Fighting Fake News with Bots and Buns

Bots have a bad name in online news. They breed false stories, distort elections and spread hate speech. Avaaz reports that the 2019 European Parliament elections produced three million examples of this. Yet bots such as Voitoo (pictured) and TextRobot are being hailed as the saviour of local news, and as digital tools for democracy.

The theory: regional public TV and radio’s elderly audience is dying out. To engage young people in democratic processes, they must innovate – but without alienating the grannies.

To engage young people in democratic processes, they must innovate – but without alienating.

So it’s no coincidence that Europe’s public service broadcasters chose Novi Sad for their 2019 CIRCOM conference. Serbia’s second city, home of the EXIT music festival is the current European Youth Capital. And its public broadcaster RTV Vojvodina produces news in 16 languages and is about to move into new high-tech premises, replacing the buildings that NATO bombed in 1999.

Fake Nausea

Showcasing solutions at CIRCOM, Jarno Kopenen of YLE Finland presented a grisly new game called Troll Factory. “People say ‘I’m nauseated. I didn’t know this was happening.’ It’s like a vaccine to make them aware” he told me. YLE have been pro-active against hate speech since their reporter Jessikka Aro took on her trolls and won.

They now also have a digital ‘co-worker’ to ease their news workflow. Meet Voitoo: “The name means Victory – it’s not masculine or feminine. We’ve had it produced as a cuddly toy so that the journalists feel it’s their friend and helper,” Koponen told me. He admitted Voitoo has limitations, since it cannot yet cover the full range of topics that pop up in daily regional news.

“A robot can’t replace an ambitious, talented reporter, It can only make that person’s job easier,”

“A robot can’t replace an ambitious, talented reporter’” agreed Robin Govik, chief digital officer of MittMedia. “It can only make that person’s job easier,”

Govik insists that automating data-gathering “frees up” journalists to concentrate on tasks that bots cannot do. Mittmedia’s most successful news machine is the Homeowner bot. It scours the Land Registry for data points: location, size, price, etc. It spots outliers –  a high price or a famous owner, for example. If it were a reporter, you would say it had “found a news angle”. But it’s not. The result is a short machine-written article bylined “by MittMedia TextRobot”.

Similar bots write localised weather reports. Automated sport reporting means not only football and ice hockey but also minority sports all get a match report every time they are played.

‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’

If anything goes wrong, Govik blames a human for providing bad source data. Here the old saying “garbage in, garbage out” can result in a catastrophic loss of trust in the news provider.

Deepfake videos, multi-lingual lip syncing and face-swapping are tools of the trade for purveyors of disinformation. But like all software, they can also be used for legitimate purposes.

Europeans apparently don’t care that some of the news is human-free.  According to the European Commission Eurobarometer, 75% of respondents are positive towards new technologies. It’s the direct opposite of US users’ views. The Pew Research Center’s 2017 survey found that 72% of respondents expressed worry about automation.

Deepfake videos, multi-lingual lip syncing and face-swapping are tools of the trade for purveyors of disinformation. But like all software, they can also be used for legitimate purposes. Jacob Markham from the BBC Blue Room explained to CIRCOM how these apps can support national and regional identity – for example by dubbing the news into a different language or dialect.

Yet bots are only part of the answer. Trustworthy news demands a personal connection. When Bavarian Broadcasting’s young presenters ditched TV and moved into a “flatshare” on Instagram, that worked. The reporters chat in their “kitchen” about Venezuela, and who ate the last avocado in the fridge. Insta followers have now reached 41,400. BBC Brexitcast and YouTuber Rezo’s “Destruction of the CDU”(14 million views) also point to new forms of youth engagement.  But in the European Youth Capital Novi Sad, the real teens working with RTV’s Ivana Miloradov feel patronised by blue-haired presenters and dizzying special effects. They want their views to be heard in an old-school audio podcast!

Giving a voice to older viewers, Sweden’s public service television SVT’s Anne Lagercrantz’s team toured the country with coffee and cinnamon buns, to chat about the news they need.

German public broadcaster ZDF’s experience was more hardcore. Their crew lived in a flat in a Soviet-style block in Cottbus for six weeks, interviewing locals. Cottbus witnessed 2018’s most vociferous anti-immigrant protests  and attacks on camera crews. ZDF ’s experiment revealed what motivates people to act in this way.

Joining up viewers with the political process takes even more guts and patience. RTV Oost Netherlands’s listening exercise produced a CIRCOM prize for innovation – and a book of grievances. They delivered it to the newly-elected mayor – all captured on camera, and broadcast as live. The mayor promised to act on them.

If he does, this might qualify as “constructive journalism”. The concept made many conference delegates squirm and roll their eyes.

“But it’s not about happy stories”, insisted Cynara Vetch of the Constructive Institute. She cites research showing almost half of the respondents (48%) believe there is too much negativity and 37% don’t believe it. Political polarisation comes from broadcasters pitting political opponents against each other, says Vetch. She argues instead for a “calm, curious space” such as a round-table debate and a real-life follow-up. Bots can’t deliver that. Yet.