SSU panelists warn about dangers of “fake news”
Shelley A. Sackett
What do a former Czech spy who served as a post-war intelligence officer specializing in disinformation for the Czech Intelligence Service and Earth Day have in common? According to Peggy Dillon, Associate Professor of Communications at Salem State University and member of the SSU Earth Day Committee, everything.
“This year’s Earth Day theme on campus is ‘It’s Your World, It’s Your Future: Get Involved,’” she said. “I thought a panel about media literacy — and fake news and disinformation in particular — would be a timely topic for media consumers in general, as well as for environmentalists.”
Dillon had agreed to create and moderate a panel about media literacy as part of SSU’s 2017 Earth Days events. The panelists would examine how disinformation and fake news have permeated the media landscape and discuss media-literacy strategies for telling the difference between truth and fiction in the news.
She titled the panel, “How to Recognize Disinformation and Fake News: Be a Media-Literate Advocate for your Cause” and invited SSU Communications professors Jane Regan and Cindy Vincent to participate. Regan, a lecturer in Multimedia Journalism who is also an investigative journalist, would address “both-siderism” and mainstream vs. “alternative” media coverage, particularly of environmental topics. Assistant professor Vincent would discuss filter bubbles, media distractions and the ability to discern credible sources.
But she still wanted a third panelist to round out the discussion.
As part of her “newly ramped-up political activism” following the 2016 elections, Dillon started attending meetings at the Rockport Unitarian Universalist Church of like-minded concerned citizens. There she heard about Lawrence Martin-Bittman, a Rockport resident whom a member knew from church.
Né Ladislav Bittman in 1931 in Prague, Martin-Bittman defected to the United States in 1968 after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Prior to that, he was an expert in creating and disseminating Soviet propagandistic disinformation, spreading anonymously and deliberately distorted information to deceive and manipulate public opinion.
“I met Dr. Martin-Bittman for lunch and heard his life story, and immediately invited him to join the panel. He agreed,” Dillon said. After all, who better to address the topic of fake news and disinformation than one who not only could talk the talk, but had also — literally — walked the walk?
And for nearly thirty minutes on Tuesday, over 30 students, faculty members and visitors were captivated by the 86-year-old ex-spy’s stories about how he came to be recruited by the Czech Secret Service and the kinds of disinformation campaigns he engaged in.
“It’s nice to be back again on academic soil,” the former Boston University professor and author said.
As a teenaged student of international law at Charles University in Prague, Martin-Bittman anticipated a career as a diplomat. Instead, upon graduation, he and 37 of his 42 fellow classmates were “invited” to the Central Committee of the Communist Party headquarters where they were told they would work in the Czech Intelligence Service. “I didn’t even know Czechoslovakia had an intelligence service,” he said.
Overnight, he became a spy.
Over the course of 14 years as an operative, he had 30 names and supervised hundreds of other agents, eventually becoming deputy commander of the disinformation department, leaking carefully constructed false messages to reporters in order to influence people and politicians.
In 1968, when the Soviet invasion Czechoslovakia effectively ended the Prague Spring and his country’s brief attempt to enact democratic reforms, Martin-Bittman realized he had spent the last14 years of his life “basically working for the Russians.” He decided to quit and defected to the United States later that year.
He was tried in absentia in a military court in Czechoslovakia, which convicted him of treason. “I was treated as a defector and hunted for decades,” he said. One of his students at Boston University was even recruited to spy on him, he discovered later to his dismay. His death sentence was recently revoked. “I never thought the Communist regime would collapse in my lifetime,” he said.
No stranger to the concept of “fake news”, Martin-Bittman is alarmed by the current state of global media with reports of cyber warfare, information weaponization and information wars. “We live in a world of deception and manipulation,” he warned.
“For the United States or any other democratic country with a free press, spreading propagandistic information might be a dangerous, self-destructive weapon, a ticking time bomb that can explode in the perpetrator’s backyard,” he continued.
He is quite concerned about the Russian doctrine of information warfare and its implications in the U.S. presidential election campaign of 2016, which he feels demonstrated the importance of developing new defenses in protecting the American democratic system. “Misinformation is information that is bad, wrong or mistaken. Disinformation is deliberate and malicious,” he said.
Dillon believes journalists and media educators have an important role to play right now in helping the public understand the difference between fact and fiction in their media diet, and she hopes people came away from the panel discussion with a heightened awareness about the prevalence of false or distorted information in our media diet. Martin-Bittman goes one step further.
“People must realize that there is an urgent need to educate the new generation of journalists about the new information environment and the dangers of disinformation,” he said. “The best protection against any kind of propaganda is strong analytical press capable of professional analysis of all suspicious information, wherever it comes from.”