It seems like only yesterday that journalists were talking about big data, live-streaming and 360° video. Now the buzzwords are “fake news” and “alternative facts.” The deliberate dissemination of misinformation partnered with attacks on the reliability of news media has shaken the political and journalistic landscapes in the United States – and globally.
In light of this new reality, the credibility and future of the news media was a major topic at the inaugural Newsgeist LatAm unconference organized by Google and held in São Paulo, March 10-12. More than 150 journalists, technologists, media innovators and journalism academics from across Latin and North America participated in the invitation-only event designed to “reimagine the future of the news.”
Under the collaborative format, participants suggested topics and questions to focus on during the two-day unconference. A question proposed for one of the opening sessions was, “What is the role of Google (and other platforms) in fake news?” Among the key issues raised was whether machines and algorithms can reliably detect fake news and alert users/readers.
Participants from the tech community pointed out that the veracity of information remains a subjective exercise. Filtering for fake news depends on individual preferences and settings. A user may select information or belong to groups that share what others might consider “fake news.” Search engines and algorithms can only predict and respond to what the data say users want to see – whether the sorting is done on a news site, social media or both.
Since machines will only do what people program them to do, reps from tech pointed out that it’s unfair to blame the messengers – the systems that deliver information. The onus, some suggested, is on journalists to find a way to help users/readers critically assess information. One commented, “It’s not our job to play editorial god.”
Aron Pilhofer, a professor of journalism innovation at Temple University and former executive editor of digital for The Guardian, agreed that news media need to help audiences understand the difference between verified fact and fake information. He commented that if readers can’t figure out what is opinion and what is news, “how the hell can Google know the difference?”
That said, there was general agreement that everyone – technology companies, journalists, educators, and even advertisers (see CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis’ comments at the Guardian Media Changing Summit on March 15) – should pitch in address the issue of fake news. That already is happening. Some examples:
- The Facebook Journalism Project, which includes “continuing efforts to curb news hoaxes,” is designed to support journalism and news literacy, and serve as a hub for journalists and publishers to learn and share.
- The Trust Project, supported by craigslist founder Craig Newmark and Google, is exploring “how journalism can stand out from the chaotic crowd and signal its trustworthiness.”
- The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is launching TruthBuzz: The Viral Fact-Checking Contest. Supported by the Craig Newmark Foundation, it’s a global challenge to invent new ways to help verified facts reach the widest possible audience. Set to launch in April, ICFJ will accept entries in multiple languages.
- The Knight Prototype Fund is calling for ideas that answer the question, “How might we improve the flow of accurate information?” U.S.-based technologists, journalists, designers, teachers, researchers and others are invited to submit early-stage ideas to improve the flow of accurate information. The Fund will award up to US$1 million in grants with an average size of about US$50,000.
At the NewsGeist session on fake news, most acknowledged that disinformation isn’t new. What has changed is how it is disseminated and how fast it can reach audiences. “The only thing surprising about fake news,” said one participant, “is that it surprised anyone.”
Elisa Tinsley is deputy vice president of programs at the International Center for Journalists.