Beyond Fake News: why the World Service is putting a spotlight on distortion and manipulation

Assistant Editor, Beyond Fake News

What is fake news? What’s real? What’s distortion? Should we use the term fake news at all?

These were the questions we grappled with putting together the Beyond Fake News season. The term is being weaponised, becoming contentious and even toxic. Being the BBC, we have a definition: false information deliberately and intentionally published and shared - for profit or political gain.

Not everyone uses the term with precision. Some politicians use it as a term of abuse to discredit stories they don’t like. President Trump famously used it to attack critical stories; other world leaders followed suit.

Many respected researchers and journalists prefer the terms distorted news, or misleading information. But despite all its limitations, fake news is a term widely used and understood, especially in regions we’re targeting this November – India and Africa.

It’s the right time to put a spotlight on this dark corner of the internet. When technology creates fake videos, so-called deep fake, when a comedian accurately impersonates President Obama using voice manipulation; when fake stories travel faster than true ones on Twitter and where news feeds create filter bubbles – we at the World Service have to be more proactive in the battle for truth and accuracy.

The Beyond Fake News season is telling stories from across the globe, including India, where the sharing of fake news about child abductions on WhatsApp led to mob murders; Brazil, where bots have been hijacking discourse across the political spectrum; and Africa, where online warriors are attempting to manipulate democratic processes.

You can see many stories on the Fake News landing page here.

This new season fights the challenges posed by fake news, instead of just reporting them. It is crucially important to understand why people share unverified information knowing that it may be untrue.

On 12 November we will publish audience research from India and Africa investigating these motivations.

We are holding major conferences across India and in Nairobi, bringing together key players in news, social media, technology, politics, and education, to seek solutions to the problem of fake news being shared, particularly on encrypted platforms.

The audience research results will provide a framework for young IT experts to participate in solution-seeking hackathons in Nairobi and Delhi, looking at how we can prevent people sharing fake information.

To underpin this we’re sharing BBC videos and workshops that give practical help in recognising what’s fake and what’s real.

I was one of the BBC staff mentors who delivered these workshops to British children. Our teams in Delhi and Nairobi felt it important that their audiences had access to similar materials. The media and political environment in their countries is much more challenging for young people with recent access to the internet and smart phones, with much less regulation and in much more chaotic, partial and noisy media markets than the UK.

We sent materials developed in London to colleagues in Delhi, Nairobi and Sao Paulo who sought ways of re-versioning them for their audiences. You can see a film made originally for British schoolchildren here.

Beyond Fake News is an important start, but can only succeed by working with other likeminded organisations, local partners, tech giants and our audiences.

The BBC Reality Check team will deliver daily verification and fact checking during the Indian elections next year. We are training media partners in Nigeria to ensure they can use verification techniques and hold politicians to account during elections in February.

The BBC Monitoring service has a long history in investigating propaganda and fake stories, going back to the Second World War. With new disinformation investigators, they add to BBC journalism expertise, recognising when stories are fake, checking sources of stories, pictures, videos and text.

But the main thing the BBC can contribute to this battle is a commitment, as a global broadcaster, to honest, independent, accurate and impartial journalism.

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