“In the fight against fake news, technology can be part of the solution. But only a part, because the importance of, among other things, journalistic ethics and users' media literacy should not be underestimated," says Dr Kristin Van Damme, post-doctoral researcher at imec-mict-UGent and co-coordinator of the Media Research Knowledge Center, or Media Point for short, established in early 2023. Kristin is one of the experts on LCL's talk show on Kanaal Z TV discussing Technological Innovation and Challenges in the Media Landscape. “Besides, simply distrusting what might be false doesn't get us anywhere either.
Although fake news is said to have always existed, digitization has provided the practice with considerable leverage. How bad is it really?
Kristin Van Damme: “The bulk of false information that circulates comes under the category of 'misinformation', with those disseminating it not knowing that it is false. E.g. social media posts that are taken out of context, giving a different – often harmless – meaning without the reader, viewer or listener being suspicious. Add to this the many funny images, some of which can be developed with generative AI (artificial intelligence), that are becoming widespread, with it not being clear that they have been manipulated, and which are therefore also a source of misinformation. Just recently, images of Pope Francis in a Michelin suit were circulated in this way and, to be honest: I also thought for a moment that they might be real.”
“Of course, there are also forms of disinformation that do not involve such ruses, such as phishing messages from scammers. However, in Belgium, we are, until further notice, spared large waves of misinformation aimed at influencing voting behaviour, for example.”
No big deal?
“Again, that’s not really what I mean. Because it is no longer 100 per cent clear what is real and what isn’t, there is simply a risk of cynicism developing with regard to information. This is problematic, because it causes people to become suspicious of reliable information and verified journalism and to simply dismiss it. Compared to other countries, things here aren't too bad, but here too we see trust in journalism eroding. So even though most disinformation is relatively harmless in the short term, the longer-term consequences can be dangerous.”
Does traditional journalism still have a chance of standing up to the fast-paced sensationalism of social media?
“The initial reaction among news brands was indeed driven by the battle for speed. As a result, less double-checking, more errors happened and more "non-news" was spread. Meanwhile, we have largely moved beyond clickbait. Editors are more mature than in those early days and subscribe to the importance of building long-term, sustainable relationships with their readers. The understanding has grown that those who click a lot only to drop out after a while become disillusioned.”
“By the way, the view that social media is by definition fast but also implausible is also a towering cliché. Good journalism and reliable information can also be found on social media. The skill is to be able to distinguish between credible and non-credible sources, which brings me to the importance of media literacy. There is still a lot of work to be done to make it clear that quality brands like, say, Knack, De Tijd and VRT on social media are also reliable sources. A lot of teachers are also convinced that the newspaper is 'better' than social media, but it's not quite that simple.”
Should we be concerned about the social impact of fake news?
“Although fake news of the type 'How Philippe Geubels gets rich with bitcoins' with the intention of scamming people is of course painful for those who fall for it, it doesn't really have any major social repercussions otherwise. Also, the practice of political parties using misinformation to cast each other in a bad light as happens in the U.S. is largely non-existent here. What is most harmful is sowing doubt, because doubt is the breeding ground of polarisation and populist thinking. People prefer to hear a simple truth, and not doubts or complexities. The polls clearly show how extremist parties in particular are taking advantage of general doubt by proposing seemingly simple solutions themselves.”
Deep fake and voice cloning are making it increasingly difficult to impossible to distinguish real from fake. Can technology companies play a positive role in this?
“Certainly, although the technology we deploy to do this, e.g. adding watermarks to AI-produced content, will always lag behind. For instance, we are currently working on a factchecking tool where journalists can identify manipulated footage. And techniques also exist for audio to detect and flag fake fragments. Yet technology is only part of the solution because, even if you mark fake messages with a symbol and, as a user, you know that what you see, hear or read is incorrect, there will always be a hint of uncertainty: this is how it might have been. Addressing disinformation is therefore always a combination of technology, media literacy, journalistic ethics, legal rules, policy measures, etc.”
The European leader in media literacy is Finland, a country that has been guarding against fake news from neighbouring Russia for more than a century. Recognising fake news there is a fully-fledged subject in school.
“Although media literacy is not a school subject here, there is a Media Literacy Curriculum that lists what media literacy skills an average child should acquire at any age – from kindergarten through to third grade in secondary school. What we're focusing on today in that Middle School Curriculum is the role of social media, the impact of algorithms and the understanding that it's all about personalised news. The second thing we pay special attention to is: who is saying what and why? We notice that the media-literate reflex among young people has increased in recent years. However, I repeat, for me it is more important to build trust in journalism rather than scepticism towards disinformation. The last thing we want is a generation of cynics. Yes, our job is to alert people to misinformation. Just as it is our job to point out that we can trust journalists to do their jobs with respect for their code of ethics and to verify information."
Are young people more media savvy than older people and thus less susceptible to disinformation?
“Saying that young people are digital while older people are analogue is simply not true. Everyone is looking for information on every possible platform. It is true, however, that young people are less brand-loyal: it doesn't matter where their information comes from.”
Although trusted news brands matter for the credibility of information, what are the consequences for the same media if young people are less brand-loyal?
“This is indeed a challenge that media brands are fully engaged in. For example, VRT is wondering how it can still reach young people who do not watch its traditional channels without them starting off with the VRT brand. The same is true for Jonas Lips, HLN's popular TikTok journalist, but who young people may not know is associated with a traditional newspaper brand.”
“In fact, the most recent Digimeter figures show that young people are also uncertain about their digital skills because so much is changing. Those in school are expected to 'keep up' and almost be the personification of innovation, but the reality is that the digital divide is widening even among them.”