Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based network of investigative journalists, has just released a project exposing ‘the market for disinformation.’ The killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh in 2017 triggered the project. It shows how fake news has played a big part in the attacks on journalists. A network of 100 journalists from 30 media outlets worked on the project for one and a half years. They pursued Lankesh’s work on fake news and explored new leads in her murder case. This is the first part of the ‘Story Killers’ project, a global investigation into ‘disinformation mercenaries’. Laurent Richard, founder and executive director of Forbidden Stories, spoke exclusively to Nina C. George of Deccan Herald about the making of the project on Gauri. Edited excerpts:
How did you hear about Gauri Lankesh?
She was killed in 2017, when she was investigating the disinformation industry and had written a couple of articles. So, we, a collaboration of 100 journalists from across the world, are continuing what she was investigating. Our work on investigating disinformation and fake news is being carried out not only in India but across the world. Our mission is to investigate the mercenaries of disinformation and the fake news industry. We intend to understand the businesses behind the campaigns, the contractors and subcontractors, and the proxies behind the disinformation.
What struck you the most about Gauri?
When Gauri was killed, it made headlines around the world, and her killing was sad news for press freedom not only in India but all over the world. Even before her killing, she was harassed and threatened because of her work. She was the kind of journalist who had many enemies because she was investigating many dangerous people and their association with disinformation. The last piece she wrote was titled In the Age of False News, in which she denounced India’s “lie factories.” She was killed two days before the piece was printed. We have decided to continue her work. She is our inspiration.
You say disinformation leads to devastation. Could you elaborate?
Around the world, dozens of companies provide disinformation and act like a one-stop shop for disinformation. It is damaging to a democracy to have people discredit journalists, lawyers, and other people who work for the larger public good to bring them relevant information. This is a phenomenon we have observed in countries like Europe, Brazil, Russia, and Africa. Journalists are harassed before they are killed. We want to investigate the disinformation industry to discover the key players. This is a global economy and calls for a collaborative effort.
What do you think makes disinformation thrive?
How technology is used to propagate disinformation is important here. There are many businesses willing to pay a lot of money to buy disinformation campaigns and keep them alive. Technology is used to troll people, and there is a definite interest for the government, political parties, and others to spend money to keep the disinformation machinery up and running. In her last words, Gauri said, “I wish there were more reporters investigating the fake news industry,” and we are doing just that.
Are female journalists targeted more, and how does one contain this menace?
A large chunk of the journalists who are targeted are women. They are harassed online. It is difficult to quickly contain this threat because we are dealing with a monster. We have to work hard to bring in a sense of transparency and accountability about who the CEOs and middlemen are in the private disinformation market because clearly it is being used as a weapon against democracy.
What is your take on the raids on the offices of the BBC?
When you see efforts being made to suppress truth and information, it is a disaster for democracy, whether it is in India or elsewhere. It is a crime to censor news and information that is beneficial to democracy and citizens.
Do such incidents indicate that the freedom of the press is in peril?
Disinformation is about providing fake facts, and we have to view this from a global context because journalism and journalists are integral parts of any democracy. There’s always a confusion between opinion and information, and journalists work towards providing facts and not opinion. The disinformation industry works overtime to churn out fake news, all in an effort to change perception. We have seen in many countries how the ruling party, governments, and newly elected presidents feel that they can easily raid some newsrooms in an effort to take control and suppress facts. And this spells doom for any democracy.
Read all the articles in the ‘Story Killers’ series by Forbidden Stories here.