Friday, December 2

Emilio García-Ruiz – Director of the San Francisco Chronicle: “The promise of the Internet has been a fraud”

Head of several Pulitzer Prize-winning teams, Emilio García-Ruiz (Washington, 1961) is one of the most relevant American journalists of the last decade and a world reference. Together with Marty Baron, known in Spain thanks to the movie ‘Spotlight’, he led the digital transformation of The Washington Post, which in just five years went from being a declining newspaper in the capital to a powerful global newspaper. He now directs the San Francisco Chronicle, the most influential newspaper in Northern California, a global technological epicenter populated by large digital platforms. Considered one of the greatest experts on the circulation and consumption of information on the Internet, this son of Spanish emigrants last night gave a conference in Madrid on journalism and disinformation invited by the Colpisa news agency.

-The Internet has facilitated simple and universal access to information and at the same time has allowed the largest campaigns of mass manipulation. It has happened in the United Kingdom, in the United States, in Colombia, now in Russia…

-The promise of the Internet has been a fraud. We believed that the truth would be like a river. That the wide dissemination of free news, based on the truth of the facts, would achieve a common understanding throughout the world. What nobody saw is that the bad guys, the villains, could dominate the Internet with their disinformation campaigns. This is what has happened example after example. A political campaign can be manipulated using the same tactics that Hitler used in Germany. Propaganda has always existed. The new thing is that now it can be more impressive, that it is easier to do it and that it is free. There is no admission price. If your intentions are bad, you can do incredible damage.

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-Platforms such as Google or Facebook have not only not stopped this false information, but have also promoted its dissemination.

-They have created a trade based on scale and the tactics to achieve more scale favor propaganda. A lie is repeated many times and there are people who prefer to believe that lie than assume the truth. The concept of ‘post-truth’ arises. That idea that there may be another alternative truth. But there is only truth and lies, created by people who know how to manipulate social networks to gain power.

The need for ‘Likes’

-Does the nature of social networks, based on algorithms that give controversial content a viral character, foster a perverse system?

-We journalists know this, right? What makes readers react? Something that touches a passion. But it’s not every day that you get such exciting news, and instead, the platforms need millions of reactions. The way to achieve this easily is with content based on lies and manipulation, very useful for creating reactions. Facebook needs ‘Likes’. You need people to consume and invite their friends to consume. This is how the most controversial information becomes viral. And also the cute dog videos.

-He directs a prestigious and centennial header. How is your relationship with the platforms?

-There is no way to communicate in 2022 without using the platforms, so powerful… We need them to amplify our journalism, but we are at war. It is a relationship with what we call in the United States a ‘friend’ (a combination of the English words ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’). A friend who is an enemy. We can reach advantageous agreements for both parties knowing that in other aspects, such as the sale of advertisements, they want to do us a lot of damage. There is a part of Google that seems to be interested in helping me and another part that wants to eliminate me. I need to have different relationships with both. It is better to have them close.

-The electoral victory of Donald Trump, who campaigned against the media, was a big surprise. How did he feel?

-It was a very hard moment. I was at The Washington Post and we had published several scandalous investigations, including the famous recordings that reflected such degrading treatment of women. We believed that no one was going to vote for president someone with such bad behavior. And no. There are many texts on this subject. Because fascism begins with attacking the press. They have to convince people that the press is lying.

Press and democracy

“The first thing a fascist does is attack the press. They want absolute power.”

Was Trump’s presidency good or bad for journalism?

-His continuous attacks on the press caused great damage. Trump launched such a strong attack against us that the dynamic totally changed. We were not prepared.

-The Washington Post did not do badly with Trump.

-Absolutely. There was a great growth in audience, subscriptions and income during his presidency. The news it generated captured a large audience and, it is true, improved the economic situation of some newspapers. But the general damage to the press was much greater.

-You usually say that everything started with Bill Clinton.

-The lie has always been part of politics. But for me what Clinton did during his deposition on the Monica Lewinsky scandal changed the rules. He defended himself by questioning the meaning of the key words and thus implied that there could be different ideas of truth.

donald trump

«The news it generated captured a large audience. But the damage to the press was greater»

-How did you experience the assault on the Capitol?

Nobody believed it at first. What we were seeing was impossible. Was it a demo? A protest? In the editorial office of the San Francisco Chronicle we quickly understood that it was an insurrection. An attempt to remove the elected government by the losing side.

-Is the level of the press in a country an indication of the level of quality of its democracy?

-Of course. The first thing a fascist does is attack the press. They have to control information to have absolute power. In the end, Trump didn’t make it.

-Elections are held in the Philippines in May. How did you receive the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the journalist Maria Ressa, the editor of Rappler?

-I believe that all the journalists felt very happy that day. I have only been able to speak with her once but she seems to me to be one of the most important journalists in the world. The Philippines is the country with the highest percentage of the population connected to the Internet. Duterte’s attacks on the press have been unbelievable and there have been huge disinformation campaigns. Maria Ressa has fought great battles with the Government. The Nobel Peace Prize may also be a way to protect her from jail.

A window to Journalism through interviews with references in the trade

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