Pérez Tornero: “The key is how to live with disinformation while fighting against it” | Interview on the eve of the Doctoral Summer School 2024 (UAB)

June 14, 2024

On the 1st of July, the Doctoral Summer School opens. This course deals with what seems to be a crucial question: how can communication and journalism respond to the challenge of information. Can you describe how you will approach this issue?

We want to help answer this question from a reflective, scientific point of view. A doctoral programme is in fact a collective platform for scientific research to answer certain questions. So in this summer school, what we seek to do is to sort out the questions that, from many perspectives, are being asked in relation to the object of the programme, which, as its title indicates, is Communication and journalism in the face of the challenge of disinformation

We have divided the sessions into two distinct parts. The mornings have been dedicated to conferences and debates with researchers and doctors who work, from different disciplines, on disinformation and its context, and how the media and journalistic work face them. We have also invited the directors of the department’s research groups. We have asked all of them to do two things. First, they should formulate the questions they consider essential on the general issue of disinformation, which will help us to understand what is relevant and to rule out the noise.  The second is to summarise the main lines of research on the issue.

The afternoons, the second part of the day, will be dedicated to the doctoral students of the programme, who will present their own doctoral research (or that of the research group they belong to), always in relation to the general theme of the School. To this end, we will organise round tables and colloquiums that will group together specific areas of research. There is also the possibility for those who wish to present a poster on their doctoral research work and are willing to discuss it with interested parties.

Who is participating in the first part, the morning sessions, and why?

All the names and CVs are listed in the programme. But I will refer specifically to what we have asked of each of them. The week will be opened by Dr. José María Mártínez Selva, professor of psychobiology at the University of Murcia. He has done a lot of work on the relationship between media and networks and personal psychology, with emphasis on factors such as stress, personal relationships, etc.  He has just published a book whose subject tackles the question of truth and lies from the very beginning: “La ciencia de la mentira“. We felt that, as the opening of the course, his multidisciplinary approach – ranging from neurology to sociology and communication theory – was very relevant. We expect him to place the issue of disinformation in a broad context and to provide us with a holistic perspective. 

We have then invited different professors and PhDs from the programme department – Luis Pérez, Santiago Tejedor, Michele Catanzaro, Cristina Pulido, Teresa Velázquez, Carmina Crusafón, Sally Samy, Samy Tayie, and others – to give us their different views on the issue. Thus, we will deal with polarisation and the media, the scientific method and journalism, the contributions of AI to journalism -with its problems and solutions-, EU policy in relation to disinformation, and so on. And we close the week with the contribution of another guest lecturer, Dr. Lluís Codina, who will help us to unravel the contributions that AI can make to our scientific work in the fight against disinformation. 

I think the programme is very interesting and quite comprehensive in its approach. We hope that it will serve, above all, to enrich the different doctoral research of the researchers in the programme. 

But is the course only for them?

No, the course is open to all researchers, scholars and professionals interested in the measurement of the capacities of our rooms. They are very welcome.

From your point of view, what are the challenges facing journalism and communication in the face of disinformation?

They are many, varied and affect different dimensions of our personal and social lives. 

To try to answer this question, it is necessary to contextualise the phenomenon very well. What we call disinformation today is an everlasting phenomenon in humanity. It has to do with knowledge and the distribution of power. Those who are powerful, govern or simply want to impose their designs on others have always known that to achieve their goals they had to impose a cognitive (or information) imbalance. They had to accumulate more and better knowledge than those on whom they seek to impose their will. And for this they have used, throughout history, many different strategies, but always oriented to this end: accumulating information exclusively, prohibiting the circulation of information, selectively informing, misinforming, concealing, manipulating, falsifying, etc. All these strategies correspond and adapt to the circumstances and technologies of the different eras and their information systems. In ours, it is clear that this unequal distribution of knowledge or information corresponds to (and feeds) inequalities of resources (subsistence, on the one hand, and of power, on the other), but also of social relations (social capital) and cultural relations (cultural capital).

And this unequal distribution takes place in the midst of what we have called the media tsunami (the great mediatisation) that has digitised – through large platforms – human relations. This is what we need to study. 

