When truth meets technology, it’s not always clear who wins.
Longtime Washington Post reporter Dana Priest will speak Thursday night along with other prominent journalists at a two-day Santa Fe conference delving into how modern technology shapes facts at a time when social media algorithms can curate the news and Russian disinformation influences elections.
Priest and others will explore how social media, fake news and artificial intelligence form our understanding of the world at the second Journalism under Fire conference, hosted by the Santa Fe Council on International Relations.
The council’s executive director Sandy Campbell, said Priest and other speakers will dig into “the dark side and the light side of technology,” with journalists from the Washington Post, National Public Radio, the New York Times and other outlets speaking about the intersection of press freedom, technology and democracy.
The conference welcomed participants Wednesday evening at La Fonda on the Plaza.
Campbell said the second iteration of the conference grew from discussions at last year’s inaugural event, spurred by a growing recognition of how new forms of advertising, plus social media giants such as Facebook and Google, can curate and shape people’s core understanding of politics and reality.
Priest said she plans to discuss the increasing threat of disinformation, fake news and how social media affects the overall media landscape — a fact often, and mistakenly, thought of as neutral.
The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner has covered the Pentagon, intelligence agencies, Russian disinformation campaigns and secret CIA prisons. She’s the Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism.
Priest said disinformation and fake news are new and increasingly alarming tools for an authoritarian government that are “less obvious, and so you can’t fight it in the same way” as the more traditional tyrannical tactic of simply suppressing information.
Facebook and other social media algorithms also pose a major threat to the dissemination of legitimate news and information because the platforms prioritize content that spurs consumers to stay on the page as long as possible, Priest added.
“Fake news will always win over real news in the algorithms that are used in social media,” she said. “What do you want to do: eat your desert or eat your green beans? So it’s not a neutral platform. They are making decisions for us. It’s so much harder to counter because it’s the business model baked into how Facebook and others operate.”
Priest also criticized President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media, a fact she said “is going to play out in a way that’s unprecedented in the impeachment hearings.”
Campbell said the Council on International Relations decided on journalism as a theme about two and a half years ago.
“Nobody else in the world is doing this kind of thing — is putting the focus on journalism and journalists and the pressures they’re operating under,” he said.
The conference will run Thursday and Friday, with speakers that include New York Times Washington, D.C., correspondent Matthew Rosenberg; NPR Washington, D.C., national security correspondent Hannah Allam; former Time magazine managing editor Richard Stengel; former Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Carlin; Washington Post columnist and investigative journalist Rana Ayyub; and others.
Speakers will also dig into how China’s use of technology will affect U.S. politics and how digital forensics have opened new lines of inquiry through crowd-sourced video and data.
“I think Santa Fe is becoming the mecca for press freedom not on the East Coast,” Priest said. “I think everybody realizes even more that journalism is a strategic asset to democracy, not just a luxury or intellectual privilege or something. Especially when you have a White House that is trying to muzzle the press.”
Journalism Under Fire
• For more information, visit sfcir.org.