Georgia State University’s Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative (TCV) has brought 14 faculty members together to examine the causes of violence around the world, to explore means of predicting violent occurrences and to develop effective remedies for preventing their occurrence. Their fields of expertise are wide ranging from anthropology and computer science to psychology and religion.
The initiative also provides 12 Presidential Fellowships for doctoral students working in related areas. Among them has been Michael Jablonski, who in 2016 received the Outstanding Academic Achievement by a Graduate Student Award from the Department of Communication. Mr. Jabblonski, who holds degrees in economics and in law from Emory University, is a former editor-in-chief of The Atlanta Lawyer. He is a co-author with Dr. Shawn Powers of The Real Cyber War The Political Economy of Internet Freedom.
Mr. Jablonski analyzed today’s media scene for a Great Decisions program hosted by the Georgia Council for International Visitors on Jan. 25 at the Dunwoody Methodist Church. His presentation, which provided insights into the current status of conventional journalism, the proliferation of “fake news,” the foreign policy implications of misinformation and the potential for cyberwarfare.
His presentation was attended on behalf of Global Atlanta by Obinna Morton, owner of Turns of Phrase LLC, who recommended a follow-up email interview to which Mr. Jablonski graciously agreed. The interview follows:
Global Atlanta: The Internet was to bring the world closer together, but it appears to have lead to increased polarization and divided people and issues into silos. Do you agree and do you think that this development is permanent?
Michael Jablonski: Let me point out that the Internet did not do anything. It is a tool. Division and polarization came about because of the way that users of the tool behaved. The belief that the internet would bring people together or introduce worldwide peace is the relic of a model postulating that simple, efficient, and cheap communication would only have positive consequences. Every tool ever developed could be used positively or negatively – and assigning a quality has often been different for different societies. The good/evil vector is not inherent to the tool but is a result of ways that people use the tool. Is this a permanent state of affairs? I am not really very good at predicting how people will act. I suspect that the situation is not permanent, however.
Global Atlanta: If you agree, how do you think that this happened and do you think it will be responsible for causing considerable harm to our society.
Mr. Jablonski: Every new communication technology has been accompanied by predictions of societal doom. The development of the movable type printing press in the 15th Century, for example, allowed people to produce quantities of written material that could be dispersed instead of reserved for an elite class. The former dominant communication technology – script – did not lend itself to mass communication. The use of vernacular instead of Latin in written materials allowed people to read for themselves instead of having written word interpreted to them from a pulpit. Widespread use of the technology caused society to end one form (which we call the Middle Ages) and develop another (the Renaissance). If you were someone who copied script for a living, or dictated to common folk then your society was considerably harmed by people employing the printing press. But for people suddenly interested in learning, and individualism, and creativity and science, the resulting society was considerably enhanced.
The same evolution is occurring now. If your livelihood is tied to the printing press, or manual labor, or local production of finished goods (or many other activities) then people using the internet menace society. Societies do not often fail as much as they evolve. Inevitably we will experiment with new forms of organization, conduct and consciousness.
Global Atlanta: You mentioned that most people don’t have time to follow all the news to which they are exposed day-by-day. For this reason, I think it is your view, that we are fortunate to be living in a republic rather than a democracy where every issue would have to be decided by majority rule. Is our understanding of your view correct?
Mr. Jablonski: Most people do not have interest in intensely following news in addition to not having time. I salute them. If everyone followed the news to the extent that you or I do, we might have better government but nothing would get done. We need news junkies. We also need people running businesses or creating art or a thousand other activities. News junkies (now called “policy wonks”) tend to have extreme cognitive bias magnifying the importance of their beliefs, activities, and values. The essence of the American republic is a recognition that every citizen plays an essential role but the role changes from person to person. Citizens in a democracy would have to educate themselves on every decision that comes up for a vote. The first session of the 115th Congress (2017) saw the Senate take 325 roll call votes and the House 710. Only complete dedication by law-makers propped up by a large contingent of staff makes it possible to handle the volume of work. (And these numbers do not include procedural, committee, or non-roll call votes.) The genius of our form of government is that it enables people interested in governing to run for public office while insulating people interested in other enterprises from the burden of having to govern. A republic composed of representatives elected democratically enables the country to divide responsibilities in ways that maximize contributions from everyone.
Global Atlanta: Nevertheless, do you have reservations about the role of the “billionaire class” in the U.S. and the amount of power it exerts and the control that it has now and will have in the future over media outlets?
Mr. Jablonski: We talk about protecting American democracy. Preservation of the republic is equally important. The rise of an American oligarchy capable of bending power structures, including media, to its service disrupts essential features crucial to the functioning of a democratic republic. We rarely hear about checks-and-balances anymore. The executive, legislative, and judicial government branches – as well as a committed and free media – have been Balkanized into competitive actors rather than as inherent parts of a system. Although we have witnessed in the last year important episodes of the judiciary checking the executive, or the legislative balancing competing policy interests, the response by the checked and balanced has been prattle attacking other branches as being disruptive, disloyal, or disordered. Attack language does not foster cooperation. The oligarchy collects media outlets for two reasons. One is to make money. Feeding readers’ demand for sensational stories increases revenues. Second, media is an important player in our democratic republic, so owning a media outlet is a source of power. The internet holds the possibility of acting as competition to entrenched media.
