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U.S. election disinformation worse than ever – Craig Silverman

The spread of disinformation and fake news is far worse than four years ago and is fuelling a deluge of lies in the run-up to the U.S. election, Buzzfeed media editor Craig Silverman said in an FCC panel discussion.

Eric Wishart interviews (clockwise) Thomas Kent, Craig Silverman, and Elyse Samuels. Eric Wishart (left) interviews (clockwise) Thomas Kent, Craig Silverman, and Elyse Samuels.

Silverman, creator of the Verification Handbook – For Disinformation and Media Manipulation, appeared with Elyse Samuels, video reporter for the Washington Post’s visual forensics team; and Thomas Kent, former president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and author of Striking Back: Overt and Covert Options to Combat Russian Disinformation in the October 15 webinar.

He said that conspiracy theories and an alternate reality ecosystem had flourished on the internet since the last election. In 2016, social media platforms were criticised for disseminating fake news ahead of the election of President Donald Trump.

“What’s incredible to me is thinking about what I was seeing in 2016 in the U.S. and how that just felt like an incredible high watermark for conspiratorial thinking infecting the mainstream, for viral falsehoods, gathering a huge amount of attention and interactions… And all of that seemed like ‘how could it get worse?’, and here we are,” Silverman said.

He criticised social media platforms for not doing enough to curb the continued rise of disinformation and fake news on their sites.

Twitter and Facebook were late to act against the spread of fake news due to a sense of American “free speech”. He said the firms were led by people “very much in favour of leaving up rather than taking down”.

Silverman acknowledged that platforms were beginning to crack down on disinformation. However, highlighting Facebook’s recent commitment not to accept political ads after the U.S. election polls close on November 3, he added: “It’s fair to point out a lot of this stuff is coming very close to the election. They’ve had four years and while they’re banking massive profits they have not really invested as much as they could have.”

Samuels discussed the rise in deep fakes – manipulated videos or photos – with the most common form being clips used out of context. As an example, she spoke of the recent controversy surrounding a Donald Trump campaign video in which White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci appears to praise the president’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Fauci subsequently issued a statement saying his quote was taken out of context.

“It just shows how easy it is to take something out of context and change the narrative,” Samuels said.

She conceded that once a video clip had gone viral it was “harder to put the genie back into the bottle” but added that she hoped articles that debunked misinformation were having a positive effect.

Samuels said both the Trump and Biden campaigns were guilty of spreading disinformation, although she said there were more instances of the Trump campaign using this strategy.

Kent discussed interference in elections by Russia. Although the Kremlin was widely believed to have helped elect Trump in 2016, Kent argued that Russia is also “on the other side too”. He cited Russian-created content that was both critical and supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“You can look at this in two ways: the classical explanation of this would be that the Russians are trying to hedge their bets, to have some allies on both sides depending on who wins the election,” he said. “However, the general thrust of Russian information operations in the United States has not been aimed particularly at making allies for Russia anywhere. Instead, it’s been aimed at sewing disruption in general in U.S. society.”

Kent suggested one solution to the divisive spread of disinformation was to change the way people think about politics and democratic values.

“The problem is we are too defensive; we spend all our time saying don’t believe this don’t believe that… If you want to affect the way people think about politics you need to present a positive message as well as a negative message,” he said.

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News agencies more important than ever in fight against fake news

News agencies are needed more than ever to fight back against the ‘impoverishment’ of newsrooms around the world as a result of the growth of social media and fake news, according to the chairman of the world’s oldest agency.

AFP chairman, Fabrice Fries talked about the global role of news agencies in an era of fake news. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC AFP chairman, Fabrice Fries talked about the global role of news agencies in an era of fake news. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

While news organisations are struggling to find a profitable business model as the lion share of news consumption comes via the likes of Google and the big social networks, Agence France-Presse has found a surprising revenue stream–from Facebook. AFP was one of several agencies to sign a contract in 2017 with the social network giant to fact check any content on the platform that the news agency decides warrants verification.

During his appearance at the December 10 club lunch, AFP’s chairman, Fabrice Fries, said the fight against fake news had become a core component of the 183-year-old agency’s mission. He said the proliferation of news blogs that take chunks of content without permission had led to bona fide news organisations having to cut costs as they saw advertising revenue fall. For large players and news agencies, this increasingly meant scaling down operations abroad.

