Q&A: NYT’s director of opinion video speaks about misinformation and social media influence
Innovative Advertising Solutions Blog | 18 January 2021
In 2014, The New York Times produced an internal document defining the foundation for a digital strategy that addressed the radical change of information consumption by its readers.
The Innovation Report diagnosed the main problems and also recommended actions both within the scope of journalism and the company’s business model.
If The New York Times is today the fastest-growing platform in digital subscriptions (the goal is to reach 10 million by 2025), this is partly due to the effort of the group that wrote the document six years ago. On that talented team was filmmaker Adam Ellick.
Ellick is the director of the Times’ opinion video department. Before that, he was an international correspondent and reporter for the newspaper, covering human rights in the Middle East.
In 2009, he met Malala Yousafzai and revealed her extraordinary history to the world in a documentary called “Malala’s Story.” Shortly thereafter, Ellick received a Pulitzer Prize for the video he co-produced about an Afghan woman who was burned to death.
In 2018 he directed the series “Operation InfeKtion,” a definitive work for anyone who wants to understand the origin of the war of disinformation.
Below is an interview I had with Ellick about misinformation, journalism, social networks, and the role of companies and the state in the communications environment. It has been edited for clarity.
Q: Your series Operation InfeKtion dissects the origins of the war of disinformation that is being fought on social media today. What was it like to create the series?
Ellick: It is what I call “a film of ideas,” which is difficult to make. It’s about the history of the Cold War. It combines original journalistic reporting with interesting interviews with characters who dealt with fake news in the 1970s and 1980s.
There are animated graphics, animation, and a fun voiceover. The result is an informal record, as if you were at a bar talking about a serious matter with a friend.
All the current talk about misinformation and fake news is disturbing. We tend to think it is something that has just now emerged, but all of this is very similar to the information war of the 1960s to the 1980s between the United States and the Soviet Union.
We find surprising examples of fake news planted during the Cold War and dissect some of those lies that have come true in the eyes of society. The film traces a timeline of how these lies spread. We created a manual to describe the tactics and techniques that the Soviet Union used to spread disinformation.
Q: Could you give an example?
Ellick: There was a disinformation campaign to plant the idea that the United States created the HIV virus. This was one of the most spectacular and successful disinformation campaigns ever created in the early 1990s by the Soviets.
They spread the information that the American government created the AIDS virus in a military laboratory in Maryland with the aim of killing Blacks and gays. They spread this lie all over the world, planting it first in countries that were allies of the Soviet Union, such as India and Bangladesh, and in other communist countries. It was an elaborate, sophisticated plan, full of details to make it credible.
It was not just a lie. It was a lie with a clear objective: to play the populations of the countries in which the Americans had a military presence against the United States. Therefore, the “beauty” of Soviet misinformation is not just its scale, size, and sophistication, but its ultimate goal.
Q: What is the role of social media in this? Do you think there is a clear demonstration that platforms are interested in blocking false information?
Ellick: I think we have evolved. For a long time, social platforms pushed the problem with their bellies, often denying or giving slow and inefficient responses.
There is a funny scene in our film where politicians are interrogating Mark Zuckerberg in Congress, and it is very clear that the people who should be protecting us from this war of disinformation are not qualified to ask the right questions. They know nothing about the topic.
The platforms didn’t do enough. They were very slow, but they are doing a lot more now than they did a few years ago. Facebook dropped accounts that are intended to launch disinformation campaigns run by China, Iran, and Russia. In Brazil and the United States as well.
Q: International brands rehearsed a boycott of social networks, suspending advertising, putting pressure on platforms to block hate speech and misinformation. Do you think they are strong enough to change things?
Ellick: Yes. Private companies have the strength to change policies and influence society and governments. The American football team the Washington Redskins announced the change of its racist name after the demand of great sponsors.
We did a project about a year-and-a-half ago that put pressure on Nike for not offering adequate benefits for women athletes when it comes to maternity leave. It also highlighted mental and physical abuse in relation to female runners. Companies are very concerned about their public image. The video series led Nike and other companies to implement appropriate maternity leave policies for their athletes.
Q: Do you think that the state should do something to regulate social media?
Ellick: It is a complicated issue to regulate social platforms in a country like the United States, which has the constitutional First Amendment. But there are models like those in Australia, Germany, and other European countries that have been successful in finding ways to regulate hate speech and disinformation. America is significantly behind when it comes to regulation. But it is the state’s responsibility to protect its citizens from digital warfare. If it is war, governments must act.
Q: At the height of the pandemic, you invited Brazilian YouTuber Felipe Neto to make a video on the Times Web site and say that President Bolsonaro did a poor job in handling the crisis in Brazil. How did this idea come about?
Ellick: I wanted to inform Americans about the details of what is happening in Brazil. I thought Felipe could deliver this message well — an unpredictable name and with a tremendous audience among young people on the networks. One of my missions is to reach new voices and discover faces that you would not normally find in an opinion story in the newspaper. He has used his voice to comment on social and political issues as democratic institutions fall apart in his country. I think he is a new voice, intelligent, informed, and influential.