Governments around the globe are increasingly pressurizing technology companies to clamp down on fake news and even threatening to punish them with harsh penalties. The tech majors whose revenues depend on eyeballs are taking steps across the world to stop the proliferation of fake news. In the US, President Trump warning Google, Facebook and Twitter on fake news claimed “that 96 per cent of results on ‘Trump News’ are from National Left-Wing Media, very dangerous.” On the other hand, major media organizations including those supporting liberal causes, accuse Trump and the far right of spreading fake news.
In India, the Ministry of Electronics and IT said, “Large numbers of irresponsible and explosive messages filled with rumors and provocation are being circulated on WhatsApp. The unfortunate abuse of platforms like WhatsApp for repeated circulation of such provocative content is a matter of deep concern. The Ministry has taken serious note of these irresponsible messages and their circulation in such platforms. Deep disapproval of such developments has been conveyed to the senior management of WhatsApp.”
So the pressure was clearly on the tech giants to step in and curb the menace of fake news that was not only scoring political brownie points but also resulting in rising mob lynching deaths. Indian Printer and Publisher talked to Irene Jay Liu, news lab lead, APAC at Google Asia Pacific, who is currently spearheading a collaborative training program with major media houses to detect and verify fake news.
8000 journalists will be ultimately trained
Google is supporting a training network where journalists from national as well as regional publications are being equipped with skills to identify and detect fake news. The seven languages initially selected are English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi and Bengali.
The skills that they are learning are checking photos and verifying authenticity of videos through use of technology tools. The process is content agnostic and it is about using technology to identify the fakes. In India, half a dozen ‘train the trainer’ boot camps are being held – the first of which was held in end-July in Gurugram. The selected applicants went through a 5-day intensive course on verification of photos, videos and digital safety and security to become Google-certified trainers. Subsequent training sessions in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kolkata were to take place over the next eight weeks till the end of September.
Liu says that this is the third initiative of Google worldwide. Earlier, it had collaborated with CrossCheck in France and Check Factor in Indonesia where Google worked with newsrooms to assist them in identifying fake news. It was not doing any fact checking directly but convened and worked together with newsrooms for such sessions and supported their efforts. The elections in France and Indonesia helped to provide the deadlines. The current initiative is a little different because it is Google which is providing the training in collaboration with experts from First Draft, Storyville, Factchecker, BloomLive, and Data Leads not only to train journalists in detecting fake election news but also fakes surrounding natural calamities, crimes and insidious rumor mongering.
The 240 journalists under training will act as trainers. Selected primarily from English and larger regional language media houses, they will train other journalists in-house as well as from other establishments. The target is to train 8000 journalists by the end of next year. But the lingering doubt still remains whether this can solve the problem.
Why curbing fake news is difficult
When news becomes a commodity and viral news becomes a jackpot, there is an incentive to present news in a form that it becomes instantly popular or ‘viral,’ and fakes or manufactured news enter the space. Exclusive photographs by ace photographers were the early pioneers of viral news. A large number of celebrity photos became very popular. Cameramen increasingly used telescopic lenses to intrude in the private lives of celebrities. A new genre of tabloid journalism emerged during the sixties and seventies.
But as digital news came into play at the turn of the century, the supply of news far exceeded the demand and selling news became much more competitive. It was no longer just a few hundred news organizations competing but hundreds of thousands of digital media entrants who instantly became news gatherers and resellers within a decade. As they were getting paid for the number of clicks or visitors on their pages, news was curated to attract eyeballs. A page needed to be viewed for 30 seconds to earn a page view. Google controlled the advertisement trade and YouTube as the dominant video platform earned billions. Viewers invariably started migrating to curated news with sensational or viral videos. Even celebrity news focused on quotes, controversies, sensational photos and eye-catching videos.
Social media enters news and deep fakes
A decade later social media entered the fray, allowing news to suddenly be created and curated by everyone. Millions of individuals were creating news and competition increased manifold. Innovative photos and videos became a rage. Since the focus of public attention became largely visual, Photoshopped and manufactured images and videos became increasingly prevalent. From Photoshopped profile photos to fake travel images, people posted millions of photos on the social media pages. Videos were curated to blend the past with the present and commentary inserted to create interesting stories in the shortest span of time. Facebook, not Google, ruled the social media pages and Instagram and WhatsApp wrested the initiative. A photo or a video had to be seen for at least 5 seconds to 15 seconds get recognized as a page view depending on the platform.
As eyeball grabbing became more difficult, manufactured and cleverly curated fake news entered center stage. It takes hours of work and use of high technology to create fake news. And now deep fakes have arrived where sophisticated trimming and clipping of videos make statements by political leaders more provocative and often viral. Fake news today is not a random effort of individuals but a developed industry with definitive goals. While tech majors will take steps to prevent regulatory action, they will not act in ways to stop its revenue-generating capability.
Since the media is increasingly divided between left and right ideologies, even if journalists are trained to detect fake news, they can use their knowledge selectively to tilt the scales. With tech majors and media houses sold out to viral news in pursuit of higher revenue, and journalists politically divided, there is little chance that fake news detection will yield great results despite universal public homilies committing to stop the menace.