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Stirling meetup to fight disinformation accused of ‘deep state astroturfing’ by Russian media

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Credit: Alex Steven

Hackers, journalists and academics descended upon Stirling for MisinfoconX last Thursday. The event, organized by Hacks/Hackers Scotland, sponsored by Mozilla and hosted by Codebase, posed the problem that has dominated much of the news cycle for the past few years: what to do about online disinformation?

The issue was brought into sharp focus in the days leading up to the event after it caught the attention of the Russian government-owned Sputnik News. They accused organizers Dr Jennifer Jones of the University of Strathclyde and Bissie Anderson, a PhD student at the University of Stirling, of being Western ‘Deep State’ operatives, leading to a campaign of targeted harassment against them both. MisinfoconX, Sputnik’s Kit Klarenberg alleged, was “an anti-Russian #astroturfing event.”

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Klarenberg took to Twitter to make his allegations.

In response to the accusations that the conference was a deep state plot, Dr Jones said, “I was in Asda last night picking up fruit.”

“It’s nothing new. This is the internet. He was just tapping into the attention that the event was getting.”

But that a story accusing journalists of clandestine intelligence operations was able to gain traction online is telling of the crisis of trust in contemporary journalism. In her opening remarks, Anderson pointed out that only 2% of people surveyed by YouGov expressed high levels of trust in journalists, making them less trusted than bankers and lawyers. Anderson pinpointed the ‘participatory apocalypse’ as one of the major causes, with the openness and democratization of the modern web rendering it vulnerable to manipulation by malign actors.

With the audience as the primary vector for distribution through clicks, likes and retweets, content which plays to people’s anger, fear and superiority can travel far, free of fact-checkers, she pointed out. But she also quoted ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger: “‘Much of the old media was itself biased, hectoring, blinkered, and – in its own way – post factual.’”

Journalism, she said, needs to better itself to “rise above the noise”, to set higher standards of meticulousness and transparency than ever before – and society needs to find new solutions to journalism’s failures and abuses.

To this end, the so-called ‘unconference’ enlisted the help of ethical hacker Paul Mason of cybersecurity company Secarma to talk about online bots, Alistair Brian of investigative co-operative the Ferret’s fact checking service, and Macaela Bennett from NewsGuard – a controversial web extension which flags news providers with a ‘nutrition label’ about their reliability as a source.

As well as these lectures, other workshops were a little more unorthodox, including a role-play in which participant’s acted out a heated political debate with misguided family, aiming to find ways of empathetically correcting misinformed loved ones. It was an improvisational, creative approach to the problem.

“Let us think wider than Russian bots, let’s think wider than MI5,” said Anderson, “any solution would have to be radical. Let’s take a look at ourselves and ask… how can I be better? Think big. Be radical”.

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