Fighting fake news online wins these three projects accolades

There are few greater threats to democracy in the world today than the proliferation of fake news and propaganda.

So it was no surprise that this year’s National Democratic Institute’s (NDI) prestigious Democracy Award focused on websites and research organizations that are countering the distribution of fake news.

The three winners of the 2017 Democracy Award, announced by NDI Chairwoman and former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, at a ceremony in DC, were the Ukrainian fact-finding website; the Oxford Internet Institute’s Project on Computational Propaganda and the Philippines-based social news network, Rappler.

All of these award winners are at the “forefront of the battle to combat disinformation…. They work each day to protect the integrity of our information, to protect truth itself,” according to the NDI.

So how do we protect “truth itself” online? What’s the best way to combat fake news?

According to Maria Ressa, the former CNN bureau chief in the Philippines and founder and editor-in-chief of Rappler, the real responsibility for cleaning up fake news lies with social networks like Twitter and Facebook. 97% of those online in the Philippines get their news via Facebook, Ressa reminds us. So social media networks need to “take responsibility” in revealing the ways propaganda spreads online — like the bloggers consciously spreading lies in the Philippines, she says.

But Philip Howard, the professor of internet studies at the Oxford Internet Institute, disagrees with Ressa. “The time for industry self-regulation has passed,” Howard says. It passed after the Brexit vote and the election of Trump. Now some sort of “gentle” policy oversight is necessary, Howard insists, to stop the online spread of what he calls “junk” news.

Fake news is an incredibly hard problem to address. But what should be applauded is the heroism of journalists like Rappler’s Ressa, who are at working to counter online disinformation.

“We talk truth to power,” Ressa says. Telling that truth is a particularly brave thing to do in the Philippines, where the regime of President Rodrigo Duterte has been accused of involvement in hundreds of extra-judicial killings. And what Rappler — a curated website which checks the veracity of news — highlights is that there can never be an effective technological fix for fake news.

Only accountable journalists at news sites like Rappler or can effectively combat disinformation, says Ressa. There is no app that can protect truth itself.

Many thanks to the folks at the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce for their help in the production of this interview.