The efforts of a self-appointed ratings agency that surveyed Independent Australia and 33 other Australian outlets have shown how you need to be careful in the tricky world of publishing.
A report by the group called Global Disinformation Index (GDI) declared that the News Corp publications – Courier Mail, Sydney Telegraph and Herald Sun – were less likely to spread disinformation than Independent Australia.
Readers can decide on that, but we have to point out how IA publishes the names of our writers and gives links to their source material — some of the “transparency” measures advertised on our site. Do you suffer from disinformation as a result of visiting and exchanging with Independent Australia?
The London-based GDI was set up because of abusive material on social media being used by members of the public as news. Its founder group is made of persons with expertise in fields like business analytics. The scheme focuses on an understanding of disinformation as activity prone to be intentionally misleading, with the GDI asserting that it also means ‘adversarial narratives that create real-world harm’.
It intends to harm perpetrators of disinformation by telling tech-ad companies they should not get business, with the stated aim to ‘disrupt, defund and down-rank disinformation sites’.
We found several problems with their concept, methods and “findings” including these:
- Appearing to skip a crucial aspect of the assessment scheme, called a “context pillar”: an audience survey by an external polling company able to provide a necessary control on its own data gathering. This survey of between 200-1,000 ‘experienced online users... journalists, senior-level media researchers... and business leaders’ obviously enough has not been done. The remnant was an exercise in reading media articles and searching notices on the news sites.
- Distorting and skewing its overall rating assessment for Independent Australia by erroneous treatment of IA’s practices in three fields: ‘attribution’, ‘ensuring accuracy’ and ‘comment policies’.
- The report dissents from received understanding in the Australian market where News Corp publications, in both news and commentary, are widely recognised as being openly and egregiously partisan. It rates them as being very “low risk” against disinformation — with a weak effort at justification. Those outlets are preferred not only to IA, called a “moderate” risk, but in part, they are positioned well ahead of the ABC and SBS. Those are both committed to transparent statutory injunctions against any partisanship, but News Corp “beats” them on a measure called “Content”.
The GDI exercise is aimed at depredations of social media “disinformation campaigns”, GDI for instance being recognised in Forbes magazine as an agency that ‘tracks disinformation, hate speech and fake news sites’. But the exercise then appears to reduce the scope, reviewing only the social media extensions of standing media outlets; moving on further, to impose a judgment on the news outlets’ home mastheads, those outlets provided by professional journalists.
So this Australian study makes actual news sites the target, not delinquent “fake news” domains. No sites targeted are from religious hysterics or racialist, radical-right, hyper-nationalist groups, done by angry individuals or radicalised mobs. The proliferating social media activity of such groups is overlooked.
The actual Australian job has been done by a department at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) that studies internet or media activity, the economics of media industries, internet mapping or what networks are constructed online; no actual engagement in doing Australian journalism. The study uses an “automated classifier” developed in London for handling data taken off 340 articles – ten for every media outlet surveyed – to go onto a 0-100 scale covering High Risk of disinformation to Low Risk.
The data is machine produced and it then gives way to a “manual” process. As the report indicates, a group of five in Brisbane – mostly “early-career” researchers from Iran, Myanmar, Russia and Sweden, and one other – work through the articles allocating scores. There are two scores, on “Content” of articles, and on “Operation”, which is about provisions for truthfulness and best-practice as advertised on the sites themselves.
Independent Australia has prepared a response document to send to the GDI organisation, its funding agencies (such as the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Knight Foundation), and the head of research at QUT. Interested readers can see our full statement here. Amongst other things, it sets out objections to failings of the GDI report and states the GDI research group in Australia appears to be under-resourced for its bulky task and unsuitable to rule on Australian media and culture.
Assessing the media articles’ contents, the GDI report looks for indicators of credibility, impartiality, sensationalism, hate speech or biasedness. The IA response says the report’s assumptions or definitions in that area need proper explanation. The down-grading of Independent Australia took place under Operations, where the researchers were tasked with checking a publication’s probity standards as published on its site. The overall score for IA, 53, was dragged down by low marks on the three variables, of Attribution (12 marks out of 100), Ensuring Accuracy (20) and Comment Policies (46).
Three problem variables — Independent Australia’s rebuttal
Independent Australia notes that its own standards and practices under the three topics of attribution, accuracy and contents policies reflect its publishing model as an adapted and moderated form of citizen journalism, privileging regular and tested writers but accepting pitches from many.
Accordingly, its operational rules are set out clearly on the site as guidelines and instructions for contributors, with pointers to the underlying principles and citations for source documents such as the MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics. Why is it all overlooked?
The Attribution score defined by GDI is to reflect ‘policies and practices’; to ‘ensure that facts and content are accurately and transparently sourced and attributed’. The Independent Australia site tells users how they need to check all claims and quotes, and emphasises the use of hyperlinks to show where information comes from. It is strict on the use of graphics, photos and other images, mandating the use of the MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics to avoid the stealing of material, common in social media.
The Accuracy indicator is set up to assess ‘policies which ensure that only accurate information is reported’. The notices on Independent Australia emphasise accuracy with facts expressly in line with best-practice journalism. Independent Australia is a member of the Australian Press Council, complies with the MEAA Code of Ethics and has a rigorous fact-checking, feedback and complaints policy. Please see the contributor guidelines.
The Comment policies indicator assesses ‘the number of policies related to mitigating disinformation and harmful content in user-generated comments’. Independent Australia has a comments section for each article, moderated to exclude inter alia elements of racial prejudice, gender discrimination, obscenity or gratuitous vilification of identified persons. Readers can see where an editor has removed copy. The comments policy published on the site states that untrue material will be removed. Please see the comments policy.
It is a conundrum, trying to determine why the approach was taken by the GDI, to go after real media like IA instead of tackling the trash. In the view of Independent Australia, the omission of the survey, the “context pillar”, from the Australian investigation, on its own, deprived it of effective value or usefulness.
IA states that the attempt by the GDI to expose fake news is drifting towards a zone of slovenly fake scholarship. Independent Australia has countered the assertion about “accountability, transparency and attribution” in relation to itself, while continuing to worry how such a conclusion could be produced. It believes the Global Disinformation Index overstates itself and proposals it makes to improve the performance of media hardly require any such advice from outside of journalism. It argues that as well as having access to corrections provisions, its audience members have much agency and autonomy, well able to spot falsehoods.
The Global Disinformation Index project has not improved our understanding of dysfunctional mass communication and the weakening of solidarity and coherence of society, nor of how to respond to that. Attempts to act on this exercise as a guide to placement of advertising would not reduce the proliferation of anti-social social media.
You can read the Independent Australia rebuttal to GDI's disinformation report HERE.
Amongst his vast journalistic experience, Dr Lee Duffield has served as the ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic.
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