Maxim Behar: We live in times when all information must be verified

Maxim Behar: We live in times when all information must be verified

Host (Maria Konstantinova): We are overwhelmed with fake news and misinformation during the election campaign. There is also the risk of being flooded with content generated by artificial intelligence.

Host (Viktor Dremsizov): How can we deal with the spread of misinformation and distinguish true from false? We will discuss this today with cybersecurity expert Hristiyan Daskalov and PR expert Maxim Behar.

Maxim Behar: Good morning!

Host: Immediately, we will bring you into the conversation about misinformation. Mr. Behar, are we critical enough of what we read and see on social media, especially during an election campaign? Do we verify the information we receive, or do we tend to trust it?

Maxim: I think we are quite careless, but this has been going on for years. The emergence of social media about fifteen years ago and their increasing influence suddenly gave them an identification similar to what newspapers once had. Back then, it was: "It's written in the newspaper," meaning that if it's in the newspaper, it's the final word. Then it was: "They said it on TV." And now, people say: "We saw it written on social media." Of course, the very fact that we have 4 billion media owners worldwide, and these media are interactive – they allow 2- way communication, puts their credibility in great doubt. Secondly, it places them in an unusual situation as media platforms, which has never happened before - anyone can share and potentially mislead and falsify. Therefore, it seems that we should always take information with a pinch of salt and double-check it from at least 2-3 sources. With artificial intelligence, we are entering a territory where everything must be verified. You use artificial intelligence, and we do it every day in our company. Out of 10 pieces of information provided, at least 7-8 need double-checking. This is the world we live in. I would compare it to driving a car: you drive your car, there are traffic lights and signs, you have to be careful, and there are also pedestrian crossings. You can't get in a car and drive however you want.

Host: We were discussing with Mr. Daskalov what is written in the constitution - everyone can write and freely express their opinion. Still, a condition is clearly stated if it does not harm the dignity of others. In PR strategies, is it a sign of political weakness to use and try to discredit your opponent to make yourself stand out? And we did not see many significant debates between politicians, but more attacks.

Maxim: This tactic was used even when there was no social media, only newspapers. It is becoming stronger now, of course. I don't know if it's a weakness in communication or PR. I didn't see any particularly brilliant ideas during the current or past election campaigns. I think political marketing is in a gigantic crisis, at least in Bulgaria. It seems to me that all these people, who suddenly became publishers - because the characteristic of a publisher is media ownership, do not realize they are publishers. And after a drink in the evening, they think their social media is their territory. Do you know how often someone asks why someone has written on their wall, but it's not just theirs? Social media is public, and everyone can comment on it. Or they ask why we write in English when we are in Bulgaria. But we are not just in Bulgaria; we are in social media, a global platform that can quickly translate any language and allows writing in your chosen language.

Host: But where are the boundaries and the signs? Where is the "stop" sign if we use traffic terminology?

Maxim: The "stop" sign is solely in the publicity and verification of the people who write. There is no other way. I believe that creating fake news should be criminalized. I have shared this in many world and international forums. I have supporters from Scandinavia because they are very strict in this regard. However, I don't have supporters among my colleagues in the United States or the United Kingdom. When creating fake news is criminalized and all profiles are public, then everything will be fine. Just like driving a car, there are road signs; it is known who is driving that car, and they are subject to the appropriate sanctions.

Host: Mr. Behar, how can voters trust politicians and the information they receive?

Maxim Behar: These are two completely different areas we're talking about. Phishing attacks, by definition, are addressed by the law. This is theft - a criminal activity that the law can prosecute. The other area is regular lies. The law can also prosecute them when false information is published against someone, harming their reputation. Usually, this information aims to harm you in some way. I won't speak about this when it comes to politicians at all because, for them, it's a matter of winning elections. They promise things before the elections, and then there's no control over their actions and fulfillment of these promises.

Host: But are these "good" lies? Politicians say they will do something and then don't. In the end, we are deceived. But is there a good lie in politics?

Maxim: No, there is no good lie. A lie is always a lie. I believe that those who lie can also steal and are stealing. Politics is a very separate topic. Politicians are not yet entering our computers, stealing our data, passwords, or credit card information. But these are indeed different areas. I am more concerned about when someone shares false information to harm someone. Even if they do not intend to harm others, they play with the computer like a toy. For example, you are driving your car and hitting a curb - you didn't do it intentionally. You lost control for a moment and hit it. But you need to be careful not to do it.

