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Critical thinkers

Giedrius Sakalauskas

How would you describe the mission and expertise of your organization in the field of media literacy/ critical thinking/ fact checking/ countering disinformation? Our mission is to build up democratic societies’ resilience to malign information activities through training and education and to monitor and counter disinformation.   What are the main resources developed by your organization you’d be willing to share? (e.g. reports, analyses, scripts, educational materials, video clips, webinars… Please share the links.) We are the network of civic activists who regularly monitor Lithuania’s information environment, focusing on social platforms and online media. This is our latest monitoring report: https://ibb.co/375vM0h. We are active members and often lead civic initiatives to counter hybrid threats in Europe and the Eastern Partnership countries.   Which are, in your opinion, the three biggest current challenges related to countering disinformation in your country? The biggest and the most urgent task today is to start strategic communication of our own (positive) narratives, rather than focus only on debunking fake or malign information. The latter charge is significant but insufficient to counter hybrid threats. Critically thinking, citizens are groomed by teaching them their countries’ and world history. They understand the geopolitics, appreciate the democratic values, and are well educated. Could you name three solutions that you implemented or else want to recommend as an advice how to counter disinformation, strengthen societies’ critical thinking skills and build civil resilience to disinformation? Countering disinformation is a multidimensional activity that includes monitoring, identifying, and understanding the problem, making it public, and taking action. The education of the society and its segments plays here a critical role. Starting in 2018, we have been organizing training courses to train volunteers from all over the world in digital resilience. This training course has become a comprehensive and dynamic platform for capacity building, sharing best practices, experience, and knowledge to better tackle the Kremlin’s disinformation and propaganda. Res Publica permanently monitors disinformation campaigns, fake news, and hostile propaganda against democracy, using cutting edge technology and data analytics systems, supporting and coordinating the international volunteers’ groups involved in digital resilience. What are the top three events or dates you have witnessed this year that have caused an intensification of disinformation activities? Covid-19 pandemic, 75th Anniversary of World War II, Defender 2020 – NATO military exercises, which had to be canceled because of the Covid-19 epidemic. In your opinion, which future three dates/events are likely to bring about the intensification of disinformation activities in 2020-2021? Covid-19 pandemic’s 2nd wave, US Presidential election, Parliamentary elections in Lithuania, The launch of the unsafe nuclear power Plant Ostrovets in Belarus and Russian-Belarus attempts to sell the electricity to Lithuania impede Lithuania’s plan to synchronize with the EU. What are the prevailing disinformation narratives you have observed in the media space this year. Master narratives remain the same: Anti-EU — “the EU as a place of moral and economic decay,” “the EU is deeply anti-democratic,” “the EU is falling apart”, Anti-NATO — “NATO, the insecurity alliance” and an aggressor, Domestic “Failure”, Anti-US — “American neo-colonialism”, History — “Controlling the past”, ‘Russophobia’ — “Russian threat as baseless hysteria”, COVID-19 topics only support one or another master narrative, such as domestic “failure” or anti-Trans Athleticism. Have you been relying on any fact-checking tools? If yes, please describe them or share the links. We are using an online fact-checking tool based on artificial intellect solutions developed by our partner Debunk.eu. The details you can find: https://debunk.eu/ Would you like to highlight any of the disinformation cases you have witnessed/ discovered/ debunked? We want to present a case study of a disinformation case debunked with our organization’s active involvement: https://euvsdisinfo.eu/report/german-tank-desecrated-jewish-cemetery-in-kaunas/. In your opinion, who are the best performing actors – in your country, as well as in the EU – playing crucial roles in the field of media literacy today and why? In a nutshell, no organization can be successful working alone. Countering disinformation and media literacy is a long term, consistent and comprehensive engagement requiring teamwork when both state and non-state institutions work together. Fortunately, Lithuania has good practice experience: the growing networks of NGOs active in formal and non-formal education; civic activists. Moreover, the mainstream media is very active in debunking fake news; investigative journalism is dynamic and growing; the country aims to make society’s whole approach fully functioning.   Are there any other points you wish to raise during this interview? We wish that the EU member states develop long-term cooperation and networks and start positive narrative campaigns rather than be preoccupied with only describing fake news cases…  Inteview from June, 2020. GIEDRIUS SAKALAUSKAS
Director of Res Publica – Civic Resilience Center
Sincere, goal oriented, reliable
Critical thinkers

