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World

Alternative facts challenge journalists to rethink role

From targeted propaganda to fake news, the media industry has struggled to meet the challenges of false information on the internet. But some journalists warn that facts may not be enough.

Over the past year, false news has vigorously spread across social media platforms. In some instances, national authorities have even accused state actors of weaponizing disinformation in a bid to undermine democratic processes.

"Whether the content is fake or not, there is no clear dividing line between fake news and bad journalism," said Edward Lucas, a senior editor at the British news magazine The Economist.

Speaking on a panel covering fake news and propaganda at the International Press Institute (IPI) World Congress in Hamburg, Lucas effectively blurred the line between disinformation and misinformation by refusing to fully distinguish between the deliberate use of manipulative news-style content flooding social media and "politically slanted" tabloids sold in shops.

Deutschland IPI World Congress in Hamburg (DW/L. Sanders )

Lucas says outlets need to be more transparent to build trust and credibility

'Don't want to believe'

Ever since a campaign of disinformation helped propel Donald Trump to the US presidency last year, companies, organizations and international authorities have increased their efforts toward establishing or fortifying initiatives against disinformation.

But confronting falsehoods with evidence-based information can sometimes prove futile, the panelists said.

"I am a little bit suspicious of (the idea that) facts are enough," said Piia Elonen, editor of Finland's largest daily, Helsingin Sanomat. She noted that some people are suspicious of attempts to debunk false news.

Elonen told of trying to discuss migration with a relative in Finland. She said she attempted to address the issue with facts from the government and independent sources.

"You have all the facts," Elonen's relative responded, "but I still have this opinion."

And that has led her to wonder whether verified information alone holds the answer. "It doesn't help with people who don't want to believe," Elonen said. "They don't even read established media. We don't reach them all."

People seek out stories that reinforce their positions, the Lithuanian journalist Egle Samoskaite said.

Part of the issue stems from decreased confidence in news outlets, whether caused by their perceived failure to rectify mistakes or by what seems like reporters' weaving of their opinions into the news.

The panelists proposed teaching media literacy from a young age, along with increasing transparency during news reporting and publishing and actively engaging readers, such as by doing Q&A sessions on social media.

"I think truth should be seen more as a process," Lucas said.

Evidence-based solutions

Deutschland IPI World Congress in Hamburg (DW/L. Sanders )

Elonen says some people won't believe the truth even when presented with hard facts

Though it may be tough to reach people who are prone to rejecting traditional news outlets, there are active, straightforward steps that mediamakers can take to combat fake news.

On Saturday, IPI hosted a workshop on "how to debunk false information on social media" that offered tools for journalists to verify or disprove content shared on social networks.

There are a series of steps that journalists can take to examine the accuracy of social media content, said Claus Hesseling, the director of journalism programs at Interlink Academy, and Fiete Stegers, a tech and social media editor at the German public broadcaster NDR.

From conducting reverse image searches to find the origin of a photograph to examining shadows and weather conditions in a video, journalists can effectively collate the necessary data to evaluate content before sharing it.

If one of the elements being examined fails to meet evidence-based criteria, the content is likely not what it claims to be.

Deutschland IPI Kongress in Hamburg (DW/L. Sanders)

Hesseling spoke to journalists to offer more insight into the process of verifying social media content

Though tools to prove the accuracy of images are widely available, Hesseling and Stegers said, open source technology to examine video material is not yet as advanced.

"For video, it becomes harder, but the tools are getting better," Stegers said. "Google and others are working on software that can analyze video content, such as artificial intelligence and neural networks. This will help us in the coming years to find out more about videos and whether they have been altered."

Although the proliferation of false news and disinformation will continue to pose challenges to the media industry, tools to determine the accuracy of content circulating on the internet will continue to advance, providing journalists, publishers and broadcasters with opportunities to better deliver evidence-based information to the public.