Last weekend, Maharat Foundation organized an international conference on “Fake News and Media Viability” in partnership with DW Akademie in Beirut, Lebanon.
The event was held as part of the “Digital Media Viability Lab” initiative which aims to provide concrete solutions to the problems that media institutions are facing in the digital age.
The conference hosted more than 20 international speakers and experts from Germany, France, Sweden, Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, the US, and more.
The main topic was, of course, fake news and the diverse ways in which it can be combated, and the viability of quality journalism.
What is the definition of fake news?
On the conference’s first panel discussion all speakers agreed that there is no one definition of fake news, they all pitched in with their knowledge and experience.
“I think we should use the word “lies” instead of fake news. Technology and fact checking services should also be used,” Ranjan Roy, CEO of The Edge Group from the US, said. Christina Tardaguila, director of Brazilian fact-checking agency Lupa, agreed. “I think the definition of fake news is a paradox: we cannot call ourselves journalists and produce fake new at the same time.”
Rami Rhayem, reporter for the BBC, stressed the importance of being critical towards any source of news as an audience. “The public should be critical of the media as a powerhouse,” he said.
Citizen journalism was proposed as a solution by Sayed Torky, executive editor in chief at Al-Menassa, Egypt.
“The percentage of citizen journalists is higher than that of professional journalism, and this needs a lot of volunteers,” he said. Roy commented that citizen journalism is very important in the Middle East, as citizens are slowly getting engaged more in media and this increases the need for fact checking.
Finally, Rhayem added that one important step journalists should look for is critical interpretation of facts.
A short interactive tutorial session was conducted later on the first day about tools for data verification.
Are laws the right way to deal with fake news?
In the second panel, Nizar Saghieh, executive director at Legal Agenda, said that social media sharing has allowed for democratization of media, which led to more research being done in Europe. He added that the media in Europe is evolving quickly, and we should learn from global events like Brexit and the US elections.
“We believe that there has not been an endorsing of opinions, which partially led to fake news,” he said.
Mikko Salo, founder of Faktabaari and member of EU High-Level Expert Group on fake news and online disinformation in Finland, said that we are not yet ready to regulate fakes news, but gave his own definition of the phenomenon: false, misleading information that is intended to harm the public.
Meanwhile Salwa Ghazouani Oueslati, director of Article 19 for the Middle East and North Africa region, was very assertive in saying that we don’t need laws to censor news, because, in an area like the MENA region which lacks democracy, these laws will be abused.
In fact, she said, even in democratic countries these laws are not needed since, being democratic, they should already have legal tools they need.
Countering fake news
The next day included a heated discussion on countering fake news in the era of social media and in conflict zones.
Most panelists, included cryptography researcher, Nadim Kobeissi, agreed that a large part of social media’s influence is cultural and personal through lies that illicit human emotions.
“We are working on devising a training for using tools specific to Lebanon for fact checking,” Madonna Khafaja, lead program manager of the International Center for Journalists in MENA, said.
She added that part of the appeal of social media news is the attractive they are presented with a narrative in video. Real news, on the other hand, is often hard and dry and discouraging.
Kobeissi pointed out that, for the future generation, we need to have “vaccinated” children that are trained to be immune to false news.
An additional comment by Carole Kerbage, MENA DATA Desk Editor for Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, was that verification tools should be made friendly to all people, not just the experts.
This discussion was followed by another on the definition of post-truth, the major public figures behind it, and its implications globally.
The third day began with three short, high impact sessions about content, fact checking initiatives and independent journalism.
And concerning journalism, a panel about the challenges of media startups and entrepreneurial journalism was moderated by Roula Mikhael, Executive Director at Maharat.
“It is important for the youth of today to realize their ability to lead a media startup or an initiative of change. After some research, we found out that a lot of them lack the knowledge of their basic legal rights,” Mikhael said. “They don’t know the first step about opening a startup, and the counter problem is that the investors doubt the viability of such startups.”
The founders shared their journey, their experience and their current clients and work ethic. They also all agreed that good content, whether free or paid for, is the center of all media organizations.
The last question to the audience at the end of the conference was: would they be ready to pay for quality journalism?
The answer was a resounding YES!