In Europe’s Election Season, Tech Vies to Fight Fake News


The French electorate heads to the polls in the second round of presidential elections on May 7, followed by votes in Britain and Germany in the coming months. Computer scientists, tech giants and start-ups are using sophisticated algorithms and reams of online data to quickly — and automatically — spot fake news faster than traditional fact-checking groups can.

The goal, experts say, is to expand these digital tools across Europe, so the region can counter the fake news that caused so much confusion and anger during the United States presidential election in November, when outright false reports routinely spread like wildfire on Facebook and Twitter.

“Algorithms will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to fighting misinformation,” said Claire Wardle, head of strategy and research at First Draft News, a nonprofit organization that has teamed up with tech companies and newsrooms to debunk fake reports about elections in the United States and Europe. “It’s impossible to do all of this by hand.”

Researchers have tried to learn from the United States’ run-in with fake news, but the problem in Europe has mutated, experts say, making it impossible to merely replicate American responses to the issue.

European countries have different languages, and their media markets are smaller than those in the United States. That means groups that set up fake news sites in the United States, seeking to profit from online advertising when false claims were shared on social media, are less prevalent in Europe.

So far, outright fake news stories have been relatively rare. Instead, false reports have more often come from Europeans on social media taking real news out of context, as well as from fake claims spread by state-backed groups like Sputnik, the Russian news organization.

But with fake news already swirling around Europe’s forthcoming elections, analysts also worry that technology on its own may not be enough to combat the threat.

“There’s an increased amount of misinformation out there,” said Janis Sarts, director of the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, a think tank in Riga, Latvia, that will hold a hackathon with local coders in May to find potential tech solutions to this trend. “State-based actors have been trying to amplify specific views to bring them into the mainstream.”

Calls for combating fake news have focused on some of the biggest online players, including American giants like Facebook and Google.

After criticism of its role in spreading false reports during the United States elections, Facebook introduced a fact-checking tool ahead of the Dutch elections in March and the first round of the French presidential election on April 23. It also removed 30,000 accounts in France that had shared fake news, a small fraction of the approximately 33 million Facebook users in the country.

Photo

Posters for Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in advance of France’s presidential runoff election.

Credit
Robert Pratta/Reuters

Not everyone, though, has embraced Facebook’s response.

Most German publishers, for instance, have so far balked at participating in the company’s fact-checking efforts, saying it is the responsibility of the social network, not them, to debunk such claims. German lawmakers are mulling potential hefty fines against tech companies if they do not clamp down on fake news and online hate speech.

Since last year, Google also has funded almost 20 European projects aimed at fact-checking potentially false reports. That includes its support for two British groups looking to use artificial intelligence to automatically fact-check online claims ahead of the country’s June 8 parliamentary election.

It similarly has teamed up with French newsrooms to create digital tools, including ways to track trending topics during that country’s election.

David Dieudonné, head of the company’s news lab in France, said the project had debunked 43 reports since February (arguably a relatively small figure), including claims that Saudi Arabia was funding the campaign of Emmanuel Macron, the leading candidate.

“We’re trying something new,” Mr. Dieudonné said. “There’s no easy answer for this complicated issue.”

Not all potential solutions, though, are being driven by Silicon Valley’s big beasts.

David Chavalarias, a French academic, has created a digital tool that has analyzed more than 80 million Twitter messages about the French election, helping journalists and fact-checkers to quickly review claims that are spread on the social network.

After the presidential election in the United States last year, Dean Pomerleau, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, also challenged his followers on Twitter to come up with an algorithm that could distinguish fake claims from real news.

Working with Delip Rao, a former Google executive, he offered a $2,000 prize to anyone who could meet his requirements. By early this year, more than 100 teams from around the world had signed on to Mr. Pomerleau’s Fake News Challenge.

Using a database of verified articles and their artificial intelligence expertise, rival groups — a combination of college teams, independent programmers and groups from existing tech companies — already have been able to accurately predict the veracity of certain claims almost 90 percent of the time, Mr. Pomerleau said. He hopes that figure will rise to the mid-90s before his challenge ends in June.

“This is just Round 1 of what we want to do,” said Mr. Pomerleau, who expects the teams to share their work with fact-checking groups worldwide. “Next, we want to move toward multimedia content like videos.”

In the rush to find solutions to fake news, some within the industry are taking a decidedly more low-tech approach.

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, recently started a crowdfunding campaign to create a news organization that would combine professional journalists with digital volunteers, who would contribute to reports in a similar way to how articles are created on Wikipedia.

Part fact-checking site, part traditional newsroom, the project — called Wikitribune — was inspired by the effect of misinformation on the United States presidential election. Mr. Wales said his project would choose subject areas based on the interests of the community of volunteers and paying subscribers to the service, relying more on traditional reporting techniques than high-tech wizardry.

“The real impetus for this was fake news,” he said. “We want people to get behind topics, and then we’ll hire staff to cover them.”

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