In 2012, there was an air of innocence when I took over as the Readers’ Editor of this newspaper. Terms such as ‘accuracy’, ‘fairness’, ‘authentic sources’, and ‘verification’, and C.P. Scott’s dictum “Comment is free, but facts are sacred” did possess a striking potential to keep journalism on the straight and narrow path. Algorithm was a part of mathematics and technology and it had hardly revealed its stranglehold on the information ecology. Artificial intelligence was a footnote. Albert Einstein’s wry remark, “Artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity,” was invoked sometimes to prove a point. However, the march of technology with its myriad participatory platforms, aided by people’s desire to believe what they want to believe, has made the task of a news ombudsman difficult.
Fake news, doctored videos, unsubstantiated inflammatory news content that further divide and polarise our society are increasing by the day. I am forced to think constantly of what new skills a news ombudsman must acquire to uphold the principles of journalism. While it is relatively easy to deal with the rancour that flows from ideological positions, it is an uphill task to address anxious questions from concerned readers who struggle to distinguish social media rumours from real news.
The ease of faking a news item
Two recent reports increased my apprehensions. “ Slowdown in Software Central: Indian-Americans in the Silicon Valley ” (Ground Zero, July 1, 2017) by Varghese K. George in this newspaper was an in-depth report on how automation threatens to alter the dynamics for all times to come. The article gave sufficient clues about the changing nature of the forces that control the information flow, and hence, the future of journalism as well.
The Economist ’s report, “Fake news: you ain’t seen nothing yet”, published on the same day, was chilling. It was about how technology aids in generating fake audio and video reports that are convincing. The report was about the generative adversarial network (GAN), a type of artificial learning algorithm, which is used to create a fake clip without fiddling with editing or any other manipulations. It explained how fake audio creation has become simple already and creating a fake video is well on the way to becoming child’s play. While some experts feel that the day of fake YouTube videos is not very far, some feel it may take time. According to The Economist , it is only a question of “when”, not “if”. “We think that AI is going to change the kinds of evidence that we can trust,” was the observation of one of the researchers interviewed by the magazine.
There are multiple reasons to be alarmed by this spectre. We are already witnessing party spokespersons falling prey to fake news and displaying their ignorance during prime time debates on our television channels. Dubious forwards using social networking platforms like WhatsApp are on the rise. There is an exponential increase in the number of people who believe what is forwarded from their immediate circle of friends, relatives and colleagues. There are no trustworthy mechanisms to check every fake news, false catastrophe and phantom chicanery.
The Sunday Magazine story, “ On the origin of specious news ” (July 2), profiled the fledgling fact-checking Indian website, ‘Alt News’, and brought out the multiple difficulties in checking the authenticity of viral videos. It read: “Tracing the origins of a widely circulated hoax can often be complicated. An image or video may not have been manipulated: rather, an entirely authentic piece of footage may be circulated under false contexts.” The act of verification is central to journalism. But, what happens when that process is subverted by technology? Is journalism alone a victim of this subversion? What is the social cost?
In his novel, Murther and Walking Spirits , Robertson Davies observed: “Always in history there are those who are impelled, by reasons they think sufficient, to ruin, in so far as they can, what patient, indefatigable warriors of civilization and culture have built up, because they value other things and worship other gods.” We are at a similar cusp where the genial news environment that is committed to truth and public interest is under pressure. We need to acquire both the tenacity and the competence to confront the threat from artificial intelligence to retain the space for journalism as a common good.