Visit of Ann Cooper

On 3th October 2019 the Eastern Europe Studies Centre had the privilege and the honour to host Ann Cooper, Professor Emerita of Professional Practice International Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.

The meeting was a great opportunity to discuss about how disinformation was a mean already used during the Cold War by the Soviet regime and how, nowadays, disinformation and the spread of fake news are used as a tool to destabilize eastern and western democracies.

During her experience as the first NPR’ bureau chief in Moscow between 1987 and 1991 Ann Cooper had the opportunity to see first-hand how the Soviet Union strictly controlled media (TVs, radio, Newspaper) and how it distorted information. Disinformation was a tool to hide to the soviet population the truth and the failures of the soviet regime, as it happened after the disastrous nuclear incident in Chernobyl. Ann Cooper was in Vilnius in 1987 when the very first anti-Soviet rally in the Union took place near the Adomas Mickevičius monument and during tragic events at Vilnius TV tower in 1991.  Even in those occasions the Kremlin imposed to media to report events as a fact of little importance while in fact they represented important steps that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the last years, the use of disinformation and fake news has become  a powerful weapon for hybrid warfare : thanks to the advent of internet and the spreading of social media, many organizations and government (especially Russia) have released fake news in order to destabilize eastern and western democracies, to influence their electoral processes and to provoke citizenship negative reactions against their governments. Crimea’s events are a clear example of how fake news can be used as a sub-conventional military means.

The diffusion of fake news represents a new dangerous threat that eastern and western democracies must not take lightly and deal with necessary means. Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, are the main platforms for the dissemination of fake news. The circumstance that social media are controlled by private companies that adopt different policies to control what is published by their users favourites the spread of fake news. In order to stop to spread of false informations a greater regulation of social media is needed, and it is crucial that private companies, owner of social platforms, make greater efforts to control what their users publish. Moreover, it is vital to help people to develop critical thinking skills in order to judge the reliability and credibility of information, whether it comes via the Internet, television and print.  As Ann Cooper claimed the spread of fake news can be compared to the spread of a disease. As for the latter, it is crucial to find as soon as possible an effective vaccine in order to stop the spread of false information before they can ‘affect’ other thousand of people.

To deal with the aim of stopping the dissemination of fake news is a great challenge not only due to the difficulty of controlling the web space, that is virtually infinite, but also because there sometimes a thin line between employing effective measure to avoid the spread of false information and censorship. Indeed, press freedom is one of the pillars of a democratic regime: free media represent a platform for peaceful discussion about sensitive issues, it bolsters citizenship participation and it is a mean to control politicians’ actions. For these reasons it is necessary to adopt strategies that at the same time can guarantee free press and stop the spread of false information.

EESC and all participants thank Ann Cooper for her interesting speech that left to all the participants food for thought about one of the most sensitive issue for eastern and western democracies. The meeting was a great opportunity to have a deep knowledge about how Soviet Union distorted information, thanks to Ann Cooper’s experience in Moscow and Vilnius, and to reflect about the best strategies that can be employed in order to stop the spread of fake news.