DZINA DONAUSKAITE

What is your role in the organisation you are leading? The Lithuanian Journalism Centre focuses on journalism education and education about journalism and public communication which includes important aspects of media literacy. As the leader of the organisation, I am responsible for providing improvement opportunities for experienced mid-career Lithuanian journalists. I am also responsible for increasing understanding about journalism in the broader society. I also search for opportunities to do applied journalism research and prepare methodological materials that could serve as an inspiration for journalists to reflect upon results of their own work. Another focus of my work is seeking to connect journalists with underrepresented sources – be it sources from the disadvantaged social groups or sources that hold top-level expertise. Recently I have put a lot of effort to developing activities that help to improve journalists’ and society’s digital media literacy skills. In this department, we at Lithuanian journalism centre emphasise critical thinking about how digital media affect our society, knowledge we acquire while using it, individual security, and privacy. The latter is becoming increasingly important to journalists who tend to connect to confidential sources online and are seeking to protect their identities and wellbeing. How would you describe the mission and expertise of your organisation in the field of media literacy/ critical thinking/ fact checking/ countering disinformation? We provide deep knowledge and skills of the field that is crucial in countering disinformation. Theory and practice of quality journalism has always been related to verification, critical thinking, fact checking and media literacy. In the age of abundance of disinformation, I believe that importance of our work has significantly increased. What are the main resources developed by your organization you’d be willing to share? https://lzc.lt/leidiniai/erdve-moksleiviu-balsui-kaip-kurti-mokyklos-laikrasti/
https://lzc.lt/leidiniai/interneto-zemelapis-interneto-mediju-rastingumo-metodologine-priemone-mokytojams/
https://lzc.lt/leidiniai/ziniasklaidos-teises-vadovas/
https://lzc.lt/leidiniai/zurnalistu-darbas-interneto-amziaus-lietuvoje-issukiai-saugumui-privatumui-reputacijai/
https://lzc.lt/tyrimai/2020/atotrukis-tarp-moteru-ir-vyru-ekspertu-citavimo-ziniasklaidoje-vis-dar-didelis/
https://lzc.lt/naujienos/2019/demesio-neigaliesiems-lietuvos-ziniasklaida-vis-dar-syksti/ Which are, in your opinion, the three biggest current challenges related to countering disinformation in your country? – High inequality which is connected to socially widespread feelings of insecurity, powerlessness, isolation, and anxiety. Research shows that people who are experiencing those feelings are more likely to embrace conspiracy theories.
– Neglecting the system of public formal and informal education, little attention to media literacy within it.
– No policy to counter the spread of disinformation in social media. Could you name three solutions that you implemented or else want to recommend as an advice how to counter disinformation, strengthen societies’ critical thinking skills and build civil resilience to disinformation? – School newspapers project during which we travelled to Lithuanian schools and worked on developing media literacy and journalism skills of young people.
– Digital media literacy handbook for multipliers (school teachers, primarily).
– Expert media trainings which provided experts with knowledge and tools necessary to counter disinformation by spreading high quality expertise based on science and research. What are the top three events or dates you have witnessed this year that have caused an intensification of disinformation activities? – Pandemic during which various compulsory quarantine measured were introduced was the major push for the abundance of disinformation.
– Parliamentary election campaign during which some politicians relied on groups and people who are publicly disseminating disinformation.
– Anti-authoritarian movement in Belarus. What are the prevailing disinformation narratives you have observed in the media space this year? This year most of disinformation revolved around vaccination to prevent Covid-19, use of masks and other quarantine rules. National defence infrastructure and political decisions related to national defence is another area which constantly gets challenged by made-up narratives accompanied by hacking into media websites or emails of editors and journalists. In messages of this kind Lithuanian independence and some political declarations, like support for Belarus anti-authoritarian movement, are mocked. Have you been relying on any fact-checking tools? If yes, please describe them or share the links. Lithuanian journalists who are focusing on analysing disinformation narratives do a good job in deconstructing and verifying facts, so I always refer to fact checker’s articles on 15min.lt, Delfi.lt and lrt.lt to understand better the context of some prevailing disinformation narratives.
Interview published in April, 2021.
Džina Donauskaitė
Director, Lithuanian Journalism Centre
Curious, interested, focused JUDITA AKROMIENE
Critical thinkers

