I am really looking forward to Misinfocon in Washington DC. I am.
In part that's because I'm very interested in the topic of misinformation. (Currently that's the most common word I've seen used to avoid having to say “fake news” and perpetuating a phrase that the current occupant of the White House uses as an epithet to describe “news.”)
But the real reason I’m looking forward to the conference is that I want to redeem myself after the last Misinfocon in Kyiv.
Why do I need to redeem myself?
Well, it's a little embarrassing, but in the spirit of transparency, bla bla bla, here goes:
An American in Kyiv
This was my first Misinfocon, and so I didn't know much of what to expect. I did read that it was a hackathon, and I've seen, participated in, and judged those many times in the startup world, so I was familiar with the format.
I just had never seen one outside of the world of startups. How would that work in the world of trying to root out bad actors trying to weaponize content for political gain? I was excited to find out.
Especially in Kyiv. I had to give credit to the organizers for taking this conference right to what could be considered Ground Zero in the fake news world. On the plane on the way over I had watched Winter on Fire at the recommendation of a friend who had been there. Kyiv is an amazing city. More on that in a bit.
Veronika gets special props for her Twitter picture:
I understood going in that the problems were complex, and saw some of that first hand at the kick-off meeting for the Journalism Trust Initiative from Reporters Without Borders the week before.
But the speakers and many of the attendees helped me understand what was going on even a bit more.
After the first day of the conference, I fell asleep quickly, exhausted by the busy day, the Ukrainian beer, and the jet lag.
The next day brings what you might think of as a play in three acts:
Act I: Our Protagonist Goes On A Journey
I woke up very early the next day, and one story dominated the news.
At first, I thought maybe my VPN was busted because one of the top stories I was getting on Google News was from Kyiv, but it turns out that it was just a top global story, and it happened to be a quick Uber ride away from where the conference was happening.
This caused me to go into full freak-out for a bunch of reasons.
- Holy crap!
- It happened really close to where I was.
- My wife and son were at home, and might get this news, not sure. I didn't know if I should call and tell them I'm fine, alerting them to the fact that fake news fighters are being gunned down right down the street from where I was fighting fake news. Or if I shouldn't call.
- Holy crap!
- Misinfocon was all about figuring this information warfare, and here's a guy literally on the front lines of that war who became a casualty.
- So close.
- Holy crap!
- What does it mean to be fighting fake news if we can't even keep reporters alive?
I immediately shot off a note to the conference organizers. Dwight Knell made a nice mention of him to open the day, and then we kept going.
But wait, I kept thinking, is this it? Shouldn't we be doing more?
Once we broke into working groups -- and I'm not proud of this -- I pretty much hijacked the agenda of our group. We were supposed to be coming up with ideas of how to fight fake news. We did that, but all in the context of this one death.
Now, I should have been more circumspect. I mean, this was not the first journalist killed. Indeed, there were at least 65 just last year.
And while killing journalists is horrific, it’s not really central to the issues of misinformation. At least it hadn't been. That changed, as we will see.
None of that mattered. I was the excitable American, and Something Must Be Done. THIS SHALL NOT STAND!
I thought, anyway.
Act II, Our Protagonist Leads A (Small) Uprising
The format for the “hack” part of Day 2 was that we broke up into three groups. Building on the work that had been done the previous day, we were supposed to come up with some real, tangible solutions. The rules were that we were to come up with ideas with no concerns about budget or approvals. Just assume that we can get all that, and go to town.
So we did.
I went to our group and made an impassioned plea. The death of this journalist — right here in the city where we were meeting — could not go without note.
So fired up, I was, that the group all got into the action.
Here I am, in the early stages of making an arse of myself. (Photo courtesy Misinfocon.)
We came up with a whole plan. I had the brilliant idea that we should make a statue of the fallen journalist, and put it right in the central square of Kyiv.
Some of the others in the group suggested that we maybe do something that would actually honor journalism, not just this guy. It's so good this was a group project, and not an individual one, or I really would have looked like a moron.
So we came up with a whole list of things, starting with the statue, but then moving very quickly past that to ideas that would make a difference.
- A statue in Maidan, the central area of Kyiv made so famous in the winter of 2014 when protesters took over the square. More than 100 died, but the protests eventually led to the ouster of the Kremlin-installed president, Viktor Yanukovich, who remains in exile in Russia to this day.
- Matching statues in major capitals around the world to highlight the importance of journalists and the fact that so many are killed.
- An endowment to pay for some number of journalists to report from war-torn areas. With the changing economics for newsrooms, very few news publishers pay to send reporters into the most dangerous regions, even when those are the exact regions that most need the cleansing power of sunshine from an audience paying attention to the facts.
- Along with paying the journalists, paying for extensive security for them, and for their families back home.