Global Atlanta: Please let us know your feelings about all the hubbub about “fake news,” misinformation, and false narratives that are disseminated over the internet.
Mr. Jablonski: Your unbiased reporting might be my fake news. The basic problem addressed by communication theory is that information you pass along to a receiver distorts because of infrastructure errors, bias of both the sender and receiver, cultural differences, and lack of common language. Fake news, misinformation, and false narratives have always been out there. They are not a function of the internet but of how we use the internet. Lunar landing deniers existed well before networked computers became commonplace. The problem is different now because purveyors of false news have access to an inexpensive tool for mass communication that resembles honest reporting. Remember that the email purportedly from your bank asking you to verify your account number, user ID, and password is a form of misinformation that hundreds of thousand people interpreted as truthful. The antidote to that scam is to be a smarter user of online banking. Similarly, the antidote to fake news and misinformation is to be a smarter consumer. Readers who get news from the internet will learn to look for sources of stories, reference to evidence rather than conclusions, and other markers of false narratives. We will need to start teaching these skills in schools. False news is an immediate problem because we let it be a problem.
Global Atlanta: We know that you and your Georgia State colleague Shawn Powers wrote a book about cyber crimes and cyber warfare that focused a good deal on the extent of different cultural views across the globe and the implications for managing a global resource such as the internet. Are the polemics surrounding Russian interference in elections in Europe and the U.S. a real threat to democracy or do you feel that they are being overplayed for political gain?
Mr. Jablonski: We argued in The Real Cyber War that major international players – states, NGOs, and businesses – control of access to information is a bigger (and harder to detect) problem than network intrusions and cyberattacks. Hacking into a network to steal identities is much easier to understand than the utilization of digital networks to further military and geopolitical goals. Selecting and emphasizing portions of information on a topic constitutes framing. Frames are utilized by consumers to organize information in useful ways. Major players manipulate information to make users more accepting of arguments that result in benefits to the manipulator. It is done by making some information secret, organizing databases in ways where some information is easier to access than others, denying access to the internet, and many other ways. Allowing an ISP to favor the delivery of some information over others is another information modeling tactic. In a way, The Real Cyber War warned about interference such as that perpetrated by the Russians in 2016. They executed a program of disseminating false information through social media websites, knowing that the misleading material would be copied, magnified, and further disseminated by innocent users. The purpose of the attack, in my opinion, was not to disrupt the election but to inculcate disgust with the election process so they would choose not vote, which in turn would deprive the winner of legitimacy. Even worse, they acquired data from state election offices, state and national political parties, and candidates. We don’t know why they hacked the data, but it demonstrates a capacity to completely undermine an election. Yes, it is a real problem.
Global Atlanta: In your career you have seen the rise of CNN and Al-jazeera. Are these just harbingers of more to come and if so what will be the implications for the future?
Mr. Jablonski: I believe that we will see the formation of more worldwide media outlets that disseminate news and propaganda. (Good luck sorting it out.) The Russian government set up Russia Today (now RT) in 2005 as an English language 24/7 international news purveyor. It created the Arabic language Rusiya al-Yaum (2007), Spanish language RT Actualidad (2009), RT America (2010) and the RT Documentary Channel in 2007. France set up France 24 as an international news channel providing stories in Arabic, French, Spanish, and English. Six nations in Latin America established and funded Telesur, a television channel available internationally via satellite. Almost 30 other international television networks now exist. I believe that we will see the development of more international news networks because it forms a way of getting information directly to the citizens of another country. Most people are not aware of the number of these outlets because of comfort using a few channels that they recognize and because cable operators do not make most of the stations available. (Another example of molding the information you can access.)
Global Atlanta: Have you seen the film ‘The Post’? If so, how did you like it and do you feel comfortable with the way in which the Pentagon Papers were published. Do you see this moment in U.S. journalism as a precursor for the activities of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange?
Mr. Jablonski: I was in college during the two notable information crises of the last century – The Pentagon Papers and Watergate. The Post played a major role in both. I felt that the movie captured the sense of conflict at the time about when theft of information can be justified. I liked it a lot. Snowden and Assange cannot be compared to Daniel Ellsberg, the RAND employee who liberated the Pentagon Papers. Although all three of them were charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, Snowden fled to Russia before he could be apprehended and Assange retreated to the Ecuadoran embassy in London. Both are still being sought for trial in the U.S. Ellsberg, by contrast, voluntarily surrendered to the U.S. Attorney a few days before the Supreme Court decision that is central to the movie. He went to trial in 1973. During the trial improper acts by the government were uncovered: the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist was burgled with permission from the White House and without a warrant; Ellsberg’s phone had been tapped, again without a warrant; the government failed to provide the defense with transcripts. When the government claimed that it had lost all records related to Ellsberg wiretaps the trial judge dismissed all charges because of prosecutorial misconduct and attempting to obtain evidence through illegal means. Going to trial for potential espionage is significantly different than evading trial by absconding to another country. The Supreme Court decided that the First Amendment protected the Post and the New York Times from prosecution for publishing classified material leaked to them. The Court did not absolve Ellsberg from any charges.
