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With reports riddling headlines of "fake news" in the media, questions have arisen as to whether this is simply poor journalism, or if there is a concerted effort by some journalists to co-operate with state-sponsored Information Operations (InfoOps). Is this a "liberal" problem, or could disinformation be found in "conservative" outlets, too? Should citizens trust the news presented to them? What if it comes from a source such as the Vatican?
Pope Francis met with members of the Vatican Dicastery for Communications, cautioning them to take initiative "unmasking" news that was "false and destructive" ahead of the recent controversial Pan-Amazon Synod. Speaking to the members of the Vatican and Italian press Sept. 23, the pope advised that "the task of a journalist is to identify credible sources ... put them in context, interpret them and give things their due importance."
The Pope's comments have come, however, after a tumultuous year for the Vatican press, including a scandal now known as "lettergate." Monsignor Dario Viganò, then prefect of the Secretariat for Communications (and now newly appointed vice chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences) was forced to resign after doctoring photos and omitting paragraphs of a letter sent by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Recently, Pope Francis received a copy of a book during an in-flight press conference, written by a member of the press, claiming certain Catholic media outlets and their financiers are promoting disinformation about him from the United States. The pope lauded the book, stating, "For me it's an honor that Americans attack me," and that the book was a "bombshell."
Ridicule is man's most potent weapon. There is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions.
Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions. People hurt faster than institutions.
Within the weeks that followed, certain individuals went to social media and published within their media outlets certain questionable rhetoric.
It was questionable, as they repeated keywords and themes that — when observed in context with one another — displayed a clear attempt at spreading disinformation. Concerning, as more than a few are directly connected to the Vatican Dicastery for Communications.
These events renewed questions as to whether some in the media — including Catholic media — are engaging in propaganda, or spreading disinformation. How is a reader to decipher if a journalist or media outlet is doing so?
I sat down with Daniel P. Gabriel, a former CIA Officer and subject matter expert on Information Operations (IO). Aside from his service in the Central Intelligence Agency, Gabriel has served as a senior strategic communications advisor and strategist to U.S. policymakers, civilian/military officials, international media organizations and foreign governments. He is also founder and CEO of Applied Memetics.
Gabriel shared with me how IO is active in the press, identifying factors and a standard of ethics readers should expect from journalists reporting the news.
Bree Dail: Mr. Gabriel, can you provide a synopsis of your expertise in the area of IO and journalism?
Daniel Gabriel: I graduated from George Washington University with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and a minor in political communications. When I joined the CIA as a staff operations officer in 2003, my focus was the "war of ideas" — specifically understanding how violent Islamic extremism poses a threat to the West. This job required me to apply everything I understood and had learned about strategic communications to advance the national security interests of the U.S. Government. I did this by working at Langley and overseas (including Iraq, Afghanistan and southeast Asia) to prevent the spread of this ideology.
BD: What are the basic definitions of IO?
DG: IO is often referred to as PSYOP, propaganda, active measures or covert influence. The terminology — and the methodology — tends to depend on the sponsoring organization or government agency. However, it proceeds from a general principle that the intent is to "inform" with the goal of affecting behavior — or in some cases preventing behavior. In this sense, it's really as simple as marketing or advertising, where the strategic objective is to change behavior. What's different — and in some cases can seem sinister — is when the hand of the sponsoring agent is concealed. In government circles, this spectrum is defined between "white" propaganda (attributed), to "black" propaganda (non-attributed, or, in some cases — attributed to a third party actor (aka "false flag").
BD: Based on your expertise in the agency (and in the private sector), what should readers know about IO?
DG: The methodology can be easy to spot, but the funding is critical to understanding the ultimate motivations of those engaged in IO. This is why so much attention is spent on identifying the nefarious and global activities of organizations like those sponsored by George Soros. In other words, follow the money.
BD: Why might a journalist spread disinformation or propaganda?
DG: In recent times, it has become fashionable for journalists to become advocates. The editorial line has disappeared from newspapers and broadcasts, and the Western public simply isn't sufficiently well-educated to be able to discern between opinion and reporting. … It's all the same thing. In modern journalism, it is common for journalists to wear their stripes on their sleeves. Look no further than the Twitter accounts of most national political journalists to understand where they are coming from. Look for common language use among similar outlets, common narratives or the use of anonymous, uncorroborated sourcing. Readers should expect journalists to prove their story to them, with factual data. Refuse to be told how and what to think by a journalist.
BD: What might indicate a journalist is an "agent provocateur" or a propagandist, and how might a journalist or outlet avoid being targeted for disinformation or propaganda operations?
DG: Be suspicious of the bylines that always seem to have the best access, especially "inside" access. Journalists have to work hard to obtain or maintain that level of access. Nothing is free in this world.
Be suspicious if journalists rely on anonymous sourcing. You're essentially taking their word for it, and sources are easily compromised — no matter how "trusted."
There are groups of so-called media personalities that are there to engage, entertain and "troll," but these are hardly journalists. They are "agent provocateurs." They don't care about the truth, they care about a narrative. You can find them on the political right and the left. They will take a truth and spin a lie from it — often to discredit the personal reputation of another.
Journalists, on the other hand, would be well-advised to stick to the principles of journalistic best practices, as taught in media programs and J-schools dating back to modern American political history. These practices include identifying sources, corroborating the information provided by sources, presenting both sides of an argument and letting the reader draw their own conclusion.
BD: There have been recent cases in the media where a certain journalist or outlet has published breaking news based on anonymous sourcing and no corroboration. Later, these stories were discredited by other outlets. Was this disinformation operations or just poor journalism?
DG: To me there are some broad takeaways in this scenario. First, I don't think any true journalist — any even semi-professional journalist — would put out something they know is false and can be disproven. However, if a journalist is misinformed to the extent that the story they are providing is inaccurate? Well, I think shame on them. They deserve to be discredited. Why would anyone want to be in such a position? It's embarrassing. Was no due diligence done? Why would an editor print a story without corroboration?
If a journalist's report is untrue, and proven so, he or she loses credibility and so does their outlet. As a journalist, you are there to inform, to educate and to influence.
As I said, journalists and "agent provocateurs" are two very different categories, and I believe it is impossible to be both, because as a journalist you are concerned about your credibility. You are going to check your sources, you are going to corroborate with factual evidence.
However, if this outlet in question — and I suspect this might be the case — is on the other side of the spectrum with the willingness to print outrageous or outlandish things to draw in readership or "clicks," then you've moved away from journalism. You've become an "agent provocateur." In other words, you're "fake news."