PAUL ZIBI

How would you describe the mission and expertise of your organisation in the field of media literacy/ critical thinking/ fact checking/ countering disinformation? For about three years, the association EDUK-MEDIA has been active when it comes to the development of the critical spirit in media practices. It organises awareness campaigns on online disinformation through its various channels like Facebook, Linkedln and Twitter.. What are the main resources developed by your organisation you’d be willing to share? https://twitter.com/EdukMedia/status/1367118381682458625?s=19
https://twitter.com/EdukMedia/status/1366315816812183556?s=19
https://twitter.com/EdukMedia/status/1364518060334456832? s = 19 https://twitter.com/NgalaDesmond/status/1364455778720047105?s=19 https://twitter.com/EdukMedia/status/1363209538942472195?s=19
https://twitter.com/EdukMedia/status/1361966866407821317 ? s = 19
https://twitter.com/EdukMedia/status/1361017129089261569?s=19
https: //twitter.com/EdukMedia/status/1360101700523220995? s = 19
https://twitter.com/EdukMedia/status/ 1359572282084110343? S = 19 https: //www.facebook.com/2118416268378783/posts/2950668671820201/? Sfnsn = mo https://www.facebook.com/2118416268378783/posts/2942211369332598 Which are, in your opinion, the three biggest current challenges related to countering disinformation in your country? Promoting media education. Reducing the digital gap. Supporting associations in activities related to combating disinformation and hate speech online. Could you name three solutions that you implemented or else want to recommend as an advice how to counter disinformation, strengthen societies’ critical thinking skills and build civil resilience to disinformation? Organising regular online awareness campaigns. Organising the training webinars on factchecking and disinformation techniques. Advocating the formalization of Media and Information Literacy (MIL). What are the top three events or dates you have witnessed this year that have caused an intensification of disinformation activities? The regional elections held on December 6, 2020 in Cameroon, the Covid-19 pandemic. In your opinion, which future three dates/events are likely to bring about the intensification of disinformation activities in 2021? The restrictions concerning the vaccination against the Covid-19, high unemployment, lockdown. What are the prevailing disinformation narratives you have observed in the media space this year? Controversy around vaccines against Covid-19, the stigmatisation of vulnerable people, online hate speech, exclusion and tribalism. Have you been relying on any fact-checking tools? If yes, please describe them or share the links. Google image search, which makes it possible to verify the authenticity of an image. In your opinion, who are the best performing actors – in your country, as well as in the EU – playing crucial roles in the field of media literacy today and why? In Cameroon, there are civil society organisations, in particular EDUK-MEDIA, which today plays a crucial role when it comes to the media literacy.
Interview published in April, 2021.
PAUL ZIBI
Digital law lawyer and media educator at EDUK-MEDIA, Cameroon
Disciplined, rigorous, moralising JUDITA AKROMIENE
 
Critical thinkers

GORDANA VILOVIC

How would you describe the mission and expertise of your organisation in the field of media literacy/ critical thinking/ fact checking/ countering disinformation? Formally, we do not have a media literacy classes at our University, even though this concept is visible on multiple levels. Of course, what preoccupies everyone is fact checking and countering disinformation. I tell my students fake news is nothing new, it has always existed, but in the past there were no social media which enabled the proliferation of it on such a large scale. Facts should be constantly checked, and only then should go public. What are the main resources developed by your organisation you’d be willing to share? For sure everything we do in respect of investigative journalism. I would also like to recommend the work of Faktograf from Zagreb, an organisation that is active in a network of all fact-checking institutions: https://faktograf.hr/. Which are, in your opinion, the three biggest current challenges related to countering disinformation in your country? I would say as much as we are a democratic country, and have all the characteristics of a modern democracy, we still have a problem with the lack of engagement on the side of the society. We also have journalists who struggle to survive, whose role is to write about the truth, or come close to the truth, but unfortunately they are blackmailed by life itself: they need to think about their children, their families, they cannot just easily say “I’m quitting my job”. Croatia is a small country and if they leave their job in Zagreb, it is questionable they will find a new job in Split. So it is very complicated and I think the biggest challenges are: undeveloped democracy, passive society and journalists blackmailed by life. Civil society plays important role, it works, but it cannot solve all problems. Could you name three solutions that you implemented or else want to recommend as an advice how to counter disinformation, strengthen societies’ critical thinking skills and build civil resilience to disinformation? This is a very difficult question. I can only say I admire people who say they will show you how to recognise fake news. I do not think there is a person who can teach you, you can only educate yourself, use all the grey matter of your brain to say this is folly, this is stupid, I do not want to be fooled by this and I do not want to read this article because it is a waste of my time. We need to teach people to use social media, not to get addicted to it, to stop acting upon curiosity which can be immense, not to fall victim to clickbait. I think we should practice ourself to spend less time on stupid things, which are infinite. I would first appeal to our habits, encourage better education, not just Google education, and of course help civil society to build a network against disinformation. What are the top three events or dates you have witnessed this year that have caused an intensification of disinformation activities? I think the pandemic was the first phenomena around which disinformation became enormous and where you could see the large amount of people who get hung up on that. So I think my answer is: Corona, Corona, and Corona. Would you like to highlight any of the disinformation cases you have witnessed/discovered/debunked? There was a lot of disinformation regarding the corona situation: claims that the virus does not exists, that Vitamin C helps to cure it, and many other absurd theories. In your opinion, who are the best performing actors – in your country, as well as in the EU – playing crucial roles in the field of media literacy today and why? I am not sure I could single out anyone. There is a lot of educated people and university lecturers in this field. I think media literacy should be taught in schools – from the youngest age to university level. But I cannot say anything special about Croatia.   Interview published in April, 2021. fot. Sasa Zinaja