- This one was grim, but was a great idea that came from one of the local participants: Life Insurance for the reporter. The family needs to carry on if the worst happens, and if they don't have to carry on in poverty, it will certainly help. Any children left behind won't need to worry about a roof over their heads, and will be able to afford to go to college.
- I don't know if we were channeling Warren Zevon, but it seemed like we were thinking Send Lawyers, Guns and Money. The next item was to set up lawyers to help these journalists navigate the legal minefields while they are in the literal minefields.
I then went on to a crowdsourcing platform and found a guy who turned a photo of Arakady into something that looked like a statue.
The freelancer tried it a couple of ways, one of them with a green hue that was supposed to look a bit like the green of the Statue of Liberty. Another one of the participants from Kyiv nixed that one. It was news to me, but a well known local story is of the Little Green Men — soldiers who tried to be known as the “Polite People” were actually Russian soldiers wearing green uniforms with no insignia. Putin thought he could get away with denying that they were Russian soldiers, and in some ways he did.
Anyway, no green Arkady.
We finally decided on one that just looked like marble, and we'd put an orange safety vest on the statue. Then we'd place it in the central square. We used a tourist picture I'd snapped on my first night Kyiv, and with that, we had our presentation.
I then was hoping someone else would go on stage and present, but they all looked at me to do it, and so I did.
I then had to leave to get to the airport to fly to Lisbon, via Frankfurt. About as far of a trip as you can make without leaving Europe. (Most people in Ukraine really wants to be part of the EU, and Putin wants Ukraine to be part of Russia, hence the conflict.)
Because the first leg of the flight was a bit late, I had to run through the massive Frankfurt airport, I was basically out of communication with the outside world for about six hours.
What a six hours that was for the world of Fake News.
Act III: Our Protagonist Learns His Lesson
My plan was that as soon as I was safe in Lisbon, I was going to call home to let my family know that I was safe.
But by then, well, the only thing that was in danger was my reputation.
You’ve certainly heard the news: The brave journalist was not, in fact, dead. The blood seen near his body was pigs blood. The story is that this journalist was involved in a plot to fake his own death did so to help authorities find those who really did want him dead.
I've read all kinds of stories about this, including one that came out just before I sat down to write this, and I still don’t really know what's going on.
One thing that clearly did happen is that the killing of journalists is now firmly in the territory of misinformation. Right after Arkady Babchenko showed up at the press conference about his own death, Russians said that they were shocked, SHOCKED, that people would accuse them of killing journalists, and this one wasn't even dead. Maybe some of the other dead journalists aren't really even dead.
What have I done?, Babchenko seems to be thinking. Created a mess, is the answer. (Photo from news.com.au)
It's hard these days to say that Kremlin agitprop has a point, but in this case, well, they weren't wrong.
This is something pointed out in a story I read the next morning in my Lisbon hotel room from the New York Times that quoted a tweet from Christophe Deloire about how dangerous this was for journalism.
I couldn't believe that they were quoted in the New York Times, and they couldn't believe that I'd been in Kyiv for the whole outré episode.
We agreed that we may never know exactly what happened, but we do know they'll be talking about it in journalism schools for the next 50 years.
I did learn three things, however.
- Misinfocon is a great conference. I don't know what will happen there in D.C. exactly — that’s the beauty of a hackathon. But if the one in Kyiv is any kind of guide, it will have all the right people in the right place and something magical may just come out of it.
- It might be better if I just keep quiet for this one. If I lead a team it may produce a result that won't be judged well in the light of history.
- Slow down and listen. Let me explain that one a bit more:
While we were in a bit of a break at the last event, one of the participants who was from Kyiv told me about their most famous poet, Taras Shevchenko.
I was in such a hurry to Do Something, that I thought it was quaint and possibly a bit annoying that someone would be talking to me about someone who’d been dead for 150-odd years. I’m trying to be a better listener, though, so I pulled up his Wikipedia page while I was talking to her, and then promptly forgot all about it.
A couple of weeks later, when I was finally closing all the tabs from that trip, I found that page.
Here's the last part of a poem that apparently just about everyone in Ukraine knows:
Oh bury me, then rise ye up
And break your heavy chains
And water with the tyrants' blood
The freedom you have gained.
And in the great new family,
The family of the free,
With softly spoken, kindly word
Remember also me.
Oh bury me, then rise ye up.
The woman who told me about this poet didn’t know that Arkady Babchenko — at just about that exact moment in a room a mile or so from where we were sitting — was figuratively “rising up.”
But something about this whole thing compelled her to share that with me, and now I share it with you.
Freedom of the press is under assault right now, but a lot of us our fighting back. We are all working on different pieces of it, but we are all a lot like a family... as Taras Shevchenko might say, the family of the free.
That family is gathering Monday, and I am so glad that I'll be there for this family meeting.
But if something big happens in the news on Monday night, I won’t say a word about it on Tuesday.
Not. One. Word.