Council of Europe, which hosts the Platform for the [Protection of Journalism and] Safety of Journalists. In 2019, the Platform included a disinformation strand in its analysis of threats to journalists.

Instead of dwelling on details, I would like to acquaint you with the main takeaways:

1. Firstly, the term ‘fake news’ is misleading and dangerous because it is considered the weapon of choice of populist politicians, who tend to blame their opponents or the media that are critical of them by alleging that they churn out fake news. The ‘fight’ against fake news has become a flagship of the extreme right in Europe, a weapon that the extreme right uses to lash out at calls for not allowing the issue of hate speech to escalate further.

2. Secondly, tech giants and platforms are part of the problem, so they alone cannot serve as its solution. Bots and algorithms cannot combat a problem that has been compounded and fuelled by other bots and algorithms. We cannot and should not allow artificial intelligence to make judgments as to what constitutes disinformation since it is not capable of distinguishing the tangled, complex cancerous tissue of disinformation, which has reached pandemic proportions, a tissue consisting of morsels of truth or half-truth, falsehoods, facts and opinions. Someone has to be aware of the relevant context and remind of its significance because the lack of such a compass would result in disparate interpretations and, ultimately, a failure to understand the situation.

3. Thirdly, we issued a warning, explaining that a project-based approach would result in expert and advocacy NGOs creating products only within the framework of their dedicated projects. As early as the stage of consultations, we recommended the EU’s institutions to support not just non-media fact-checking organisations but also traditional media and advised them to find ways in which to create conditions conducive to quality journalism. We argued that it sufficed to observe the situation in countries such as Bulgaria to understand why we are struggling. We urged them to consider mechanisms to guarantee the independence of journalist investigations and that of the editing process. As an aside, I should mention that there is an ongoing work on the issue at the European Commission and the European Parliament, with the latter being in the process of drafting a resolution. The media are now in the spotlight as regards issues pertaining to the rule of law and are there to stay.

Petya Dyulgerova
Petya Dyulgerova, FNF Bulgaria

Fact-checking is indispensable to professional and responsible media nowadays. Without it, they cannot and should not attempt to navigate our context, which is ridden with beliefs and interpretations and hence made more complex.

Irina Nedeva, AEJ
Irina Nedeva, AEJ Bulgaria

We have to consider what the media can do to ensure their editors stay with them instead of making them seek their fortune on the labour market, where they go on to work as better-paid PR experts or, in the best-case scenario, researchers whose pay is, sadly, often lower... How can the media keep from going so far as to dispense with revisers, how do they slow down and check the veracity of information before they publish it?... How do they take the time to see whether a picture circulating online or a text copied from one press release, institution and Twitter account to the next is true to fact or true to harmful fiction?

Indeed, let’s go back to our newsrooms! This will grow more and more important. Let’s invest the media with meaning again.

It is not just the general public that is in need of media freedom. The same goes for the media themselves.

My AEJ – Bulgaria colleagues will show you what our work in this sphere is about. The sCOOL Media project is of importance because some of the students with whom we work within its framework will become the journalists of tomorrow and they will do better than us. Others among them will be among the listeners, viewers and readers of the future and they will enjoy a greater understanding of the food that is media content and how they ought to consume it. The series on the infodemic, which deals with disinformation about the novel coronavirus and the pandemic, is our joint project with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. Above all, I would like to point you to our Guide on Online Fact-Checking. The Guide may be downloaded in Bulgarian free of charge from our website. 

Fact-checking is indispensable to professional and responsible media nowadays. Without it, they cannot and should not attempt to navigate our context, which is ridden with beliefs and interpretations and hence made more complex.

Thank you for your attention.

 

Watch the full speech in Bulgarian below: