NUJ news verification workshops

  • 07 Feb 2024

Fake news may be as old as the Pharaohs, but with AI making it all too easy to create false stories journalists need to learn new tricks of the trade.

It started on day one of Donald Trump’s presidency – with claims that the crowds greeting him were the largest ever audience to witness an inauguration, despite everyone being able see with their own eyes that it clearly was not.

White House aide Kellyanne Conway then famously said that Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, had merely been offering “alternative facts”. With the team working from the dirty tricks book of Trump’s then chief strategist Steve Bannerman, it was a taste of things to come. Any argument used against him was lambasted as “fake news” and he traduced opponents and the media with insults and brazen lies.

His weapon of choice was Twitter. He used untruths, usually in CAPITAL LETTERS, to disrupt, pursue his aims and get his propaganda heard without being held to account.

More recently, the deep fakes and doctored photographs falsely depicting what is happening in the Gaza-Israeli war, are more subtle and easier to confuse and confound. And as AI develops, so will the quality of the false images and videos used to undermine the truth and make journalists’ jobs that much harder.

To help, the NUJ is holding free, online sessions, in conjunction with the Google News Initiative, to show members how to use tools to verify news sources and to understand the many ways rogue states, commercial propagandists and mischief makers attempt to mislead.

As tutor James Doherty explained, none of this is new. Stories inscribed on temple walls were used to control the narrative and polarise public opinion. Depictions of Pharaoh Ramesses II’s “victory” over the Hittites in 1274 BCE are no longer viewed by historians as the actual truth.

Today, the perpetrators can be found in Macedonian troll factories, the plush offices of PR agencies, rogue states, non-rogue states and freelance conspiracy theorist websites. All are facilitated by the unregulated social media platforms and the ease at which we receive information non-stop to our phones.  The motives range from disrupting elections, to peddling unproven medical theories, discrediting politicians or celebrities, or just profiting from clickbait stories that attract advertisers.

The workshop looks at the difference between misinformation and disinformation and sets exercises for the class to discuss how to recognise and debunk false information. It provides time for discussion and exchanges of views and looks in greater depth at examples such as the Covid vaccine scare stories and the Stop the Steal movement in the US which promotes the conspiracy theory of widespread electoral fraud during the 2020 presidential election. The workshop provides information on a range of verification tools including fact checkers, how to discover if photographs and videos are what they say they are, and how Google Earth can pinpoint where a photo was taken and when it was uploaded.

Members can book a place on the NUJ website Choose when suits you, the last date in the series is Thursday 28 March 9.30am-1pm.

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