Holberg Debate Sparked Public Discussion


The University Aula in Bergen was packed on 2nd December, when more than 300 people watched Julian Assange, John Pilger and Jonathan Heawood discuss propaganda, fake news and the role of the news media.

At the Holberg Debate 2017, WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief Julian Assange, journalist and documentary film maker John Pilger and IMPRESS C.E.O. Jonathan Heawood spoke about manipulation of information in news and social media, and its democratic implications. An engaged audience presented comments and questions, and sparked a debate which continued in the media in the days and weeks following the event.

From Syria to Cambridge via Russia

A wide range of topics were covered during the two and half hours the event lasted. All three panellists gave keynotes speeches and addressed questions from the audience. Additionally, there was an interview segment with Assange, who joined the panel via video-link for the first hour of the debate.

Assange analysed what he perceived to be the media’s intrinsic involvement in society’s power structures, especially in liberal democracies. He submitted that propaganda has always been a big part of the information contained in newspapers and other media, and he quoted Thomas Jefferson, who in 1807 said: “Nothing can now be believed, which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

Assange was particularly critical to what he saw as the established media’s failure to stop or prevent disastrous wars by adequately reporting on their brutal consequences, by investigating on their own, and by presenting facts rather than propaganda.


Free Societies Will Have Fake News

Assange also disagreed with the notion that the phenomenon of “fake news” is something that is new or primarily limited to digital media where actors with certain political positions try, often covertly, to undermine liberal democracy. In fact, he claimed, “liberal democracies, almost by definition, are full of fake news. This is unavoidable in a society where people can think and speak freely."

Nevertheless, Assange also agreed that there is something genuinely new in the spread of propaganda and falsehoods – that is, first and foremost, the speed with which information is spread and the number of people who produce, disseminate and consume information.

Fake News Apocalypse

Assange pointed to Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) as a phenomenon that is not only a novelty, but also one of the greatest threats of our time. “Artificial intelligence is overwhelmingly the biggest threat to humanity,” he said, and explained that this technology means that “lies can be automated and pumped out en mass.”  

In Assange’s opinion, the threat from artificial intelligence is even bigger than that of climate change, because, while climate change is visible, A.I. occurs without the knowledge of most of the general public.

“Being lied to” is not something human beings can detect when the lies are disseminated with a certain level of proficiency, Assange warned: “At some point, people can no longer perceive what is occurring, because it is too sophisticated and too fast, and at that point, we will have no ability to discuss it.” “If humanity cannot see what is happening to it, then it cannot possible change what is happening to it."

A Public Sphere Explosion

Jonathan Heawood took a somewhat different approach. He explained how society traditionally has been  able to distinguish, largely, between three different categories of information: news, advertising and propaganda.

However, over the last two decades, Heawood explained, this has changed: “The old public sphere has been hit by massive explosions,” sparked by the internet, mobile phone technology, search engines and social media--and particularly by Google and Facebook, who have direct influence over more than 17 percent of the world’s internet traffic. “The unprecedented changes in the public sphere go to the heart of how we talk to each other,” he said.


Changing of the Guards

Heawood identified five main challenges of the new public sphere. Firstly, access to information is no longer tightly controlled by such actors as publishers, editors, producers and media owners. Today’s public sphere is to a large extent controlled by gate keepers that are hidden, that is: secret algorithms and the commercial and political interests who control them.

The second challenge is modern journalism. The news outlets in the old public sphere were largely funded by advertising. “They effectively taxed anyone who wanted to get their message in front of an audience, in the form of advertising,” Heawood explained.

Perhaps that brought the journalism to close to the interests of the marked: We have long known that there is conflict of interest between news owners, advertisers and shareholders on one side, and journalists, who, on some level want to tell the truth.  However, Heawood pointed out, that also lead to a set of rules for journalists: They were supposed to reveal the truth and hold the powerful to account.

In the new public sphere, these rules may be undermined as a result of the proliferation of new media, and the advertising model may disappear. There is a danger that professional norms may disappear as a result, warned Heawood.

The third challenge is propaganda, which previously could be more easily discerned in the public sphere, according to Heawood. Today, there are few indicators that allow us to distinguish between propaganda, news and advertising. However imperfect--at least, the old indicators helped us navigate the media landscape. We now seem to have lost the map.

Cynics, Sceptics and True Believers

Fourthly, there is a problem with privacy. While many of us may believe that we operate in private when we navigate the internet, send e-mails and buy products, we are in reality giving away highly private information to commercial actors and governments. In some sense, aspects of society as described in George Orwell’s book 1984 have become a bit more real, that is: We have no truly private sphere of communication that complements the public sphere. In 1984 people could never really be private, and thus, they could never express themselves candidly without fear of consequences.

The fifth and final challenge, according to Heawood, is cynicism: “The problem is not that we have lost trust, but we have found cynicism,” he said, and warned that the new public sphere is largely defined by a cynical attitude towards information.

Heawood distinguishes cynicism from scepticism, the latter being an inclination to question information and search for answers with an open mind. The cynics, however, already know the answer, and are confident that few people can be trusted. They swim in a sea of half-truths, lies and conspiracy theories, and their attitude is conducive to passivity, rather than the collective action necessary to hold the powerful to account.

Bytes, Bombs and Belligerents

Of the three keynote addresses, John Pilger’s speech represented the fiercest attack against the traditional media and what he saw as their complicity in triggering brutal, unnecessary wars. These wars were justified by grand narratives, according to Pilger, many of which were authored by Western powers.

Pilger also discussed the much criticised television station RT, formerly Russia Today, on which both Pilger and Assange have appeared on several occasions, thus contributing to the controversy of both.

Pilger referred specifically to how The Guardian in its headline recently demanded that former First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond “be ashamed” for having a new discussion show on RT, which is viewed as a mere Russian propaganda outlet by much of the established Western press. “What exactly are the Guardian’s propaganda concerns,” asked Pilger, that would mean that “Salmond had no right to his show,” and that a “mildly dissenting view of the world had no place in the media.”

“Consider the irony,” Pilger said, as he referred to how intelligence and other government officials whose accusations were taken for granted in this case, had themselves made highly controversial statements in the past, regarding for instance the mass surveillance uncovered by Edward Snowden. 

Pilger then went on to discuss the media coverage of many of the conflicts where NATO members, and particularly the US, have been involved over the last 60 years. He sharply criticised established media outlets for what he saw as double standards and lack of true investigative journalism in issues of war and peace.


The Discussion Continues

There is little doubt that several of the views conveyed during this year’s Holberg Debate were controversial, and the discussion has continued in the weeks following the event. In this respect, the topic discussed this year highlighted not only the pressing nature of the issue at hand: the battle for truth in the news media and in the new public sphere--it also illustrated how polarised and far-reaching this discussion has become.

This is clearly a reflection of how manipulation of information ties in with everything from presidential elections to information warfare to conflict in its most brutal and tragic form. In addition, the debate showed how new technology carries with it a huge potential for innovation, but also clear dangers and immense problems that remain unresolved.  

Video from the debate is available here:

Podcast is available here:

The Holberg Debate is inspired by Ludvig Holberg as man of the Age of Enlightenment and seeks explore pressing issues of our time. The event takes place annually in Bergen, in early December.