Fries further highlighted the impact of Big Tech on news organisations, criticising aggregators like Google and Facebook for hosting content published without the permission of the copyright holder then taking 90% of advertising revenue without offering any of it to the news outlets who produced the copy in the first place. “This means we’re being robbed twice…for our content and our revenues,” he said.

The collaboration with Facebook allows AFP to select whatever fake news it wants, and fact check it before publishing its results. Links to its fact checks appear alongside original posts on Facebook.

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Facebook is fighting fake news, but there’s no shortcut says Campbell Brown

Campbell Brown, centre explained how Facebook was trying to stamp out fake news on its social media platform. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Campbell Brown, centre, explained how Facebook was trying to stamp out fake news on its social media platform. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

Facebook is working hard to develop systems to combat the tide of fake news – but it’s education among users that will make the biggest dent, according to the social network’s head of news partnerships.

Speaking at the June 14 club lunch, former TV news anchor Campbell Brown, who since January has been Head of News Partnerships for Facebook, said it was important to equip people with the tools make informed decisions on the type of content they share.

Facebook has recently come under fire over the proliferation of financially and politically motivated fake news on its platform. Brown reiterated that the social network was doing all it could to ensure that such hoax stories were downgraded in users’ news feeds.

“Now news literacy is even more vital than ever,” she said. “We can only do so much on the text side… We need to work on the education side. There is no shortcut to this.”

One of several initiatives the social network has launched is the Facebook Journalism Project which, Brown said, works in three ways: collaborative development of news products; training and tools for journalists; and training and tools for everyone. Essentially, it seeks to try to help all users to identify fake news with the help of education, software and fact-checking.

Brown said that Facebook was finding that a growing number of fake news articles appearing online were financially motivated i.e. the more clicks an article gets the more money it makes through advertising. She said the social network recognised the need to build systems that do a better job of rewarding quality journalism. The fruits of Facebook’s labour were already paying dividends, she said, in that clickbait headlines were now appearing lower in users’ feeds.

We recognise that publishers are struggling and trying to find new sustainable business models

When asked to comment on how Facebook and internet search giant Google, the two biggest providers of news on the web, were now taking the lion’s share of digital advertising revenue at the cost of news organisations, Brown would only say that Facebook was working with news organisations to try to alleviate the pressure. “We recognise that publishers are struggling and trying to find new sustainable business models,” she said, adding that Facebook was “coming at this from many different directions” and “doing everything we can to ramp up on multiple fronts to work with publishers on this”.

Facebook was founded in 2004 by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg. Initially it was a social network platform for Harvard students only, but became so popular it was expanded to universities across America and Canada. In 2006 membership was opened to anyone aged over 13 anywhere in the internet-accessible world. As of March 2017, the social network has 1.94 billion monthly active users.

In 2015, Facebook overtook internet search engine giant Google as the premier provider of news on the internet.

Watch Campbell Brown’s talk

Aside from the occasional lawsuit – in 2004, Harvard seniors Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Divya Narenda filed an unsuccessful lawsuit alleging that Zuckerberg had copied their idea and illegally used source code intended for the website he was hired to create for them – Facebook had been relatively free of controversy. However, the social network found itself accused of proliferating misinformation during the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, giving birth to the now popular term, “fake news”. In short, fake news is deliberate misinformation written in the style of traditional news, designed to mislead in order to gain financially or politically. Facebook was accused, through its algorithm, of helping Donald Trump get elected by allowing fake news to outperform genuine news.

Facebook’s response to its critics was to pledge a crackdown on fake news by allowing users to report articles they felt were misleading, and then passing those stories to independent fact-checking services. If the articles are deemed not to be factual, Facebook gives them a “disputed” tag that warns users before they share the content. It promptly formed the News Integrity Initiative, saying: “We’ve joined a group of over 25 funders and participants — including tech industry leaders, academic institutions, non-profits and third party organisations — to launch the News Integrity Initiative, a global consortium focused on helping people make informed judgments about the news they read and share online.”

Founding funders of the $14 million fund include Facebook, the Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund, the Ford Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Tow Foundation, AppNexus, Mozilla and Betaworks.

“The initiative’s mission is to advance news literacy, to increase trust in journalism around the world and to better inform the public conversation. The initiative, which is administered by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, will fund applied research and projects, and convene meetings with industry experts,” its website states.

