‘You control public space’: Tech giants told to join fight against fake news

The role of tech giants as enablers of fake news was an undercurrent of the 2018 East West Center’s International Media Conference, writes Frances Morton, editor of VICE New Zealand.

Workshop on hoax-busting 

Frances Morton, VICE NZ

Frances Morton, Editor of VICE NZ, at the workshop about hoax-busting and fake news at Googles headquarters in Singapore.

This years theme for the East West Center’s International Media Conference was “What is News Now?”. The role of tech giants as enablers of the fake news phenomenon was an undercurrent of the conference.

I arrived in Singapore a couple of days before the conference for a workshop about hoax-busting and fake news at Googles headquarters, attended by print, digital and broadcast journalists from countries around the world including India, Malaysia, the United States and Uzbekistan.

Google presented sessions on how journalists, or anyone, can use freely available online tools such as Google Maps to verify information. With so much reporting now done from user-generated and aggregated content, these sessions gave useful hints of ways to check information, such as how to accurately locate footage of flooding or ensure “breaking news” coverage of a shooting wasn’t cut from a two-year-old video.

In the break, journalists were taken around the enormous, modern Google office by a host holding a flag, like we were tourists off a cruise ship.

We were shown the nap room, the free cafes and the complimentary day spa. Standing in this vast, shiny complex and having a conversation with a Cambodian journalist about the silencing and forced closures of independent media in Cambodia really highlighted where the power lies in today’s media environment – and it’s not with the news gatherers.

A recurring conversation was that the quest for truth needed support from governments, tech platforms, educators and journalists. How that could best be achieved was not so easy to define.

Participants at the Google workshop

The workshop was attended by journalists from around the world, including India, Malaysia and Uzbekistan.

Algorithms vs accuracy

Kenneth Cukier of The Economist pointed out readers are no longer getting their news carefully curated through front pages. “We have algorithms not editors,” said Cukier.

Facebook representatives at the workshop said they were committed to “prioritising quality news” on the platform. They faced some hard questioning at the workshop. 

Facebook outlined a few ways journalists could take advantage of those algorithms – such as avoiding clickbait headlines. But ultimately, the site prioritises what friends and family are liking and sharing, which doesn’t put much value in accuracy.

A journalist from India, who worked for a news site set up to debunk fake news, asked Facebook what could be done about years-old footage filmed in Guatemala that had recently spread through Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp and led to mob killings.

WhatsApp is encrypted, came the response, which meant little can be done about such flow of disinformation.

Maria Ressa keynote speech, International Media Conference

Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler.com, delivered the keynote speech at the International Media Conference. (Photo: Frances Morton)

New Zealand press freedom

Spending five days with journalists from Southeast Asia made me appreciate the position New Zealand occupies, as number 8 on the latest World Press Freedom Index.

A majority of the journalists I spoke to identified social media as a barrier to reporting the truth, in the haste to get news out. But many also said state control of information was a major concern.

Many of New Zealand’s neighbours from Asia rank somewhere in the 100s – Indonesia (124), Philippines (133), Cambodia (146), Singapore (155) and Vietnam (175). China sits fourth from bottom of the table at 176. We’re quite a way ahead of Australia, which ranks 11 places behind us, at number 19.

Meeting these journalists and hearing their experiences also highlighted how little news from Asia that Kiwis are exposed to through New Zealand media. Everyone I spoke to was up to date on at least one thing about New Zealand. Many people congratulated New Zealand on the birth of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s baby.

Maria Ressa CEO Rappler

Maria Ressa appealed to Facebook to step up to its responsibilities as publishers of information. (Photo: East West Center)

‘A battle we will win’

Maria Ressa, the CEO of Filipino news website Rappler, delivered the keynote address at the conference.

Her speech had many hardened journalists close to tears. She outlined how she and her colleagues had been targeted through social media when reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war (#presstitude, #ArrestMariaRessa).

Ressa made a direct appeal to Facebook to step up to its responsibilities as publishers of information. “Even though you don’t consider yourselves journalists, you better pick up that mission of journalists because you control that public space,” said Ressa.

Despite working in one of the most dangerous environments for press freedom – four journalists were killed in the Philippines last year – Ressa was optimistic about overcoming fake news.

“No one person, no one group, whether it’s tech or journalists or government, can solve this problem by themselves. The technology is changing so fast.

We created a geopolitical world order over centuries and now that has been turned upside down – and information is at the core of creating power,” said Ressa.

Journalists need to come togetherIt is a battle we will win. We need to come together and make demands that truth reigns.”

Frances Morton, Editor of VICE New Zealand, attended the East West Center’s International Media Conference on an Asia New Zealand Foundation travel grantVice NZ and the New Zealand International Film Festival are presenting a panel discussion, “Does New Zealand Have a Fake News Problem?”, on Sunday 5 August.

– Asia Media Centre