Our thanks to Stéphane Goldstein who kindly agreed to write this review and to the sponsors Manzama for making the event possible. Stéphane is the founder of community interest company InformAll, which promotes the relevance, importance and benefits of information literacy in the library world and beyond.
The University of Liverpool’s rather swanky London building was once again the venue for SLA Europe’s event on ‘News on News’, on 21st November. The meeting, attended by about 50 participants in person with further participants joining online, was an opportunity to hear from three guest speakers their contrasting takes on the shaping (and indeed the mis-shaping) of news.
First to speak was Andrew Duchon, Director of Data Science at Manzama, the current awareness and market intelligence provider. In a first for SLA Europe, Andrew presented via the web from the USA. He gave a disquieting overview about how the deployment of artificial intelligence (AI) is leading to the increased cleverness of automated journalism, and its capacity to generate news. AI depends on artificial deep neural networks, which seek to mimic the neural networks in the human brain to produce text, still images, videos, etc. that can be adapted to different settings. Automated journalism, in turn, deploys natural language generation to translate data into text in a form that people can understand. Put the two together, and you end up with a sophisticated capacity to create fake news almost infinitely, not least through the deployment of highly convincing fake video footage. This leads to worrying scenarios where AI is weaponised as part of information wars.
On the plus side, Duchon pointed out that deep machine learning can also be applied to the detection of fakes and deception; and that the effects of faking can be countered as long as there is a cadre of humans who, through training, can build their own capacity to detect deception. Encouraging healthy scepticism can also form part of the armoury against these dangers – there is a role here for information professionals. Nevertheless, the societal implications for trust and democracy are disturbing. In addition, Duchon seemed sceptical about using the regulatory power of the law, since that tends to lag behind technological developments. Moreover, much of the available legal arsenal (e.g. libel law) can only be applied after much of the faking damage has been done.
The next speaker was Guardian journalist Martin Belam, who spoke about how social media has changed both everything and also nothing in the newsroom. His premise was that some things have changed to reflect new practices, but the underlying nature of activities is similar to what they have been for a while. For instance, while it is true that social media has accelerated the news cycle, rapidly rolling news coverage actually started decades ago with CNN.
Another couple of examples: social media makes it easier for journalists to reach out to people – but journalists have always reached out; social media merely makes the process faster. However, it was noted, it can be irritating when brands engineer online stunts in order to provoke stories that suit their interests, commercial or otherwise, these sorts of practices are hardly new to PR departments.
A final example is the way that social media algorithms set the agenda by giving prominence to particular news items. But prioritising of stories is an age-old practice in journalism, albeit one traditionally performed by editors.
However, as Belam pointed out, some other things have changed more fundamentally. Nowadays, for instance, news organisations need to be careful about disseminated news that is put out purely with the intention of sowing doubt. Belam also expressed concern about the impact of social media on the mental health of junior journalists, who are constantly exposed to gruesome material on social media. The broadcasting of live, ongoing events has now become much more pervasive.
A more positive recent development is the teaching of media literacy, as exemplified by the work of The Guardian Foundation.
The final speaker was Jo Tinning-Clowes, who spoke entertainingly but seriously about Fifty shades of Fake. In her view, there is a scale of news fakery, from satire and parody at one end of the scale, to disinformation with malicious intent at the other.
The deliberate spreading of fake news is age-old. Propaganda, exaggeration, the falsification of material have been happening for centuries. But nowadays, there is more subtlety and nuance in the way that this sort of disinformation is generated and propagated. It’s less crude and more technologically sophisticated – as illustrated by the fake videos that Andrew Duchon talked about, and much of it consists of sowing doubt rather than crudely pumping out a particular viewpoint: there is a phenomenon of ‘whataboutism’, as a means of rebutting a story not by denying it, but by shifting the argument. But the good news is that initiatives abound to help detect fakery (e.g. Politifact, FactCheck) and through the medium of media and information literacy, there are drives to encourage more discerning approaches to information.
All in all, a thought-provoking evening, even if much of what we heard was troubling and cause for real concern.
Many Thanks to the SLA Events Committee for organising another stimulating event, to Seema Rampersad for taking the photographs and to Manzama for sponsoring the event. Manzama is the leading provider of current awareness and market intelligence to legal and professional service organisations around the globe.
Jo Tinning-Clowes is happy to send you a copy of her presentation; please email her at
Dr Andrew Duchon’s presentation Present and future applications of artificial intelligence for current awarenessalso included examples of computer-generated art. Andrew presented via webcast from the US, a first for SLA Europe.
Martin Belam of The Guardian reassured the audience that the underlying practises of the newsroom are unchanged
Jo Tinning-Clowes concluded her entertaining talk with some useful fact-checking advice
SLA Europe Events always provide good networking opportunities and News on news carried on the tradition
Guests enjoyed tasty canapes and drinks