‘Fake News Horror Show’ Explores New Technology, Online Propaganda

The entrance to the “Fake News Horror Show,” which explored worst-case scenarios of technological advances. | Photo by Mion Edwards

BY MION EDWARDS | The NYC Media lab hosted the “Fake News Horror Show!” Thurs., June 7 at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering. Though it wasn’t much of a horror show at all, it did serve as an effective wake-up call to focus on strategies to combat the multifaceted problem of false information.

President Donald Trump popularized the term “fake news” when he spoke of his distain for top news publications like CNN and the New York Times, accusing them of producing false stories accompanied by a desire to portray his presidency in an unflattering light. Displayed science fair-style with student projects, simulations, and gadgets, the exhibitors showed possible technology either promoting or fighting fake news.

Bringing together 30+ emerging media and technology demonstrations, keynote speakers, and research experts, the gathering was dedicated to furthering the discussion about technology’s connection to fake news and how to alleviate false news on multimedia platforms. During the opening of this two-day conference, more than 60 guests listened attentively to Matt Jones, a Professor of Contemporary Civilization at Columbia University who led a discussion on “The History of Fake News.”

Researchers, technologists, computer scientists, and digital media experts visited the demos and exhibits, displayed science fair-style. | Photo by Mion Edwards

“Fake news is old news,” Jones noted in his opening remarks. He then spoke about the notion that false narratives, sensationalism in reporting, governmental propaganda, and faulty reporting could be traced back to the 17th and 18th century, continuing, of course, in the present day.

The event also served as a think tank for professors, students, and technologists to voice and display their commentary or solutions on the problem of fake news (or, as one attendee offered, “mainstream misinformation”).

“We have to establish data protection rights like our friends across the pond and establish tamper proof media” said David Carroll, faculty member and Director of the MFA Design and Technology program at The New School. His presentation, “A Nightmare for Democracy,” outlined how the advancement of technology can lead to misinformation. “Even the mere existence of Adobe Voco is an opportunity for misinformation,” said Carroll. (Adobe Voco is a voice modification system, which can essentially “Photoshop-for-voice.”)

“The Reactionary Group” demo, by NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program student Nouf Aljowaysir, is a set of four Twitter bot characters users can control. Each character represents an opposing political personality: liberal, conservative, conspiracy theorist, and alt-right. | Photo by Mion Edwards

With the advancement of social media, sharing propaganda internationally has increased.

“The current technological solutions we have to fight against propaganda and misinformation is fact checking, content moderation, social media monitoring, information authentication, and tech-enabled education,” said J.D. Maddox, a consultant to the US State Department and a counterterrorism expert who spoke on behalf of the Global Engagement Center (GEC).

The GEC actively is charged with leading the US government’s efforts to counter propaganda and disinformation from international terrorist organizations and foreign countries.

Maddox proposed combining the five abovementioned technological solutions to give citizens a better chance at combatting foreign propaganda. In addition to giving solutions, other exhibits wanted to make a statement about Twitter bots, click-bait culture, and online political presence.

“Some websites are spreading lies” and “just playing with your emotions,” said demo presenter Nicolàs Escapentier. His simulation was a screen that showed news articles from popular new outlets. Once you clicked on the article, it would show you on an adjacent screen how much, monetarily, your click was worth.

Another exhibitor took a different approach.

“It’s about challenging your perception about what people think,” said Alex Frankel, creator of Project WATT (standing for “what are they thinking”). Project WATT is a user-generated publication that uses data from the popular subReddit “change my view.” The Reddit community attempts to change the mindset of a user on an opinion they may have, the most popular or active threads are made into a Project WATT article. The articles further the conversation of controversial topics and exposes people to the variety of perspectives to understand how those they disagree with interpret current events.

One thing was clear. To dismantle online toxicity and the spread of fake news, the conversation must be taken across all sectors because every profession can be affected.

“Put pressure on these tech companies” and “demand for change,” said Melissa Ryan, a Visiting Fellow at Media Matters for America.

The “Captive Audience” demo by NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program student Rita Cheng was inspired by President Trump. Every time you speak in the microphone, miniature hands clap. | Photo by Mion Edwards

“The Real World News” demo, by Nicolàs Escapentier, allowed users to choose which media source they want to read. They make a selection and a camera captures their face, making a cash register sound and adding it to another screen — symbolizing the ad economy these sites profit from. | Photo by Mion Edwards

Justin Hendrix executive director of NYC Media Lab, seen here, opened the event by introducing Matt Jones. | Photo by Mion Edwards

J.D. Maddox, consultant to the U.S. State Department and spoke on behalf of the Global Engagement Center spoke about government efforts to prevent foreign propaganda. | Photo by Mion Edwards

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