Facebook’s efforts to stamp out fake news haven’t been all plain sailing. In some cases, it’s had the opposite effect and some articles that have been debunked have gone viral. Additionally, it appears Facebook may be too slow in adding its “disputed” tag to such stories.

According to a report last month in The Guardian: “ABC News, for example, has a total of 12 stories on its site that its reporters have debunked as part of its Facebook partnership. But with more than half of those stories, versions can still be shared on Facebook without the disputed tag, even though they were proven false.”

In March 2017, Facebook issued guidance on how to spot fake news stories:

Look closely at the URL

A phony or look-alike URL (the web address at the top of your browser) may be a warning sign of false news. Many false news sites mimic authentic news sources by making small changes to the URL. You can go to the site to compare the URL to established sources.

Investigate the source

Ensure that the story is written by a source that you trust with a reputation for accuracy. If the story comes from an unfamiliar organisation, check their “About” section to learn more.

Watch for unusual formatting

Many false news sites have misspellings or awkward layouts. Read carefully if you see these signs.

Consider the photos

False news stories often contain manipulated images or videos. Sometimes the photo may be authentic, but taken out of context. You can search for the photo or image to verify where it came from.

Inspect the dates

False news stories may contain timelines that make no sense, or event dates that have been altered.

Check the evidence

Check the author’s sources to confirm that they are accurate. Lack of evidence or reliance on unnamed experts may indicate a false news story.

Look at other reports

If no other news source is reporting the same story, it may indicate that the story is false. If the story is reported by multiple sources you trust, it’s more likely to be true.

Is the story a joke? 

Sometimes false news stories can be hard to distinguish from humour or satire. Check whether the source is known for parody, and whether the story’s details and tone suggest it may be just for fun.

Some stories are intentionally false

Think critically about the stories you read, and only share news that you know to be credible.

Eric Wishart talks fake news with journalists in Macau

FCC President Eric Wishart spoke to journalists in Macau about the challenges of combating fake news. Photo: Screen shot FCC President Eric Wishart spoke to journalists in Macau about the challenges of combating fake news. Photo: Screen shot

FCC President Eric Wishart talked about the challenges of fake news and how mainstream and social media could combat its spread when he spoke to the Macau Journalists’ Association on May 12.

Interviewed by local television stations after the event, Wishart endorsed the idea of news organisations and social media giants partnering to try to stem the spread of fakes news through a joint verification process.

He told TDM News: “Fake news always existed… It’s news that is fabricated to be presented as real to deceive people often with malevolent intent. The president of the United States, saying the New York Times is fake news, he can say what he likes but it’s not fake news. Fake news is not a story that a politician doesn’t like. It’s also not a mistake that a journalist makes.

“We are moving into this world of kind of a parallel universe where one part of the population is properly informed. You can debunk and prove it as false as much as you like. They don’t want to hear that. They will believe Donald Trump, they will believe New York Times as fake news.”

Wishart, who in April chaired a lively opening discussion on the same topic at the FCC’s second Journalism Conference, emphasised that fact checking was more important than ever and suggested social media and news organisations could fight the spread of fake news together.

Wishart added: “With all these multiple sources of information, journalists no longer control the agenda. I think the way ahead is on one hand, the internet giants – the Facebooks, the Twitters, the Googles – fighting it without resorting to censorship, which is… we’re entering a very grey area there… and just as the media has partnered for journalists’ safety I think they have to partner now when it comes to verification.”

‘Never a more exciting time to be a journalist’: Asia’s talent gathers for second FCC Journalism Conference

Some of the region’s most talented journalists shared tips and views on reporting in an era censorship, fake news and tweeting presidents during the FCC’s second journalism conference.

The day-long event saw panels and workshops tackling the everyday struggles of reporting from Hong Kong and China. Special guest Evan Osnos, staff writer at the New Yorker, joined via Skype to talk about the difficulties now faced by U.S. reporters writing about the Trump administration.

“I don’t think there’s a more exciting time to be a journalist,” said FCC president Eric Wishart as he closed the conference on April 29.

Left to right: Keith Richburg, Paul Mozur, Miguel Toran and Juliana Liu discuss the difficulties of covering China. Photo: FCC/Sarah Graham Left to right: Keith Richburg, Paul Mozur, Miguel Toran and Juliana Liu discuss the difficulties of covering China. Photo: FCC/Sarah Graham

Earlier in the day guests heard from top editors and reporters on the challenges of reporting the facts at a time when fake news was so prolific it could sway an election result.

