The 'fake news epidemic' in Armenia and the attempts to put an end to it
Fake news in Armenia
False, manipulative news has become an issue in Armenia’s online media.
Fact checkers have activated and redoubled their efforts, but there are not so many of them yet to be able to convey verified information to people; scandals and fake news remain more attractive to the audience.
Why and how have streams of disinformation and manipulative news penetrated the media? What attempts have there been to curb the tide of fake news?
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Massive streams of disinformation poured into media outlets in 2018 after the Velvet Revolution, Artur Papyan, consultant on information technologies and media and coordinator of Armenian programs at the Institute of Versatile Information says.
The former authorities moved into the oppositional camp and used their financial capabilities and their own media resources to discredit their rivals, the expert says. At the same time, he points to other streams of misinformation:
“Armenia is unique in that there are several other issues at work. In addition to the Armenian content, the Russian disinformation market acts and influences the media, and the American one is added to it, which penetrates us indirectly – through the Russian press. Oddly enough, we even see a flow of Chinese misinformation.”
In parallel with the coronavirus pandemic, according to Artur Papyan, the spread of disinformation in Armenia has grown into an infodemic. Society needs protection from this phenomenon, and one of the means of protecting it is media literacy.
Media literacy and the role of the state
Many local journalistic organizations are taking steps to neutralize the fake industry by helping people distinguish between false news and truthful information.
Media expert Artur Papyan says the Institute for Versatile Information and the Freedom of Information Center have jointly developed a fact-checking course. Since 2020, it has been introduced as a pilot project in journalism faculties of three universities, as well as in the curriculum of two schools.
The Media Initiatives Center periodically organizes media literacy courses for different groups of society, including NGO employees, school teachers and socially active citizens of different ages.
However, Gegham Vardanyan, editor Media.am, believes that in addition to the efforts of journalistic organizations, the state should also play its role in this matter. In particular, he believes that the authorities should support the inclusion of media literacy in the school curriculum.
“In addition, public television and radio, which are funded by the state budget, I think, should also assume a greater share of responsibility in this matter. Their resources can play a significant role, given their large audience and potential,” says Gegham Vardanyan.
Arthur Papyan also considers the role of the state in the fight against disinformation important:
“Since in Armenia significant funds are invested in the dissemination of manipulative information in the opposition press, it is necessary to understand how to stimulate the media to work without spreading disinformation and at the same time not harm the sphere itself.
The state can generally invest in the development of media literacy. And it should not punish the media, but encourage their quality work. “
The expert cites as an example a new legislative initiative, according to which media outlets are prohibited from referring to anonymous sources. He believes that people will still be interested in such information and immediately follow the anonymous source, skipping the media link of this chain.
In his opinion, in this way the authorities only help anonymous sources, but could find other solutions:
“It was only possible to oblige the media to indicate that they refer to an anonymous source in the material. That is, it would be good to act more leniently and give publications the opportunity to use multiple sources.”
In addition, the expert believes that the speed of dissemination of disinformation is directly proportional to the slowness of the authorities:
“State institutions must accelerate the cycles of information provision, officials respond as if they did not answer, or remain silent for days – and disinformation is spreading all this time.”
One of the platforms that counteract the flow of disinformation in Armenia is the “Verified” section of the media.am website. This is a project of the Center for Media Initiatives. According to the editor of the site Gegham Vardanyan, the “Verified” section is one of the most popular:
“In fact, we know that the audience is more attracted to fake news and misinformation. And we try to attract them to our publications, we try to write simply, we try to use the potential of social networks to reach out to people.
We use new formats, in 2020 we started to release podcasts. We know that fact checking does not always generate reactionary interest. It is a competition, an eternal struggle, and our hope is in the audience. The more we work with the audience, the more we involve people, the better the result will be. “
The editor of media.am believes that the information field in Armenia is polarized, and media resources have become direct participants in the political struggle:
“I see that for some editorial offices it was important not to provide the audience with reliable information, but to promote and support a political force. This leads to the fact that the amount of disinformation is growing so terribly. “
And after the Karabakh war of 2020, according to Gegham Vardanyan, distrust arose in the society towards information coming from state structures, the statements of officials have depreciated. The reason is in the misinformation that the state system allowed during the war and which was revealed after the end of hostilities:
“During the war, there was great confidence in official information. People said to each other: follow the official messages. And one day this trust was lost. “
Journalist Karine Ghazaryan, who works for the “Verified” section of the media.am website, believes that disinformation and manipulative messages in Armenia have become political tools:
“Fake news does not appear randomly, not by chance, but planned, it is used by various political forces in the form of campaigns – for months, years. Media field is sick, frail.
I think neither journalists nor the authorities are doing anything to improve the health of the sphere. It does not serve to control politicians, it is itself under their control, and therefore disinformation campaigns flourish. “
Journalists are trying to resist them, but there are few fact-checking editorial offices, and their potential is insufficient to improve the health of the sphere.
“Substantial efforts are needed, and it is the journalists who must demand these changes, must demand that their colleagues comply with professional standards. In many countries, the spread of disinformation without authorship, without names, the dissemination of manipulative information are factors influencing the professional reputation, they can be condemned in the professional environment, ”says Karine Ghazaryan.
She believes that during the war we were dealing with propaganda in its pure form, which could not be verified, since the government did not provide the necessary information.
“After the war, various politicians began to manipulate the topic, and the government continued to provide insufficiently clear information. And every day, every week, we get bizarre gossip, conspiracy theories, half-truths and unverified news.
The latest disinformation was the news spread by the special representative of the NKR head Boris Avagyan. A volunteer who does not represent the presidential administration said that HALO Trust, which has been demining in Artsakh for more than 20 years, handed over minefield maps to Turkey, that is, it is a Turkish spy, ”Karine said.
According to her, classical fact checking did not allow checking this statement, but journalists tracked who disseminated this information and how they substantiated it:
“This person referred to anonymous sources, and this person was wanted for many years in Russia, then he came to Armenia, it is not known how he became the special representative of the Artsakh president. And the words of this man, who did not provide any justification and did not indicate the sources, were transmitted by dozens of the most read and cited publications. “
According to the journalist, this is due to a lack of tradition and fact-checking skills.