Personally and with my research team, we have dealt with many aspects of this problem. I have tried to describe and theorise how media technologies transform culture and society, affecting dimensions of our existence of which we had little awareness. I have done so in “La gran mediatización“. I tried to draw attention to the enormous and growing power of large platforms that were giving rise to two worrying phenomena: a) super-surveillance, a new system of mass control over people; and b) the concentration of political and technological power, what has later been called techno-feudalism. I believe that issues such as echo chambers, studies on post-truth and, in general, what is being studied on disinformation, respond to a double problem, derived from the unequal distribution of knowledge, on the one hand – which, as I have said, is an almost eternal problem – and, on the other hand, a very recent phenomenon that acts as a communicational infrastructure and as an accelerator of processes, which is the digital tsunami. 

But, more specifically, how does this unequal distribution and the media tsunami affect journalism?

Well, let’s be blunt, like a catastrophe that is no less serious for having been announced. Economic catastrophe. The journalistic media can no longer find a business model that allows them to survive, and so they disappear, lay off staff and close down. Or they transmute into infotainment (and fiction) systems that use the changing world as an occasion to launch discourses that, although they look like journalism, do not meet the standards. 

What standards are you referring to?

Those that have made journalism a reliable discourse about the world. And that can be summed up in a few sentences: the separation between fact and opinion. The acceptance that the world has an empirical reality that we can approach with a method similar to the scientific one; the need for objectivity or neutrality (which does not exclude a commitment to certain values) but which requires not lying, not misrepresenting, not hiding the facts; and, finally, an ethical commitment to honesty and credibility that is established with the public… All these statements or principles are what have made journalism a discourse conducive to understanding the world and support for democratic understanding when it comes to shaping the structures of power. It is this discourse that can build a democratic public sphere.

Well, what is now called journalism is either very weak and has lost its power of conviction or impact on public opinion, or it is a hybrid between the language of conquest, entertainment and the trivialisation of society.

If these standards are perverted by sensationalism, banality or manipulation, journalism will gradually disappear. 

But what can be done? 

I believe that current research helps us a lot. It helps us to critically analyse the situation and look for solutions. 

On the critical side, it is beginning to be recognised that the global, and completely unregulated, emergence of the Internet and social media is not helping to sustain democracies. On the contrary, it is eroding them. It encourages the circulation of falsehoods and the discourse of entertainment rather than scientific thought and the discourse of understanding. It saturates information and dulls meaning. And, above all, it reduces direct sociability and envelops us in bubbles where only echo chambers thrive. I think there is plenty of evidence for all this, although some effects can be debated and we still lack the knowledge to be completely certain about what is going on.

On the constructive and political (also professional) side, the stakes seem to be firm and move in three directions: a) the search for more plural and diverse communicational systems, which are free from economic and political influences, and which can safely face the question of economic survival; b) the regulation of social networks, of the Internet and of AI: for the first time, a certain consensus seems to be spreading on the need for ethical, professional and legal regulation of many aspects related to the media tsunami; and c) the transformation of the political system, especially the functioning of democracies: it seems that communication sciences and political sciences are looking for ways to make the democratic political sphere more transparent, more participatory, less demagogic and to ensure a good distribution of power and an effective resolution of conflicts and problems. 

Is there a solution in sight?

I am optimistic. There is no denying that we face great challenges and enormous obstacles. But research and public debate can help many – and in many ways – to find solutions. 

I think the scientific community is being very active in this regard. There is an explicit and more visible emphasis than ever before on the role of media literacy and journalism literacy. In this sense, we have moved from approaches that were especially related to education and training to involve a broader set of issues. This movement is being promoted by international organisations such as UNESCO, which has made Media and Information Literacy a central focus of its action in the field of information and freedom of expression. The same has happened with the United Nations, which has launched a broad programme of action against disinformation. The European Union has also put media literacy at the centre of the fight against disinformation. The World Economic Forum is also talking about the global risks of disinformation, and so on. In short, it is clear that the problem is a matter of concern.

