Marius Dragomir, the Director of the Center for Media, Data and Society, CEU, has spent more than 15 years in the media research field, specializing in media and communication regulation, digital media, governing structures of public service media.

He coordinates Media Influence Matrix, a global research project looking into power relations and undue influence in news media. Key institutions from the European Union accuse waves of disinformation, with different sources, and, for the first time in the public speech, the European officials in Brussels accuses China. You were one of the main editors in a series of global studies mapping digital media across continents. How do you see the challenge of the so-called fake news? Is it enough to have public statements or is disinformation itself a pandemic, which needs serious treatment?

Marius Dragomir: The truth is somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, the scope of the disinformation phenomenon is huge indeed, compounded by the growing government propaganda, the increased control of media outlets by governments and the rise of a misinformation industry consisting of digital platforms that generate funding by spreading viral, often misleading content in a variety of areas (health, politics, religion, to name just a few).

On the other hand, disinformation and propaganda have always existed. During the Cold War, intelligence services of many countries were very sophisticated in peddling lies about each other.

Why it seems to us that it’s so big today is because the communication platforms we have now allow for much faster spread of junk news and at a much bigger scale.

On the other hand, the appetite for tabloid, sensationalistic content, conspiracy theories and the sorts, remains high, constantly feeding into the popularity of some of the disinformation platforms.

The EU response thus far has not been, and shouldn’t be, limited to public statements. They are important, too, but EU has to get practically involved in staving off these waves of disinformation.

In fact, the EU has been spending hefty financial resources on combating disinformation, giving millions of euros in grants to scholars, universities and NGOs to work out some solutions.

The problem is that many of these projects are totally disconnected from the average public, precisely the people most affected by disinformation. Millions of euros have been spent on designing websites that put together resources about disinformation or information describing how misinformation is targeted and shared. Some of that is, of course, useful, but two things are missing from this strategy.

One is investigation of the structures and funding behind disinformation. In other words, more has to be done to map the companies or individuals running these platforms, their turnover and profit numbers and their sources of income. That kind of information is crucial for policymakers to design regulations that would properly target the structures of these disinformation industries. Some experts claim that, if clear hard evidences on disinformation are not publicly exposed, the statements at such high level implies the risk of weakening even more the credibility of the entire media[1]. From the resources accessed by the CMDS, are those evidences powerful enough? Who shall dig more into such issues: shall the intelligence be more transparent on certain operations that they identified? Shall the government communicate more concretely? Or is it everybody’s job – of course, together with NGOs, academic environment etc – to look for the evidences around himself/herself?

Marius Dragomir: Involving the government is quite problematic. We already see what happens when governments adopt laws aimed at combating disinformation. They’re simply a pretext to control the public space and the existent critical narratives.

This being said, it is true that governments have a role to play in dealing with this specific phenomenon: they should fund, through transparent disbursement mechanisms, projects that research the impact of disinformation and the key players involved, and should widely disseminate the results and think of policies that can prevent such players from achieving a large outreach, without hurting independent reporting and freedom of expression.

The research and investigation of the phenomenon should come from the academic, media and NGO environment, and should be run by people well equipped intellectually and who operate independently.

The real problem appears in countries where the governments are the actual generators of disinformation. Increasingly, governments and political groups jointly with oligarchic structures are taking over swathes of mainstream media outlets, transforming them in pure propaganda outlets.

"That is a massive problem that we see in several countries in Central and Eastern Europe (we call it media capture) where propaganda is spread with extreme efficiency by large state media corporations and private media controlled indirectly by the state through those wealthy oligarchs."

I am talking about Hungary, Bulgaria, increasingly Slovakia and Czech Republic, most of the Balkan countries. This is a very serious problem that we have to address vigorously simply because these governments kill journalism with taxpayer money. In your current position and from previous experience, you know the media landscape in countries like China, Russia. How do you see the realities reported by those media? Websites and initiatives of debunking reveals thousand of cases (over 4,600 disinformation cases can be found only in the EUvsDisinfo database) are enough proof that there is an active strategy on spreading misrepresentation about the West? How far can that process go, thinking that the reality, at some point, will speak for itself?

Marius Dragomir: Of course, Russia and China are known to be perpetrators of propaganda. 

The very structure of their media systems (all outlets are state-owned in China and most under the state control in Russia) is designed for that very purpose: to spread state propaganda internally and externally.

Surely their investments in such outreach strategies will continue to be significant in the coming years as the Covid-19 pandemic has ushered in a new era of communications battles between governments, alliances and international organizations. than the NGOs and initiatives dedicated to debunking, how shall the media deal with disinformation pieces? Is debunking a solution?

Marius Dragomir: Debunking and fact-checking are extremely important. It would be a mistake to let lies fly without any effort to monitor them. At the same time, it’s important for media outlets to find ways to increase the impact and outreach of these debunking efforts.

I saw so many fact-checking initiatives totally disconnected from the average audience that, as a result, have a much lower impact than the actual disinformation content, in its first contact with the audience. To do that, media outlets should collaborate more with other sectors.

NGOs and schools (including higher-education establishments) are two fields that come to mind immediately. More targeted outreach via such institutions will have a much larger impact than isolated debunking efforts. In Romania, uniquely in the European Union to our knowledge, during the lockdown caused by the coronavirus crises, the Romanian government shut down the websites believed to distribute false information[2]. After the lock-down had ended, the websites became again accessible and they continued their activities like before. How would you comment on such an extreme measure; is it in line with the freedom of expression? Is it efficient or, on the contrary, had created a sort of the boomerang effect?

