Fact-check service to fight false news

One worrying trend in the era of rapidly developing information technology is fake news flooding social media platforms and messaging apps. In September the World Health Organization published a statement on managing the Covid-19 infodemic – an overabundance of wrong information – and described it as harmful for physical and mental health.

Raymond Li, dean at Baptist University’s school of communication, said Hong Kong has seen more false news than any other place in the world due to the social unrest that started before the pandemic.

Li said wrong information about the anti-extradition bill movement had been read more than a million times, while in the first eight months of the Covid-19 outbreak, more than half of the local news was related to the epidemic, with the amount of false information increasing dramatically.

“Truth as virtue has been the school’s motto since its establishment in the 1970s, but the pursuit of truth should not be limited to professionals,” Li said in response to the school’s FactCheck Service, launched at the end of December.

The first research-based, systematic fact-checking service launched and operated by an independent academic institution in the city provides free analytical articles about suspicious news on its website, social media accounts as well as mobile app. 

The service was launched as more than half of 1,200 adults interviewed by the university last year said they had occasionally spotted fake news in mainstream media, while about 37 percent said they had found lots of pandemic-related fake news.

Stephanie Tsang Tsz-wing, a research assistant professor in the school who manages the service, said it consisted of manual fact-checking, crowd-sourcing by obtaining information submitted by the public through the FactCheck app and AI fact-checking.

In manual fact-checking, the primary method used at present, the project team would shortlist keywords of trendy news topics every morning before putting them into CrowdTangle [an analytics tool] and stream corresponding information from there. After the team goes through at least 2,000 pieces of information to identify questionable content, they would be handed to other team members to carry out fact-checking.

“The fact-checkers will then search for the primary source of the content, contact specialists via alumni networks for advice, interview experts or carry out on-site investigations,” Tsang said.

A draft fact-checking report is vetted by editors and consultants before being published online. Suspicious claims will be classified into categories including “true,” “partially true,” “false,” or “unsubstantiated.” 

The app, now in soft launch, aggregates ratings, comments and questionable content by experts, serving as a platform where the service’s project team partners with veteran media practitioners. 

Media professionals and experts in other fields, such as health care, will be invited to register for the app, act as contributors and participate in the fact-checking process of information carried in viral posts. They can upload evidence to the app and aggregated fact-checking results will be published via the app.

“There are several fact-checkers, mostly in Europe and the United States, that are accredited partners of the International Fact-Checking Network,” said Tsang. IFCN is a Poynter Institute unit dedicated to bringing together fact-checkers worldwide. 

“Yet currently in the Sinophone world, only two organizations from Taiwan are recognized by IFCN.” She said the goal is to establish a database in line with the Hong Kong media environment and Cantonese language context to provide IFCN-recognized services.

The service is in the process of developing an AI-supported misinformation research database, which adopts a computational approach to fact-checking. Instead of selecting suspicious claims manually, a system driven by AI algorithms will be developed to enable automatic detection and fact-checking.

With only 12 members, there is still a shortage of manpower, especially technical talent, Li said, so it may take three to five years to complete the database. 

The school is currently recruiting more talent. In 2019, it enrolled its first postgraduate students in AI and digital media. 

Li said the school would add a new fact-checking-related course next semester in the hope of encouraging students to get involved in the service.

As for how people can improve their ability to spot fake news, Li suggests paying attention to whether the information comes from credible sources while further sharpening their common sense.

(This article was published at The Standard on January 12, 2021: Education: Fact-check service to fight false news )

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