GORDANA VILOVIC
Vice-dean, Political Science University of Zagreb
Responsible, inclusive, constructive JUDITA AKROMIENE
Critical thinkers

LEO BUDICIN

How would you describe the mission and expertise of the European Parliament in the field of countering disinformation? European Parliament shapes the legislative framework to counter disinformation and fake news by enabling a safe and open digital environment. What are the main resources developed by the EP you’d be willing to share? I’d like to recommend researches and publications elaborated by European Parliament’s think tank that can be found at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/home.html?publicationType=AT_A_GLANCE Which are, in your opinion, the three biggest current challenges related to countering disinformation? Strong polarisation of public debate, non-objective reporting and uncontrolled growth of digital platforms. Could you name three solutions how to counter disinformation, strengthen societies’ critical thinking skills and build civil resilience to disinformation? Better protect whistleblowers, question and check the source of information and improve digital literacy. What are the top three events or dates you have witnessed this year that have caused an intensification of disinformation activities? That would definitely be coronavirus, vaccines and elections. In your opinion, which future three dates/events are likely to bring about the intensification of disinformation activities in 2020-2021? Here again I have to mention coronavirus, vaccines and elections. Have you been relying on any fact-checking tools? I would mention here Google Fact Check Explorer, where we can search fact check results from the web about a topic or person: https://toolbox.google.com/factcheck/explorer Would you like to highlight any of the disinformation cases you have witnessed? Disinformation concerning the use of the EU funds, particularly the Recovery Plan. In your opinion, who are the best performing actors – in your country, as well as in the EU – playing crucial roles in the field of media literacy today? Whistleblowers – they expose relevant information that otherwise would stay hidden, often, to their own risk.   Interview from March, 2021. LEO BUDICIN
European Parliament Member’s Cabinet
Reliable, analytic, result-oriented JUDITA AKROMIENE
Critical thinkers

