Maxim Behar: Social media is the realm of free speech, which makes our world better

Maxim Behar and Kamelia Ivanova speak on May 3rd - World Press Freedom Day on the show "100% Awake" on BNT 1, hosted by Nadya Ivanova and Stefan A. Shterev.

Host (Nadya Ivanova): On May 3rd, we celebrate World Press Freedom Day. The day was declared in 1993 by the United Nations General Assembly.

Host (Stefan A. Shterev): How free is the press worldwide, and for us Bulgarians? What can we do to ensure even greater freedom, and is it necessary? Answers to these questions and many more will be provided by our guests Maxim Behar and Kamelia Ivanova. Hello! To what extent can we say that speech, the press, and the media are free in Bulgaria?

Maxim: First, I'm surprised there's such a day because every day should be a day of freedom of speech, especially now that we have social media. There is unlimited freedom. Everything has changed in the last twenty years, mostly thanks to social media. Twenty to twenty-five years ago, we fought for diversity of opinions on television and in newspapers. Now we have 4 billion publishers worldwide, which means 4 billion people who own media. In fact, the definition of a publisher is someone who owns media. You, me, and many others own media. Therefore, I think freedom of speech is currently unlimited, and it makes our lives much better.

Host: The major problems in Bulgarian media - concentration of media ownership, lack of pluralism, opaque ownership, merging of economic and political interests, ineffectiveness of self-regulation in the sector, weak legal regulation, etc. Of course, there's also insufficient educational and practical preparation of journalists. These are the topics that people have pointed out themselves. Should we be concerned about this, Maxim?

Maxim: I have a slightly different opinion. I believe that nowadays, and I'm sure it will be the same in the future, we shouldn't divide journalists into those who write for mainstream media and get paid as journalists, and those who sit behind their keyboards and inform society about what’s interesting. And I don't want to belittle the journalist profession - journalism is extremely responsible, influential, and highly qualified because it influences society. But it's like dividing car drivers into professionals and amateurs. An established media outlet - a newspaper, television, television channel, or radio - can also publish wrong information. It can very much publish fake news - something more likely to happen in a social media platform. However, a social media platform can also publish accurate information. And social media allows this to happen fast - unlike an established media outlet. That's why I think we should look at the bigger picture. In social media, every person, living anywhere, can publish faster and more reliable information than, for example, a newspaper. In a newspaper, you first have to report the information, then the newspaper has to be printed and distributed. I agree that television and radio are faster than that - and currently, the most important thing is the speed of reporting the news - but still, nothing is faster than social media. That’s the first benefit. And secondly - no one can buy social media. Theoretically, you can buy a newspaper or a television channel and influence it. But you can't buy Facebook, Instagram, or another social media platform. First, these platforms are where diversity of opinion is formed, and secondly, if a person is intelligent enough, they can make their own conclusion about what is right and what is not. I would say that a very important, if not the most real, part of journalism is currently being formed in social media.

Host: There's a graph that's quite interesting to me: "What do you think are the most common forms of restricting freedom of speech in Bulgaria?" There's 69.6% for "internal pressure within the media itself," 66.2% for "external pressure," and 25% "neither internal nor external pressure, my colleague is censoring themself."

Maxim: The highest percentage - internal pressure within the media itself - means that the editor-in-chief calls the journalists and tells them what to write about and what not to. This means, it's not a media outlet. If the editor-in-chief can call and dictate who and what to write about - that's simply not a media outlet.

Kamelia: Yes, these are the realities shared by journalists who work daily, and it's their job to provide information. Regarding social media, I want to say that they do indeed provide fast information, but speed should not come at the expense of quality. And the difference between social media publishers and established media is that journalists working in traditional media adhere to journalistic standards that guarantee the quality of information. And consumers' trust should be higher precisely because of this - there are teams publishing information professionally and ensuring that this information is accurate. In social media, there is all kinds of information, but it's up to the user to judge if it's true.

Maxim: But 66% of our colleagues working in established media say there's internal pressure.

Kamelia: That's right. And this needs to be addressed.

Maxim: Then how can we believe them 100%, if an established media, whether it’s radio, television, or printed newspaper, can be bought by someone and they can easily assert their agenda because they are the media owner? Social media has two advantages in that matter. First, it’s interactive - a news story is posted and if it's not true, 100 people will immediately point that out and say it's nonsense. If something is reported in a newspaper or on the radio, how will you know if it's not true or that it's influenced, or that someone has been paid to publish it? Social media is interactive - there's a big bouquet of opinions, and you can choose yours. And the second, which is very important - for the first time in journalistic history, there is media that’s measurable. That is, you can say how many people have seen a news article, shared it, or liked it. How will you measure that in a newspaper? Let’s say, on page 9, bottom right, there's a news story. You call the editorial office and ask how many people have read this news, and they can say the newspaper circulation is 100,000, when in reality, it’s 5000. In social media, you can accurately see who has read the article, and if the information is not true, someone will immediately react.

Host: But you can't always see who stands behind the name and the media.

Maxim: On Facebook, in most cases, you can. On Twitter, which is very poorly represented in Bulgaria, perhaps not at all because everyone uses pseudonyms. On Instagram – sometimes you can, sometimes not. But on Facebook, the most influential media in Bulgaria, you can clearly and accurately see who stands behind a post. And if you see that there are three friends and a fake picture, of course, you won't believe it.

Host: Let’s talk about propaganda and information - can we say that in Bulgaria we're not an exception, and propaganda is present?

Maxim: I don't know exactly what you mean by propaganda. Propaganda is any attempt to influence something. Every news story is propaganda. And when you report something, and in a way that you want to express your opinion - that's propaganda. Yes, it exists. It exists in social media too. There's also disinformation - it's present in both traditional and social media. What's more important, and this is the big risk, is that in social media the quantity of fake news, is much greater than in traditional media. And that's why attention should be much greater towards social media. But there, the possibility to disprove a fake news story is much greater than in traditional media.

Host: It depends, there are different tools, even online, that allow, if something doubts us, to check it. Fact-checking is one of them, but not only, of course.

Maxim: Yes, exactly.

Host: If something sounds too suspicious or too good to be true, we can check, of course. Journalism responds precisely to this; it has standards that there must always be several sources of verification and other ethical standards. Unfortunately, we have to end this conversation here.

Maxim: I will return to the beginning of the conversation - every day should be freedom of speech because every day we are in social media. This is the realm of free speech in which we all must be careful and write clear, accurate and confirmed information. And this makes our world much better. Thirty years ago, there were five newspapers, and no one could react, no one could understand who stood behind them. Today, life is much more beautiful because there is a variety of opinions.

Host: Thank you for this useful and free conversation!


Watch the full interview here.

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