Host: During the campaign, didn't we see something exactly like this with recordings that were manipulated, cut, and edited as needed to discredit an opponent?

Maxim: Yes, that's discreditation. I believe that if we focus on the campaign, attention should be directed toward whether the information is accurate rather than whether it is published. Politicians are public figures, and what they discuss concerns millions of people - their voters, thoughts, approaches, and desires. We should be focused on whether what is being said is true or not. If it is not true, some services and experts can check it in a day or two. It is not a big philosophy at all. Whoever it is and their political party should have given this recording for checking and explaining what they were talking about.

Host: It has become a practice for such conversations to be recorded, then these recordings to be released in the public domain, starting a series of explanations, insults, or accusations between political forces.

Maxim: I think these recordings should be publicly available. What politicians discuss among themselves concerns the whole society and their voters. It concerns us, the Bulgarians, how we will develop from here on. Suppose politicians are talking nonsense, or about money, or whatever, and it does not suit us, the voters. In that case, it is better to say it publicly. Politicians cannot have hidden messages and public messages.

Host: Mr. Behar, during the campaign, when we see attacks from opponents between the interim government and the President, we cannot help but ask about yesterday's scandal. The interim Prime Minister and President Rumen Radev are again in a heated argument. The President said that he never declared a decision for Bulgaria to send troops to Ukraine and that the Euro-Atlanticists, implying the interim government, are cowards and cannot make such a decision. In the context of the campaign, are these attacks appropriate to talk about now, or could we have waited and then talked about who is Euro-Atlantic and who is not? Can this influence voters?

Maxim: I think this tone should not be used by politicians, especially by the President, regardless of whether it is before or after the campaign. We cannot talk like that to the government and call them names. I was extremely surprised yesterday. The Prime Minister behaved calmly and intelligently, but I don't want to give any assessments here. First, Politicians' language should be respectful, courteous, diplomatic, and specific. Second, if they have something to say to each other, they should say it privately, not through the media. Both are on different sides of Bulgaria; they talk through cameras and insult each other. Such behavior is extremely unacceptable. I don't see how it will affect the election campaign. Perhaps only those who were thinking of voting for someone supported by the President might back off because they saw this behavior. People at home do not talk like that. Sometimes, they argue but do not talk to one another this way.

Host: In this sense, Mr. Behar, did you see, during this election campaign, which is near its end, attempts to make people not vote? Especially to discourage people on the outskirts of Bulgaria, with politicians' actions or the lack thereof.

Maxim: Even if there were such attempts, I don't think they were intentional. No political force could tell us not to vote because someone would get more votes or it is not worth it. However, we all know that this campaign was extremely boring and indifferent. There were no strong messages, strong leaders, or charisma. There was no leaders' debate at this point, on Tuesday, and the elections are this Sunday. The leaders of the political forces should sit in a TV studio and share their strategies and ideas. Bulgaria is in an economic crisis, obviously a political one as well, and perhaps in a mental crisis, or we are confused and do not know where we are going. I asked the leaders to come on TV and share their strategies in a debate, but this did not happen. It could result in low voter turnout, and many voters need to know who to vote for because they have yet to hear what the politicians want to do. This is very sad, and I hope that in the next elections, which might happen very soon, something more interesting, more engaging, and more intriguing for all of us as voters will happen.

Host: We expect this with every election, and it still does not happen, Mr. Behar.

Maxim: Unfortunately, this tendency is downward. We will see what the voter turnout will be on Sunday. I firmly believe that voting is necessary. In any way, we have to vote. There is a choice; it's not like there isn't.

Host: And we join your call. Thank you very much! We hope people make their own informed choice and always do the necessary verification. This summarizes our conversation- verifying information is always good to avoid being deceived.

Maxim: Excuse me, but it might be a good idea to task cybersecurity specialists with developing software that tracks politicians' promises and their fulfillment. It should be super easy.

Host: This is an excellent conclusion to our conversation. Thank you for joining us!


Watch the full interview here.