MAIA MAZURKIEWICZ

What is your role in the organization you are leading? I work for two organizations: the Alliance for Europe, of which I am the co-founder, and the European Front. We established the Alliance for Europe in 2018 to bring together civil society around the importance of the European Union, and to act together. We realised that populists and people who spread disinformation were able to communicate their messages much better. We wanted to do the same on our side. We started with the Vote4Friendship campaign, encouraging people to go to the elections. We aim to show that the best way to fight disinformation is via positive communication. During the European Parliament elections – in addition to this campaign – we launched a network of organisations dealing with the fight against disinformation. We worked with civil society and government administration, and we had constant contact with the European Commission. During the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015, we observed that disinformation strongly influenced social attitudes. That is why we decided to deal with this challenge. We had a network that we co-created with various organisations, and besides, we also started to create tools for monitoring the Internet. How would you describe the mission and expertise of your organisation in the field of media literacy/ critical thinking/ fact-checking/ countering disinformation? Our mission is to show that we are stronger together. By working together, all forces – and I am not just talking about civil society here – but about all people for whom democracy, freedom and European values are essential. Our mission is mainly to support the European Union, although we also look globally and monitor what is happening in the world. Our mission is to unite and give tools to the civil society, demonstrated that we can do more together. We also believe that one organisation cannot do everything, but we should cooperate. Everyone has different capacities and competencies. The European Front is a coalition of organisations that want to work together for the European Union. We made a research on the attitudes of Polish people towards the European Union, which in 2018 were very strongly influenced by refugees and migrants from Ukraine. Now we can see that also the pandemic is influencing these attitudes. Main project of the European Front was the Keyboard Warriors, fighting against disinformation on the Internet. What are the primary resources developed by your organization you'd be willing to share? (e.g., reports, analyses, scripts, educational materials, video clips, webinars. Please share the links.) The primary tool that we are working on is the Social Media Intelligence Unit (SMIU) –
https://www.alliance4europe.eu/2019/03/09/smiu/. SMIU is a tool for monitoring the Internet: both disinformation and hate speech. We operate on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. All the tools we use are legal and in line with the General Data Protection Regulation, which is extremely important to us. In addition to monitoring, we help various civil society organisations build up their Internet coverage. We also teach them how to communicate with the outside world, because communication remains a severe problem. We believe we can combat disinformation with positive communication. Why is disinformation spreading? It is proliferated on a large scale because it affects people’s emotions, and it conveys a simple message. We want positive information to be absorbed in the same way. Besides, we produce reports using the SMIU tool. Our most recent report was on Black Lives Matter. We also have a network of organisations dealing with disinformation. It includes representatives of the administration – not only European, but also American, as well as organisations from all over Europe and companies involved in the fight against disinformation and monitoring. This network has been operating since the elections to the European Parliament. We also conduct seminars, webinars, and workshops, during which we show how to think critically. We are currently applying for funds to build a platform to shape “media literacy” because we want to pass on our knowledge and experience to people. One of the main tools I use is contact with people, because education is crucial when talking about media literacy, and critical thinking,. The on-line dialogue that we carry in Poland and Europe with high school students, university students, but also with seniors is extremely important, and I hope that we will soon go off-line again. In your opinion, which is the three most significant current challenges related to countering disinformation in your country? One of the biggest challenges is to act together, and to adapt the messages to their audiences. The ability to communicate, to reach people. And for this, you need to talk to people in a comprehensive way. We must accept that the way Polish society perceives messages has changed, although this is a worldwide challenge. People prefer simple information, which is usually pictorial, sometimes in the form of a video. Actors who deal with disinformation, whether external or internal, know perfectly how to deal with it. We see what is happening on the Internet, what words we have to use to be visible. We know that our message has to be simple, straightforward. It is important how it is said, but it is also important how the information is visualised, whether it is a simple photo, how many words there are on the social media graphics. This is also what we teach our clients and civil society with whom we work through the Social Media Intelligence Unit. The most important thing is to reach out to people with positive information, and to enable them to select information. If Internet users write on Google: “Covid does not exist”, then, of course, they receive answers that there is no pandemic. We need to make them acknowledge the fact that Covid is there, and that they have to take it into account in their behaviour. Another problem is related to the Polish Government’s “360” campaign, which is about the manipulation of the society. The government is doing very well in communicating with the Poles, and changing social views. We have seen this in 2015 in respect to the refugees, and now – to the subject of LGBT. The viewers watch TVP, get some pieces of information, and then they see a poster about a similar subject, hear the same thing in the family, and their attitudes change, especially when there is no education. The