ATHENS — “Am I too old for TikTok?”
The 77-year-old presidential candidate Rodolfo Hernández got such a bounce from his social media videos during the Colombian election campaign in June, he came close to clinching the top job. He joked on camera about his age and posed with throngs of cheering youths, delivering a populist, anti-corruption message that drew millions of admiring ‘likes.’
He ultimately lost in a runoff to Gustavo Petro, the country’s first leftist president and a former rebel. But Mr. Hernández managed to win 47.35 percent of the vote, compared with his opponent’s 50.42 percent. Known as Colombia’s Donald Trump, the former mayor was an anti-corruption candidate who has been indicted on corruption charges, an austerity proponent whose policies led to a hunger strike by city employees and a construction mogul who never fulfilled his promise of building 20,000 homes for the poor.
His TikTok campaign was one of the striking examples discussed in a panel on information, disinformation and the future of journalism at the Athens Democracy Forum in the Greek capital last week. In its 10th year, the forum was convened by the Democracy & Culture Foundation in association with The New York Times.
Stephen King, the chief executive of Luminate — a philanthropic foundation dedicated to citizen empowerment and the right to information — used the Colombian example to show how social media platforms were turning into political campaign channels, and even news sources. He said a recent survey of four Latin American countries showed that younger generations got their news from “very different places” than their elders did.
“There is a blurring between news and politics and entertainment, which is driven by social media companies,” Mr. King said. “They are now starting to dictate the way in which people consume information.”
The confusion between fact, fun and fiction is a matter of increasing concern in newsrooms — and beyond. In December, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that the United States Agency for International Development will donate as much as $30 million to the newly established International Fund for Public Interest Media, whose mission is to shore up independent journalism worldwide. Mr. Biden defined press freedom as a “the bedrock of democracy” and said it was “under threat” all over the world.
Misinformation and disinformation were two areas identified as potential threats to democracy at this year’s forum. Impediments to voting — specifically in the United States — were another.
As the discussion went on, the head of programming of the new International Fund for Public Interest Media, Khadija Patel of South Africa, recalled her previous experience as the editor in chief of the Mail & Guardian, a leading South African newspaper with a record of uncovering corruption and crime. She said she found herself overseeing “round after round of layoffs,” and eventually left, because there was “no longer a business model to support news media.”
Donald Martin, a fellow panelist and the former editor of the leading Scottish daily, The Herald, agreed that the last decade was dominated by staff restructuring and by the ominous rise of social media. He recalled a time when a solidly reported front-page article came under attack from the interested party, whose disparaging tweets were retweeted so extensively that they ended up hurting the newspaper’s image.
“Fake news is not new. It’s the scale that’s unprecedented,” Mr. Martin said. “Lies have been told for thousands of years, but I don’t think they’ve ever been as sophisticated or as believable or as easy to spread.”
These days, as soon as a piece of false information appears online, “you need to debunk it within 30 minutes before it has traction,” he said. Otherwise, it spreads through algorithms and “an unquestioning audience that seem to be happy to be trapped in their own echo chambers.”
To pave the way for a better future, schools have a duty to “teach the pitfalls and benefits of social media” and “restore trust in a free press,” he added.
The Ukrainian journalist Anna Romandash, who has been reporting on war crimes and human rights violations in her homeland since the Russian invasion in February, said Russia had taken the information wars one step further.
Whereas before there were two realities — fake news, versus verified facts reported by a legacy media organization — there was now “a lot of state-sponsored propaganda, for example from Russia, that doesn’t necessarily aim to create fake news, but aims to discredit truth,” she said.
As a result, in Russia today, “there is no such thing as objective truth. There are many different versions of different stories,” she added. That made social media a “big danger,” because some people, especially those “who may not have strong digital literacy skills,” could not tell truths from untruths.
The term ‘fake news,’ of course, was never more in use than during the presidency of Donald Trump. Mr. Trump accused mainstream news organizations of spreading disinformation. News organizations, meanwhile, documented instances in which the president communicated falsehoods. Even with Mr. Trump gone, journalism is still being challenged in the U.S. today.
So is the citizen’s right to vote, as a parallel panel on the state of American democracy made clear.
Carol Anderson — a professor of African American studies at Emory University in Georgia and the maker of a documentary titled “I, Too,” which was screened in Athens — kicked off the debate with an urgent entreaty for voter registration to be simplified.
“One of the first things that we have to recognize, in the U.S. context, is that you have the rise of what we call voter suppression laws,” she said. “These laws were targeted at key elements in the population to ensure that they would have multiple obstacles to have to jump over” to vote.
Those groups are then blamed for not voting, when in fact, they faced, and continue to face, “obstacles that look race-neutral, but that are racially targeted. What we have to do is dismantle the barriers to voting.”
In an interview after the conference, Ms. Anderson listed some of these obstacles. Texas requires a government-issued photo ID for a person to be able to vote, she said; a student ID from a state university doesn’t count, whereas a gun registration card does.
Alabama requires a government-issued voter ID, she added, but a public housing ID does not count. Seventy-one percent of the residents of public housing in Alabama are African Americans, and for many, their public housing ID is the only photo identification they have, she explained.
Similar obstacles are faced by Native Americans, said fellow panelist Lisa Witter, the co-founder of Apolitical, a for-profit company that works to help governments and civil servants deliver better services and results.
According to Ms. Witter, there are a total of 560,000 elected positions in the U.S. If Native Americans were to be fairly represented, based on their percentage of the population, they would need 17,000 elected officials, she added; and yet there are 200 Native Americans elected to office across the country.
“That sounds bad, but there’s opportunity here,” said Ms. Witter. She pointed to the current “flood of political entrepreneurship” in the U.S., whereby enterprising people with means are defending democracy every way they can.
Panelist Dawn Nakagawa, the executive vice president of the Berggruen Institute (whose mission is to help shape democratic institutions for the 21st century), sounded similarly upbeat. She said that while she was “very worried and very pessimistic” in the short term about the state of American democracy, Americans were “reinventing what a democracy for and by the people means, and rebuilding institutions to be something very different than elections.”
“That’s a really courageous conversation that was really nonexistent five years ago,” she said. “Over the long term, I think we’re going to have an incredible and reinvented democracy, and I think it will happen in the U.S. because of the crisis point we’re having.” And if democracy is reinvented in the U.S., “it will spread faster.”
Ms. Anderson, the Emory professor, saw reason to be hopeful because as a historian, she viewed the present from a long-term perspective.
“Every time that democracy has been challenged by oppressors, democracy has won,” she said. “The quest, the thirst for democracy is so real, is so intense that people are willing to fight for it.”