In today's world the rise of disinformation has become one of the most pressing issues for journalists, both veteran and new. The ease with which fake news and propaganda can spread across social media and online platforms has made it increasingly difficult for journalists to distinguish between fact and fiction. This has led to a crisis of trust in journalism, with many people struggling to discern what is true and what is not.
The problem with disinformation
Disinformation is a deliberate attempt to mislead people with false or misleading information. It has become a significant problem for journalists who are tasked with providing accurate and reliable information to the public. A mandate that is not as easy as it sounds with the rise of social media and 24 hour news channels which means news is disseminated quickly and widely and journalists feel pressure to publish stories as soon as possible to stay competitive. Newsrooms are stretched thin, with journalists having to cover multiple areas and stories at once, plus there is so much information available to sort through online. All these elements combined can make it difficult for journalists to dedicate enough time and resources to thoroughly fact-check every piece of information, despite accuracy of reporting as being high on their list of priorities. Its no wonder sources that may not be reliable or trustworthy sometimes slip the net and fool people.
In recent years we have seen a number of high profile examples of disinformation in journalism. One of the most prominent examples was in the 2016 US Presidential election, in which Russian operatives used social media to spread disinformation and propaganda in at attempt to influence the election outcome. More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a breeding ground for disinformation, with false information about vaccinnes, treatments and the origins of the virus being spread on social media. Our blog on infamous disinformation campaigns provides other infamous examples.
Maria Ressa, a journalist with a long and distinguished career, has witnessed first hand one of the more extreme and sinister results of disinformation. From reporting and working her way to the top at CNN, she then co-founded Rappier a news website in the Philippines in 2012, and more recently won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2021. However, since 2016 Resser and her fellow journalists have been targeted online for their criticism and exposes of the government, and Resser has even been convicted for an article she didn't write or even edit. "I have never seen anything like it. The degree to which disinformation has infiltrated our society is truly alarming."
The rise is not surprising to some. Craig Silverman of ProPublica, former media editor of Buzzfeed. and coiner of the term 'fake news' started creating a Verification Handbook way back in 2013 to support journalists in the online age, before developing a tool and database to better track and understand disinformation that was spreading online. He told FRONTLINE in 2018, "one of the profound changes that we've seen with the rise of platforms like Twitter or Facebook is that it creates this kind of flatness, this level playing field. So The New York Times can have a story that gets shared in Facebook, and its going to show up; there's going to be a headline and a photo. Well, if it's a teenager in Macedonia who's created a story, it will also show up with a headline and thumbnail. There isn't a lot that distinguishes between these kind of things when you encounter them on platforms..."
With the playing field firmly levelled between professional news journalists and disinformation spreaders, its no wonder the media ecosystem feels confusing, and people are losing faith in the institutions they once trusted to tell them the truth. What can and is be done?
Technological advances are promising to help journalists fight back mopre easily. Fact checking tools powered by Artificial intelligence (AI) are helping journalists detect and debunk information. These tools use machine learning algorithms to analyze large amounts of data and identify patterns of disinformation. They can help journalists who are often up against tight deadlines to quickly verify the accuracy of news stores. For example FullFact in the UK also uses AI to factcheck international news and claims made by politicians from other countries.
Blockchain technology is also being explored to see if it can help create more transparent and trustworthy news ecosystems. By using blockchain, journalists can track the origin of news stories and ensure they are reliable and accurate before re-publishing or quoting. FactProtocol is an example of a new business designed to combat disinformation by aggregating fact-checks from trusted sources around the world and re-validating them to increase trust.
However, a crucial way to stop the spread of disinformation is not just to tell people what is real and what is not, but to enable them to find this information out for themselves. In TITAN we are leveraging Machine Learning and Natural Language technology to help journalists by raising the critical thinking levels of their readers so they are more conscious about the news they are receiving. An intelligent chatbot coaches the user on how to investigate the story so they can better investigate information sources and come to their own decisions around accuracy. The research and innovation project started late last year but aims to have a prototype conversational agent offering personalised coaching in early 2024.
In conclusion, the problem of disinformation in journalism is a complex and challenging issue, but one that is being tackled through a combination of technological advances and journalistic vigilance. Journalist play a vital role in ensuring the public get the truth and will continue to be a defender of democracy for the foreseeable future, but its up to all of us, including innovation initiatives like TITAN, to ensure that truth prevails. In some last words from Maria Resser, remember "Journalism is not a crime, but disinformation is".
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