The solutions and contributions that are being implemented in the academic field are very interesting and offer very valuable information. They range from observatories specialised in the fight against disinformation, EDMO, observatories and reports on pluralism, political initiatives such as those of the Council of Europe, professional and academic networks, such as the UNESCO Global Alliance, the UNESCO network of universities in favour of MIL, or the one being promoted by specific states such as the USA, DCN

Taken together, I believe solutions will be found. The problem is whether we will be in time to avoid catastrophes. 

What catastrophes are you referring to?

To the many that may ensue: terror of coexistence, civic conflicts, armed confrontations, erosion of democracy, perversion of the public sphere… All this has to do with the media, communication, journalism and information. And the problems at a time of geostrategic and technological change as important as the one we are living through create a lot of uncertainty.

Is social polarisation an aggravating factor?

A certain degree of confrontation and dialectical conflict is enriching for democracy, for reliable information and, above all, for finding solutions to conflicts. What happens is that this confrontation needs a stable, calm and explicit framework for argumentation and reasoning. All voices must be listened to calmly, exchanges must be equal, discourse must be rational, based on empirical data and respect the facts as much as the interlocutors. If this is the case, debate (even if polarised) is good. However, what we are experiencing nowadays is that debates are moving away from rationality and are based on emotional discourses in which identity, subjectivity and sentiment seem to prevail over any other consideration. Thus, victimhood, fear, emotional impulses, unbalanced by any calculation, are spreading. And even the perspective on reality is blurred: it is not science that is taken into account, but the will of those who want to see reality in their own way… If this happens within a media system where the circulation of information is not filtered or subjected to criticism, where any statement, true or false, spreads at the speed of light, then the problem is serious. Paul Vrilio said that we are moving in the dimensions of an atomic explosion, and that is how information works today. The risk is therefore great, and polarisation is the catalyst for fanaticism and the spread of statements that do not correspond to reality.

What about scientific discourse?

Paradoxically, the more and better science is practised, the more stereotypes, clichés and superstitions that seemed to have been overcome reappear in popular discourse (and that of certain elites). It is as if we were experiencing a certain involution. In the face of this, the media and journalism must make science and its methods more popular and spread them throughout all areas of society. Involve citizens in the decisions of scientists and in the consideration (and regulation of the impact of technology). This is important and a matter of survival.

When it comes to doctoral programmes such as Communication and Journalism, it is very important – and I give this as an example – that in the choice of the objects of study, in the implementation of methods and in the presentation of results, doctoral students get used to discussing not only with experts and researchers, but also with ordinary people, with those who live and suffer, sometimes, the effects of communication. I think this is a more participatory and creative way of doing science. And of communication research. 

To address some of the topics that will be presented at the Summer School 2024, what will happen with AI and journalism?

We don’t know. We are beginning to think of AI as both a boon and a risk. Let’s start with the risks. The minor risk is substitution, that AI will replace some of the tasks that journalists have been doing up to now. And the greater risk is that they will supplant them (which is a covert and disguised substitution). If the supplanting happens, journalism is ruined, it will be nothing, just a machine generation of discourse.

This is what AI research must shed light on: where are we going? where do we want to go? where should we go? and how do we get to the destinations we set out for?

At the moment the research we can do is very weak. We do not have the resources that the big technology platforms are mobilising. We cannot do research either on them (hardly) or with them (hardly at all). So we are disarmed, at risk. I think this is one of the big problems we need to solve soon. Otherwise the drift of technology and the application of AI in journalism and media will be authoritarian. 

With all that you says, it’s a bit scary about the future world.

As researchers we should be alert, but not afraid. The siege of falsehood and superstition has been constant in humanity, as has the siege of abusive power and inequality. Today we have methods to combat these evils. We have new risks, but more collective intelligence to deal with them. We have to live with falsehood, hypocrisy and lies, which are inherent to social life. But the struggle for truth, for respect and reliability is our best antidote. 

We can live with lies without giving up the fight against them. Journalism and science can be at the forefront of this movement, and research can accompany it with all its knowledge and intelligence.

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