Global Atlanta: During your talk at the Great Decisions forum, you mentioned that you feel the various media including traditional and social media will converge. Very few people have tried to put their arms around where all this is going. Could you describe the great convergence that you foresee and whether you feel it will be a good thing or not? Do you think that this convergence will have an impact on U.S. foreign policy?
Mr. Jablonski: The death of newspapers (and all other hegemonic media) has been predicted as a consequence of extensive internet use to learn about news. Abandonment of newspapers by readers decreased revenues because advertisers were not reaching as many people as they had reached previously. Deprived of revenue, newspapers would go out of business. Many print publications have in fact disappeared in the last ten years. A few papers sought relief by publishing in part or in whole on websites. Some newspapers have been able to slow their decline with an electronic media strategy. The point, however, is that media have begun to assimilate online ways to diffuse information. It is now common for a print publication to exploit social media. Reporters post stories on blogs before they appear in print. Broadcast and print media offer text- and email-based alerts providing everything from sports scores to financial news. Traditional media increasingly employs new media for content. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are trolled for content that can be put on media websites, as well as printed or broadcast. “Citizen journalists” are encouraged to submit pictures or video. TV stations and other news organizations offer secure “tip lines” for story suggestions. On the other hand, newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media affect social media. A large percentage of stories used in blogs either repeat stories from mass media or are inspired by mass media. Some web sites try to emulate the look and feel of traditional media. Print media often publishes URLs to let readers go to a site for more information. Online editions of newspapers use hyperlinks to let readers jump to documents used as sources. Readers no longer have to trust a reporter’s interpretation since they easily can read linked documents. So it is obvious that the two forms of communication are converging. The trend will continue, especially as newspapers start to put expanded content online.
Global Atlanta: The spread of social media and the trials of the newspaper publishing industry are occasionally criticized for the “dumbing down” of the American public. Do you feel that this criticism is correct?
Mr. Jablonski: Yes, I think that much of what is circulated fails to challenge readers. The idea is to find a level of complexity that will attract the most readers. One reason that traditional media is struggling to attract customers is the belief by readers that they are being talked down to. Mass media, among other things, communicates and enforces social norms. Readers are shown (not told) what behavior is acceptable. When there is a violation by a celebrity or other public person, papers excoriate the offender. Media is in a unique position to show that we live in a society that can improve. Making that case requires some long form journalism as well as a clear vision of appropriate behavior. “Dumbing down” to reach a mythical common reader undermines progress.
Global Atlanta: Can the news consuming public in the U.S. (and yes across the world at large) be educated to become better truth checkers as consumers of news, just the way that when they go to the grocery store they are more aware of the contents of the products that they buy?
Mr. Jablonski: Absolutely. Why hasn’t the public been educated? In large part it is because we are dealing with relatively new technology that people adapt quickly to tasks. The evolving nature of technology use makes it difficult to establish practices allowing news consumers to be fact checkers. I believe that people are learning, however. It is very easy for an online news reader to check assertions made in a story by reference to another site found with a Google search. The difficult part will be teaching people to be active consumers. Knowing the right question to ask is fundamental. We currently do not teach students (and consumers in general) to say, “Can that possibly be?” When we start asking such questions then we will get more nuanced reporting.
Global Atlanta: Would you recommend new graduates of Georgia State to choose journalism for a career?
Mr. Jablonski: It is a tough question if, like me, your concept of a career journalist is rigid. My mother was a reporter, then a feature writer, then a columnist. She had an editor. She also had a deadline, which is why I learned that she had an editor. I am finding that students have a much larger definition. Journalism is one of the largest majors at Georgia State. I ask students why they want to be trained for employment in a dying industry. They believe that providing information on a mass scale will become increasingly important, only it will not be by newspapers or broadcast media. The convergence of new technology with the old is very apparent to them. Problems caused by misinformation, false narratives, and fake news are understood by them. As a result, they seek training in the ethics of reporting, good writing, and civic responsibility. I (and most of my students) believe that posting information on a blog imposes an ethical responsibility to be fair, acknowledge biases, write creatively, and aspire to a high degree of factual accuracy. That is what journalism teaches.
Global Atlanta: Thank you.
To learn more about Georgia State’s Transcultural and Violence Initiative, click here. For Mr. Jablonski’s professional bio, click here. For Global Atlanta interviews with Shawn Powers, Mr. Jablonski’s co-author for The Real Cyber War, click here and here.