lack of knowledge is a massive problem. People are more resistant to disinformation if they are aware that such a phenomenon exists at all, that they have to think critically, and be vigilant towards the information they are bombarded with on the Internet, especially if they see it affects their emotions. This is where a yellow light should light up. Of course, we are also more resistant to disinformation if we know the subject, which is difficult with the massive flood of information we are constantly subjected to. It is not easy to filter, to sift through the data. Education is the key. In Poland, there is a lack of appropriate regulations concerning the Internet, and hence the spread of hatred and disinformation. A tragic example is the assassination of the President of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, which was very much rooted in hate speech. Could you name three solutions to implement or recommend advice on how to counter disinformation, strengthen societies' critical thinking skills, and build civil resilience to disinformation? Monitoring the Internet, checking what our opposition is saying, and simplifying communication. Building simple messages and listening to our society, knowing what it wants and what we can offer to it – if we have a vision and can communicate it in a clear and comprehensive way. That is the role of social organisations and the media. Unfortunately, in Europe, it is the populist parties that have mastered the art of excellent communication. They know how to build up their messages and encourage interaction, for example the League in Italy, AfD (Alternative to Germany) in Germany. We monitor the Internet in terms of the divisions in society. The great challenge of today’s world is polarisation, which we observe in the USA, Brazil, and Poland. We must somehow stop this trend. What are the top three events or dates you have witnessed last year that have caused an intensification of disinformation activities? The first and most visible event is Covid-19 and the spread of the pandemic. Fear and emotion are an ally of disinformation. People are afraid of the virus. They absorb information and also all conspiracy theories coming with it. This was evident in Italy, where some part of the population believed that the European Union was behind the lockdown and its restrictions. As a rule, if we are afraid of something, we react in three ways: escape, confrontation, or freezing the reaction. In general, the pandemic has reinforced all conspiracy theories, including anti-vaccine, 5G, and so on. The problem is that every conspiracy theory has its own “experts”, in whom their supporters and followers believe. The regulation of Internet poses a question who is supposed to do it, and what is appropriate. Regarding events abroad, it is undoubtedly the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. There has been an enormous amount of disinformation and attacks on the whole movement. Of course, there was also the election campaign before the US presidential election, because it affects the entire world. In Poland, too, the presidential elections, intensifies disinformation activities. Also the issue of LGBT, around which we have a lot of disinformation and hate speech, and building behavioral change. In your opinion, which future three dates/events are likely to bring about the intensification of disinformation activities in the future? Once again, I must mention the US presidential elections and the problem of the vaccine for Covid-19. It will give room for disinformation measures to both Russia and China. Let me make a general remark at this point: why is Russia entering the western world so powerfully? It is because it wants to destabilise and manipulate Western countries and societies more easily. Another important event will be the parliamentary elections in Germany in autumn 2021. There will undoubtedly be a lot of disinformation regarding that subject. Belarus is also worth mentioning because Russia is bombarding Europe with its disinformation to drag individual countries or communities to its side in connection with the internal conflict. The battle around Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan is also essential. In the European Union itself, the EU’s climate policy, and what is happening around climate change, is also attracting disinformation activities. What are the prevailing disinformation narratives you have observed in the media space this year? Covid-19, anti-vaccine movements, refugees, and the already mentioned LGBT issues, as well as issues related to the “Czajka” sewage treatment plant. In regards to the European Union, it is Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki and the Polish authorities that have been saying for five years now many things that are not true, such as the claim that Poland is a net contributor to the EU budget, or President Duda’s words about an “imaginary community” (EU). It is also an essential problem that the authorities and political parties focus mainly on campaigns for the next elections and ignore the need to educate society, which puts a question mark over which country we will live in 10 or 20 years from now. Have you been relying on any fact-checking tools? Our primary tool, which I have already mentioned, is the Social Media Intelligence Unit (SMIU). It allows us to see in real-time who is most active on the Internet, identify keywords, establish whether someone is a bot, or a troll. The SMIU, which we have been developing for several years, is working well in practice. In your opinion, who is the best performing actors – in your country and the EU – playing crucial roles in the field of media literacy today, and why? We want the European Union to be the main actor, especially in financing “media literacy” – and the EU does offer grants in this area, but I do not think these are sufficient. We are still many years behind what Russia is doing about spreading disinformation. In regards to the organisations in our country that fight against disinformation, our environment is too fragmented and individualistic compared to those spreading disinformation. We must look within ourselves for what unites us, rather than divides us. We need to understand that the way we communicate and our better cooperation will result in our greater visibility and effectiveness.   Interview from March, 2021. MAIA MAZURKIEWICZ
Co-founder of the Alliance for Europe,
the European Front
Conscious, caring, strategic JUDITA AKROMIENE
Critical thinkers

