Uphill battle for media outlets to regain trust with "cybertroopers becoming minions of disinformation"

08 May 2024 03:37pm
AI generated illustration by Sinar Daily.
AI generated illustration by Sinar Daily.

SHAH ALAM - In an age where digitalisation has revolutionised the way we consume information, traditional media outlets find themselves facing a new problem; cyber troopers.

Cybertroopers pose a significant threat to the integrity of journalism and the trustworthiness of online media platforms with Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Asia-Pacific Bureau Director Cédric Alviani stating that the spread of cyber troopers has worsen an age-old issue, presenting a multifaceted challenge to media organisations worldwide.

"Cybertroopers are the minions of disinformation.

"They can work for a lot of different actors. It somehow always existed because in the past, even at the time of printed media or radio, you had some printed media and radio stations carrying disinformation content," he told Sinar Daily in an interview recently.

It was not something and it did not recently "appear" with the digital world but what's different now, he said, was how the digital platform allows it to multiply and makes it exponential.

Alviani said times have changed but it was still the same concept where people went from printing letters that could spread the next day to merely leaving comments in a posting for millions to read a few seconds later thus the digital world has just added an extra dimension to it.

"It's not new, it didn't appear with the time of digital but what's different is that digital allows to multiply it, it makes it exponential. From priting letters which can be read the next day to leaving a comment and millions of people could read it. I would say it's adding dimension to the threat posed by these actors," he said.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Asia-Pacific Bureau Director Cédric Alviani.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Asia-Pacific Bureau Director Cédric Alviani.

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Alviani stressed the need for media organisations to revisit core journalistic principles and rebuild trust with their audience.

He suggests that media outlets must openly declare any potential conflicts of interest and prioritise the interests of their readers above commercial concerns.

"We are back to the basics. It starts with creating a transparent relationship with readers, engaging with them, and providing tools for fact-checking. Make yourself trustable, declare any potential conflict of interest," he said.

Alviani said this commitment to integrity was crucial in an era where public trust in media institutions has waned.

Highlighting further the broader consequences of practitioners failing to address the issue of disinformation, he said there will be a point where the public will no longer need the media outlets as they are readily available to believe other sources of information circulated online

Alviani, however, acknowledged that not all online sources are inherently untrustworthy.

He recognises that personal recommendations from trusted individuals can lend credibility to certain content.

Yet, he warns against the nature of disinformation that often masquerades as legitimate journalism, further eroding public confidence in media organisations.

"The problem is people being fooled by information and content dressed like real media content so that's why the media outlets somehow become unreliable for readers, because readers very often are confused, and they do not know if media outlet is working for them or working for advertisers or working for the owner," he added.

In the Malaysian context, there has been various parody media outlet social media accounts specifically on X, formerly known as Twitter. Among the parody media accounts include Astro Awatni (the real one is Astro Awani), MalaysiaKiri (for MalaysiaKini) and Sinar Hairan (for Sinar Harian). Awatni is a slang word for what's going on, kiri means left - a word play from kini which means now or current, and hairan means confused or confusing.

These account gained traction by posting parodies of real news and "jokes" about politicians and national issues.

Back in 2020, a global study found that Malaysia was among 81 countries where the manipulation of public opinion through social media remains a growing threat to democracies around the world.

According to a media manipulation survey by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), organised social media manipulation campaigns have been found in 81 countries, up from 70 countries in 2019, with global misinformation being produced on an industrial scale by major governments, public relations firms and political parties.

The OII director report's co-author Professor Philip Howard said it was vital the public rely on trustworthy information about government policy and activity.

The report said Malaysia’s cybertrooper activity is mainly from human accounts and fake bot accounts. OII said fake bot accounts are highly automated accounts designed to mimic human behaviour online.

OII said such strategies in Malaysia have been employed by government agencies, politicians and political parties, private contractors, civil society organisations, citizens and influencers.

Meanwhile, in its “Global Disinformation Order” report the same year, OII said social media accounts driven by cybertroopers in Malaysia that include accounts on Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Twitter were used to spread pro-government or pro-party propaganda, attack the Opposition in smear campaigns and suppress participation through personal attacks or harassment.

The report’s lead author Dr Samantha Bradshaw, said the 2020 report highlights the way in which government agencies, political parties and private firms continue to use social media to spread political propaganda, polluting the digital information ecosystem and suppressing freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

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