Workshops focused on writing to length under pressure and how graphics are being increasingly used to effectively tell stories to an audience bombarded with facts from different multiple sources.

In the workshop for freelancers, tips were shared by a panel including FCC board member Kate Whitehead, Zach Coleman of Nikkei Asian Review, Mark Jones of Cedar Hong Kong, and freelancer Vaudine England.

“As a freelancer you should have a website and pay attention to your LinkedIn account,” said Whitehead, who added that she often uses the social network to find potential story leads.

England advised freelancers to “go to places where there aren’t staff correspondents. Laos, Vietnam… are places that aren’t covered.”

Coleman’s advice was to build relationships, and build a reputation for yourself as a freelancer.

Telling the Hong Kong story to the world was the subject of a later workshop featuring foreign correspondents from the Guardian, Reuters, Financial Times and Bloomberg. Anne Marie Roantree, Hong Kong Bureau Chief at Reuters, said that during Occupy Central in 2014, her team used spot news to tell a wider story about the protests, bringing those stories together for special report on Beijing tracking down activists.

Benjamin Haas of the Guardian said Hong Kong had appeal globally because “there’s a lot drama in Hong Kong that you don’t get in stories on mainland China”. Panel members agreed that covering investigative stories on corrupt business practices in Hong Kong was expensive and time consuming, with time being a luxury most reporters don’t have.

Similarly, the panel on covering China focused on how difficult it is to work in a country where the government refuses to give out basic information requested by journalists.

FCC president Eric Wishart said after the conference: “At a time when fake news and alternative facts seem to be dominating the discussion,  the conference showed that  journalism is stronger, more diverse and more vibrant than ever.

“And as we approach the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover, the conference also confirmed the FCC’s role as a beacon of press freedom in an increasingly difficult and dangerous environment for journalists.”

Journalists need to fact check more than ever to stamp out fake news, conference told

Journalists must “double down” on their jobs now more than ever to fight the tidal wave of fake news, the FCC Journalism Conference was told.

Verify your information, quote your sources and use data to ensure you become a trusted source was the message from the opening panel.

The cream of the region’s reporters and editors gathered to discuss the challenges facing news organisations with the rise of unverified news, much of which has been blamed as contributing to the recent election of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Left to right: Gerry Mullany, Eric Wishart and Jodi Schneider discuss the challenges of fake news. Photo: FCC/Sarah Graham Left to right: Gerry Mullany, Eric Wishart and Jodi Schneider discuss the challenges of fake news. Photo: FCC/Sarah Graham

Introduced by moderator Eric Wishart, FCC President, Gerry Mullany of the New York Times joined Bloomberg’s Jodi Schneider; Simon Gardner of Reuters; and Yumiko Ono of the Wall Street Journal at the opening of the April 29 conference. They discussed how difficult it has become to report political developments under Trump’s administration.

Schneider said journalism was harder now “because the agenda is being set by Trump through tweets” and the way that Whitehouse press briefings were now being controlled. Those tweets can’t be ignored, she added, but it was important now more than ever to use data to verify them. She said research showed “where there’s no name attached to a quote people tend to disbelieve it” and said she hoped that in times of crisis people would go to the trusted sources for their news.

Mullany described attacks on the press by Trump as “very dangerous” but added that “there are so many fake news stories because there’s an audience for it”.

Social media was also highlighted as a vehicle for the spread of fake news. Ono said the Wall Street Journal was doing “a lot of soul-searching” in trying to discover who its audience is and what they want as the organisation tries to combat fake news.

Reuters’ Simon Gardner revealed the head teacher at a Hong Kong school he recently visited said the school was trying to teach pupils about fake news and the importance of verified news sources – he added: “I hope next year we’ll be talking about the death of fake news at this conference.”

The FCC’s second journalism conference kicked off with an interview with the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, who has been covering Trump’s administration for the magazine. He talked about America’s white nationalist media and how it subjected him to antisemitic attacks.

He said he believed that before the Trump administration is out it will “make a serious effort to try to stifle the press”, but added that “there is an accountability… I think Donald Trump is in a much more precarious position…” than the administration thinks in a legal sense.

“Stay tuned,” he added.

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