MICHEL VIATTEAU

What was your role in your organisation? I was working as a coordinator of the fact-checking department at AFP for Central Europe covering three countries: Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. For five years, I was the head of the Agence France Presse office in Warsaw, and between June 2020-January 2021, I was dealing only with fact-checking. I contributed to the creation of the fact-checking department in the AFP’s European sector. I was involved in the reading, discussing, and final shaping of the fact-checking articles that AFP published. It was a tedious work, but at the same time very stimulating. This is an extremely important task in terms of the work of journalists in our times, especially in a situation where we are being flooded with false information, which is damaging both to society and democracy, and independent thinking. At the end of my almost 50-year long career as a journalist, I took up something that I believe is very useful. How would you describe your organisation's mission and expertise in the field of media literacy/ critical thinking/ fact-checking/ countering disinformation? It is about helping people not to fall victim to false information. The Internet, which has certainly done a lot of good for people, also has its dark sides. The net spreads incorrect information, all kinds of conspiracy theories, and accusations which have a negative impact on social life, political life, people’s understanding of the world. Disinformation often causes fear, because the basic instinct that governs public opinion is fear. Those who produce false information most often pray on this fear. Of course, they are sometimes financially motivated because you can also earn money by spreading fake news. Our mission is to stop this massive wave of disinformation, to debunk particular cases of false information, and at the same time to teach people to recognise fake news and not to give in to it. That, in short, is how I see our mission. What are the primary resources developed by your organization you'd be willing to share? We fight against disinformation at the primary, fundamental level. It is important, though, to have someone analyse disinformation, discover its sources, financial flows hidden behind it, as well as political or social motivations. This should be done by scientists, analysts, or experts. Meanwhile, we are trying earnestly to respond to statements containing false information. For example, a conspiracy theory appeared that Bill Gates was at the forefront of Covid-19 pandemic with an aim to reduce the world’s population. We proved that this claim was not true, explained on what basis we thought so, and how this could be verified. We are merely trying to convince people who, unfortunately, are willing to believe in such theories. This is again the case where fear works, and makes people look for a straightforward explanation of events. And we are trying to provide an answer to that. We also have conspiracy theories that the 5G network is somehow linked to Covid-19 and that it has a terrible adverse effect on human health. Such a theory is being disseminated in many parts of the world. Our fact-checking service operates in 39 countries. We could see that this conspiracy theory has been spread in the United Kingdom, in Italy, even in Africa. When an antenna mast in Italy burnt down, fake news immediately appeared – despite the fact there was no 5G antenna there – that “the opponents of the 5G network did it. This network is a deadly weapon of a world conspiracy, but fortunately, people burnt this mast”. No part of the world is free of such conspiracy theories, and that is dangerous. In your opinion, which are the three most significant current challenges related to countering disinformation in your country? What is most difficult for us is that we have both political and international challenges. There are, unfortunately, groups of political activists, as well as secret services of some countries, which have a clear, specific interest in producing false information, and they are doing it better and better at it. It is a significant challenge because fake news is constructed convincingly, and false information is presented if the form of seemingly reliable scientific arguments. They even include links to some research that may not have existed or is also bogus. This is a very serious challenge which should be handled by experts, because it is probably beyond an average journalist or fact-checker’s capability to debunk. We are trying to fight it. We discover and verify such high-quality fakes. Interestingly, fake news appear in almost identical form in different countries. The articles are practically literal translations of the same text. Some of them are aimed at combating, for example, NATO, the European Union, and others – at sowing mistrust or fear in society, which is also a destructive factor in social and political life. It is one of the most critical challenges. Unfortunately, the second challenge is the lack of a certain level of knowledge and curiosity among the Internet users. It is perhaps arrogant what I say, because it looks as if people did not know, and we knew better. But unfortunately, this is the way it is. People do not seek to search for accurate information from serious sources, which they often find boring or difficult to understand. The third challenge, perhaps a little less dangerous, is that people who express their opinions on the Internet tend to be very emotional. They do not approach the problem as a riddle, which needs to be considered, studied, and answered somehow. There are specific issues that give rise to strong emotions, and Internet users respond to them. They sometimes fight against our fact-checking activities, and I suspect that they also fight against scientists, although they probably have less access to them. Therefore, certain Internet users are blaming us for being a part of a conspiracy network. We were accused of being on the payroll of Bill Gates, for example, or large pharmaceutical companies, or some secret services. Fortunately, however, we are not on anyone’s payroll. We are trying to do our job, which we consider essential. Unfortunately, however, these emotions are difficult to counteract because it is impossible to explain anything to people who spread conspiracy theories. It is the third challenge. Could you recommend solutions how to counter disinformation, strengthening societies' critical thinking skills, and building civil resilience to disinformation? We have three solutions. One is to “bounce the ball” – that is, to debunk individual false information, one by one. And we are successful in that. We work with Facebook. When we describe some information as incorrect, Facebook adds our article to the post on the web and the false post is covered up with it. It does not mean censorship. Facebook casts a kind of “grey curtain’” on it, with a caption: “This post was deemed false by an independent fact-checker, and you can read about it here.” Anyone who wants to read the fact-checked version, will read it, and you can also read the original post with false information. Facebook is the vehicle through which 60% of the information reaching people from all over the world today goes through. Independent research has shown this. Unfortunately, good old, printed newspapers have not been doing very well recently. Another essential solution to educate people. To make them realise that there is so much fake news. People should be aware of this from the beginning. And when they know that there is a danger, they may be able to recognise it better. But it is necessary to teach them how to distinguish facts from opinions, to explain how fake news looks like and how it is made, as well as who produces it and why. I hope this kind of knowledge will allow at least part of the population to get immune to disinformation. So that people stop believing that if something appeared on the screen of their computer must be true – as in the past when you said that something was printed in a newspaper, it was considered true. The third solution is to raise the standard of living and education of societies. It seems that people who are less frightened by the changing world, and who live a more comfortable lives, will have more time for their own and independent reflection about what is true, and what is not, as well as a better