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With Russian meddling should we trust our news?

As many people know, there is a level of trust that the media have worked to establish with the public for generations. In America, credibility has been established with readers and viewers and their local news sources on a daily, even hourly basis. Thanks to proven Russian interference, much of that surety has since been eroded. 

A recent story run by NPR told of information operatives — working out of the Internet Research Agency (IRA) in St. Petersburg — “[who] did not stop at posing as American social media users or spreading false information from purported news sources.” 

In sum, Russian meddling took full advantage of the fact that Americans have a great deal of confidence in their news. Or, should we say, they did. After the 2016 election —and even before — according to findings from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Russian intelligence worked to chip away at the faith the American people had in the media ever since the days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

More than our national news, though, our local news agencies have relied on that foundation of trust with its public. The IRA knew that, and put all of its efforts into destabilizing those relationships.

So, should we really be surprised to hear people talk about “fake news?” With groups like the IRA intentionally disseminating false information, in as realistic a way as possible, how can we blame people for their apprehension?

According to Mueller’s investigation, the IRA created numerous Twitter accounts that acted as sources for many of our local headlines. In fact, since being created in spring, 2014, up until summer, 2016, the IRA account accumulated roughly 19,000 followers.

And, according to the NPR report, the twist is that it didn’t just spread misinformation. 

“They posted real news, serving as sleeper accounts building trust and readership for some future, unforeseen effort.”

That effort, or one of those efforts, was clearly the 2016 presidential election. Anti-Hillary protests — in print and in person — cropped up during that election cycle. When  IRA accounts wrote that Hillary couldn’t be trusted to help veterans, that she was a worse option for Black voters than not voting at all or that she supported Sharia Law, American voters who had followed the legitimate news  on IRA accounts then believed the false reports. It was a decidedly dishonest affront to our news organizations and to our political system — and it worked.

And here’s the thing: From all accounts, Russian meddling is still happening. To what end, perhaps only Putin and his cohorts know. But certainly it undermines the credibility of the media.

So, can you believe the news? We think so. We hope so. Certainly for small news outfits like ours — which are hyper-focused on local news — we depend on the sacrosanct trust developed through years of providing news coverage and editorial opinion to be taken into account. We prioritize honesty, impartiality and fairness. Should we ever be compromised, we’d all be in trouble. And while that could sound far-fetched to some, evidence has proven there’s well-founded skepticism. Countries like Russia wanting to destabilize the United States and the rest of the western world are already capitalizing on such doubts. 

We don’t know what the answer to this troubling trend is. We do know, however, it’s important to be a discerning news consumer, to make sure you know your sources and to remain keenly aware there are those who would benefit from misinforming you. 

The IRA and other similar organizations can clearly upset the apple cart. Our national elections prove they can infiltrate our media. Remain aware such groups exist — but please, don’t stop following the news altogether. Find a trusted source. Help ensure we all have equal access. Our common knowledge — and a true understanding of the world in which we live — could depend on it.