Marius Dragomir: At times of extreme crisis, as we have experienced during this pandemic, of course, governments will have strong arguments to justify shutting down such sources of information. And, to be honest, I think any normal person would be irked to see irresponsible people sharing junk and lies during such distressful times when people need correct information more than ever.

However, generally, I think such decisions are extremely dangerous for freedom of expression as they create a very bad precedent allowing governments to define truth and use their power to cut access to content.That being said, I think misinformation should be fought by anybody.

Media outlets and journalists can help by simply doing their job, reporting correctly and not accepting to work under pressures from the government and other entities. Social media have a major role to play by identifying such content, flagging it as false, and demoting it in the overall content flow.

All those kinds of interventions will only help people get more accustomed to content and its qualities, and hopefully decrease their exposure to and appetite for false news. How much the disinformation waves will affect the credibility of the media as a whole?

Marius Dragomir: Disinformation affects the credibility of the independent media, but it’s part of a series of developments. It’s quite simplistic to say that disinformation is the sole reason for lower trust in journalism.

  • One of these developments is a growing discourse by some politicians focused on identifying media in general with fake news.
  • Secondly, as described in this interview, the media captured by governments and oligarchs are themselves a major source of disinformation and propaganda, employing a massive amount of people in the sector: these journalists do a disservice to their profession by attacking colleagues and independent media, further muddling the waters.
  • Three, there is a very low understanding by people of how communication works especially today. Many people have a hard time to decipher the difference between various sorts of content. They hardly know the source of the content, the rules around its distribution and the actors that contribute to its production. are a co-founder of the MediaPowerMonitor and, during the pandemic, released the section "The stories that go unnoticed”. From the content signaled by this section, what are the main remarks? 

Marius Dragomir: We indeed noticed already last March that important news pieces were simply drowned by the Covid-19 coverage. In a way, it is normal as the media had to be on top of all the pandemic-related developments to serve their readers. On the other hand, by taking a step back, it was quite disturbing to see who was really profiteering from the crisis. So, we started to map all these stories and present them (just briefs) on our platforms and through a regular newsletter to those interested. So far, we have identified a few trends. 

  • One is political. Clearly this is the time when politicians are regrouping, recreating alliances, planning to be ready for the next electoral opportunity or, especially for those in power, trying as much as possible to prevent elections from happening anytime soon. 
  • Secondly, we have seen a flurry of important decisions that affect the business environment. As people’s attention is somewhere else, this was the perfect time for governments to adopt rules and regulations that would allow them and their associated businesses to take over ailing companies or win public orders without a tender or any other forms of scrutiny. 
  • Three, we saw a series of controversial laws being passed that affect freedom of expression and the way power is handled. Especially in the past month, journalists have increasingly spotted the dangers in these hurriedly adopted laws, such as the diversity-allergic Hungarian government adopting legislation that bans the legal recognition of transgender citizens and a similar one in Romania. 
  • Four, we see a growing trend of social unrest and declining legality. To some extent, such tendencies were expected as we are faced with a deep economic crisis that accompanies the pandemic. High record numbers of prisoners being released, attacks by organized gangs against the police, numerous cases of corruption failing to be investigated and going under the radar, all that is quite disturbing for many countries across Europe. If we think about the consequences of all that, we look at a very disquieting picture. We will come out of this crisis with a wealthier layer of strongmen, more in control of resources, media and laws than before, in societies where organized crime is getting out of control. Speaking about the terminology, based on both falseness and the intention of harm, First Draft News suggests the use of malinformation[3] (defined as deliberate publication of private information for personal or corporate public interest). How would you comment on this term, is it important to make a distinction between, let’s call it "soft” form of disinformation, "hard” disinformation, based on clear intention to harm, and often on strategies in this respect? 

Marius Dragomir: Defining the various forms in which lies are packaged and distributed in the public domain is important, of course, not only to understand the phenomenon, but also to find the right solutions. Intention is definitely the distinguishing criterion for all these forms of false news and propaganda.

That is why, to me, the most important at this moment in time is to shift our focus onto investigating the structures behind these platforms (funding, ownership and related entities).

Only that will help us understand the true scope of the phenomenon. In our center we began doing that through our project Business of Misinformation, which we are now extending to more countries. Hopefully, it will help us make sense of who’s who behind all these toxic initiatives. Claire Wardle, First Draft News Research Director, noted in 2017, citing Danah Boyd, "we are at war”. "An information war. We certainly should worry about people (including journalists) unwittingly sharing misinformation, but far more concerning are the systematic disinformation campaigns.”[4] How would you comment on the systematic disinformation campaigns, especially during COVID-19 crisis? 

Marius Dragomir: Indeed, these are the worst forms of disinformation because they are led and managed in a methodical way and use serious resources to achieve impact. Of course, they continued during the Covid-19 crisis and are likely to continue as governments are all enmeshed in this blame game and a conversation that is far from being rational.

[1] The expert in Politics Armand Goșu explained in an interview to in 2019, respectively to, in May 2020, that hard evidences are compulsory. Without it, the voices accusing disinformation can produce even more harm. In the interview for PressHub, Mr. Goșu said that the Romanian intelligence and/or other public authorities shall present a public report with key facts on disinformation, especially when other states are supposedly behind it.

[2] EURACTIV Network, 2020, 13 May, Romania shuts down websites with fake COVID-19 News  / Details in English în limba română: Cât de eficientă e decizia guvernanților de a închide pretinse site-uri de știri, în pandemie
[3] Wardle, Claire, 2019, Disinformation, misinformation and malinformation
[4] Wardle, Claire, 2017, 16 February, Fake News. It’s complicated