understanding of what is happening. I am glad to be a news agency journalist, producing over the years the same information for all kinds of media: right-wing, left-wing, independent, and others. I managed to learn to avoid expressing opinions in a hidden way in texts that I wrote or supervised. For a news agency journalist, especially in a global agency, this is a necessity. We write for the Palestinians and the Israelis, for the Americans and people from Iraq or Afghanistan. We give dry facts. It sometimes may seem that our texts are less appealing because the reader needs an opinion, sharply expressed and illuminated in some way by the person who is writing the text. But that is the difference between news agencies and opinion-making media. I worked all my life in a news agency, and it seems to me that this approach is possible. At the same time, I understand that it is difficult for the majority  of readers to separate facts from opinions, and that they will read, even subconsciously, what corresponds to their beliefs. Someone is choosing Gazeta Wyborcza to read, and someone else – Gazeta Polska. Of course, it does not mean that agency journalists have not  their own views. The very selection of the facts we are describing, deciding which one is essential and which is not, can be perceived as expressing an opinion to some extent.  What title and “lead” is given, what can be found in the last paragraph that the reader may or may not read. That’s why we are also sometimes accused of manipulating information in some sense. We try to avoid this as much as possible, using the so-called “human interest” criterion, that is: what is essential to people? We write about this in the most neutral way possible. There was even a maxim, which was difficult to apply, that value-laden adjectives should be avoided. For example, we do not say that someone delivered a good speech. We simply state he or she talked about this and that. Whether it was good or bad can be seen from the reaction, whether the speech was received by applause or whistling. And these are the facts that we should convey. What are the prevailing disinformation narratives you have observed in the media space last year? A dominant one: Covid-19, but also anti-vaccinationists, seemingly unrelated to the pandemic, but some people are linking both that it is the same conspiracy. Have you been relying on any fact-checking tools? False information is often based on the abuse of different kinds of images, photographs or films. A movie made in Afghanistan may be taken to illustrate what has happened in Israel. Or a picture of some big demonstration may be taken as an illustration of an entirely different event. For example, a protest against the Slovak Government after the death of the journalist Jan Kuciak was used to illustrate a demonstration against vaccines, attended hardly by anyone. It is relatively easy to identify these tricks, and we have tools which allow us to quickly find the pictures used and check where they came from and what they really depict. As for the tools, these are search engines like Google Image, for example, but there is also Yandex, a Russian search engine –sometimes even better than Google. Algorithms are also now being developed that make it possible to find a lot of vital information through keywords. Suppose we identify false information containing a string of words. In that case, the algorithm can find other texts with the same content on the Internet. Simultaneously, algorithms are already being developed, enabling us to find false information through emotional language. Thanks to Facebook’s help, we use a much simpler tool to find information that may be inaccurate and analyse it. On the one hand, this is information that goes viral on the Internet and, on the other, the one that gets a lot of negative comments. We then carry out an independent investigation ourselves to see whether this is true or false – because there is also  accurate information that gives rise to comments of this kind. At the beginning of the pandemic, our fact-checker in Slovakia found a video, reportedly showing Wuhan’s town, where the pandemic began. There were plenty of beautiful skyscrapers, bridges, and motorways. With our Chinese department’s help, the journalist discovered that this video did not show Wuhan’s city at all. It showed various other Chinese cities, not Wuhan. This investigation was very long and tedious. In this compilation of beautiful skyscrapers, all the towns where their photographs came from had to be identified. But the article was awarded the title of “fact-check of the week” by an independent international fact-checking network. We also received information from Belgrade that a patient died due to the  ventilators’ failure in the hospital to which he had applied. The Minister for Health said that this was not true, and his words spread across the net. We established that the Minister was wrong, we described the case, which brought about a sharp reaction from the Serbian Government. However, we had substantial evidence to support our claims, and we managed to get away with it without any problem. In your opinion, who are the best performing actors – in your country and the EU – playing crucial roles in the field of media literacy today, and why? Institutes and university programs are slowly emerging, which are starting to deal with the problem of disinformation. I think we are at the beginning of this process, but we move in the right direction. A relatively large number of fact-checking services has also been set up, and this works at our level – information agencies and media. In Poland, we have several of them, not only AFP but also Kontakt24, a department of the Discovery group, TVN television. There is such a department – as far as I know – even in Gazeta Wyborcza daily; there is CyberDefence24, FakeHunter in the Polish Press Agency (PAP). There is also the Demagog group, which operates in several countries: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia. So there has been some reaction to disinformation. We also have the European project, which is only just starting, to fund these efforts on three pillars. The AFP participated in this tender organised by the European Union. It aims to create a common academic, journalistic and communication platform, reaching out to the public. Researchers and universities will run these three pillars. Still, there will also be fact-checkers involved, as well as organisations which will educate society very broadly: via open conferences and other types of events. We already have events of this kind in France, for example, “Media Week in Schools”. Different types of organisations with journalists’ participation appear in secondary schools and explain how media work, as well as how to deal with false information. My French colleagues have been working with teachers, briefing them what to tell students about it in their classes. If these European platforms are set up – and the EU has a budget for this – there will be anti-disinformation centres in key EU countries. We are witnessing the development of measures designed to respond to false information and its spread at the EU level. START2THINK – as far as I know – is also a part of this European offensive, and that is very good. In Poland, the Polish Press Agency is trying to organise online workshops or conference with different fact-checking communities so as to exchange experiences and move forward. So a lot is going on, but we are still in status nascendi.   Interview from March, 2021. MICHEL VIATTEAU
Until February 2021: coordinator of the fact-checking department
at AFP for Central Europe
Attentive, courageous, and curious JUDITA AKROMIENE
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Voices of Central and Eastern Europe

Globsec and Eastern Europe Studies Centre  In countries with higher rankings in democracy quality indexes, respondents are more satisfied with their current governance system than in countries on lower ranks; However, expressing higher support for liberal democracy over autocratic leaders does not correlate with their satisfaction with the current governance system – countries with most respondents preferring liberal democracy over autocracy are not necessarily the countries with highest degrees of satisfaction with the current system of governance.
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