Executive Director of Alex Media Forum Ahmed Essmat- Egypt Today/Rehab Ismail
CAIRO - 15 April 2018: A phenomenon that has been plaguing the journalism profession in the past few years, fake news, misinformation and rumors have become a challenge with the advent of social media. The sixth edition of the Alex Media Forum (AMF) tackled fake news, post-truth, artificial intelligence and more about new digital challenges.
The forum, which has been held since 2012, will be held this year from April 15 to 17 and aims to cover the latest topics related to media and technology, including all audio-visual and digital platforms.
The forum includes three main activities; workshops combating fake news in media production to develop workers’ capabilities, a forum for media education in universities, and a round-table for media educators teaching new media and technology. It aims at bridging the gap between media practitioners, educators and new technologies. The forum also provides grants for Arab journalists and outstanding students.
The AMF was awarded the Arab Media Innovation Award by the Arab Thought Foundation in 2016 as well as an award from the Arab Academy for Science and Technology for their role in promoting media innovation at the university.
AMF’s founder and executive director Ahmed Esmat speaks to Business Today Egypt about social media’s role in spreading rumors, how fake news are affecting the media business and how to combat them, as well as the role that the AMF plays. Esmat is also the director of the monthly English-language magazine Alex Agenda and a media and communications consultant who has been working in the media field for the past 12 years.
You have covered various themes since you launched, and this year’s aim is combating fake news. Can you tell us why you chose this particular theme this year?
Actually, this year’s theme is “Media Technology and Post Truth,” and we translated that in Arabic to “Against Fake News.” We think [the latter] terminology is more appealing for participants, while the “Post Truth” would be more appealing to those with an academic background.
After much discussion, debate and research, the Oxford Dictionaries chose their Word of the Year 2016 as post-truth; an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
The term “fake news” was also named Collins’ dictionary Word of the Year 2017. Usage of the term has risen by 365% since 2016. Defined as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting,” the term “fake news” will now be added to the next print edition of Collins Dictionary.
People are suffering from fake news globally, and it affects every aspect of their life. Rumors are part of the psychological war, as it changes the way people think about a particular topic. So we will try to tackle how fake news is produced, distributed and how to combat that.
How do you think fake news could affect the media business?
Mainly, the sources of income for any media institution are subscriptions, advertisements and direct purchase for its products. The big problem arises when media consumers cannot differentiate between real and fake news, so they start questioning everything, even the real ones. They stop reading, listening or watching news, which is reflected on revenues of all types of media. Businesses then lose their main source of income, highlighting the industry’s fragility.
We are in the era of new media, more fake news lead to weaker user engagement, especially online, so advertisements don’t get the attention they need from these platforms.
Would you say that social media breeds fake news, or has the concept always been around?
I think the concept has [always] been around. Let’s not blame the social media platforms, they are just tools that we use however we choose to. We can use our pens to write a constructive opinion piece or destructive opinion piece. New media is not all bad. Before social media, we used to have rumors everywhere, but now, reporting on world affairs has become decentralized and things go viral faster.
How would you advise reporters to verify and fact-check news in a market where the speed of disseminating information has become crucial for the survival of news outlets?
Reporters should double-check, then double-check again any piece of information they got. Ask different sources and dig deeply for the truth. There are many online tools that can help journalists verify any information.
How would you advise the reader to verify and combat fake news?
Media and information is the answer. People should be educated, learning how to analyze and evaluate the information they receive, starting from the media ownership and agenda they are following. Audiences need to start to have a critical point of view, and to verify the information they receive.
Last month, Unilever warned Facebook that it would pull more than $2 billion in online advertising if they cannot curtail “toxic content” and fake news. Do you think that big businesses changing the advertising strategy can help avoid the spread of fake news?
If giant media corporations really want to do that, they can simply do it. In different ways, fake news badly affects business. If they started to have different advertising strategies, especially for the online platforms, this may combat fake news.
Facebook, Google and other major digital players use algorithms that affects how people deal with their newsfeed and the search results. How do these algorithms work, and can they serve fake news?
At the beginning I’ll try to simply define algorithms: They are equations behind everything taking place online to collect huge data about consumers and predict what types of content they would prefer. A multitude of factors are taken into account, such as content structure, search intent, connection strength, device brand and readability.
Sometimes accelerating certain types of algorithms can serve how things go viral. On the other hand, some digital platforms focus on fake news topics that extend beyond politics. This includes headlines that mislead, withhold or encourage clicking. Accompanying this, algorithms will also decide if the content in your article is factual, backed up with research and of good quality.
Can the regulations force big brands to stop funding fake news sites?
My personal point of view is that we have already enough regulations; it is better to invest in people’s media education and tell them how to figure out the fake news. Audiences are the cornerstone of this industry.
Tell us more about who is participating in this year’s edition of the Alex Media Forum, in terms of speakers and attendees, and how are you preparing for it?
The AMF was established in a collaboration between Alex Agenda and the Swedish institute in Alexandria. Swed Alex has been our main supporter since we started working.
We don’t accept direct funds for the forum, people are sponsoring the events and help us with the vision, mission, business model, as well as connecting us to experts and speakers. For example, this year we are receiving experts from international media agencies like France 24, as well as experts in new media technology and algorithms from Sweden and Germany, the Egyptian Japanese University, the German University in Cairo, in addition to the Arab Academy for science and technology. We expect 150 participants this year.