Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Fake 4
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA: Anti-vaccine protesters rally on January 08, 2022 in Melbourne, Australia. The movement has been driven in large part by conspiracies and fake news about the Coronavirus pandemic which has been circulated on social media. [Diego Fedele/Getty Images]

Can you spot the fake news? Steering clear of conspiracies in science journalism

The world is full of fake news, nowhere more so than when it comes to scientific issues, so science journalists must develop a keen sense of scepticism. We look at why it’s so important to keep a clear head and search out the facts.

 

In 2019, the website altmetric identified a paper written by four computer scientists as the most-discussed academic work of that year worldwide. 

This paper described how deepfake AI had been able to produce a video clip from a single still. 

 

Read more: How to do science journalism - and do it right

 

But the title: “Few-Shot Adversarial Learning of Realistic Neural Talking Head Models”, is practically incomprehensible to the average reader – never mind the content. The authors, writing for an expert audience, used a slew of opaque technical terms. 

Nonetheless, this paper, recast into more appropriate language, received widespread newspaper coverage. 

Fake 2
The academic paper on deepfake AI, which shone a light on how easy it is to create and disseminate fabricated images and fake news in today's world. [screenshot]

Audiences were drawn in by eye-catching headlines like “The Mona Lisa was brought to life in vivid detail by deepfake AI researchers at Samsung” and “Samsung deepfake AI could fabricate a video of you from a single profile pic.” 

As an audience, we are interested less in the achievements of researchers than we are in how they can be used. 

Deepfake technology is obviously attractive to security and intelligence agencies, and human beings more broadly tend to be quite willing to break the law when they know they can get away with it. 

In the age of fake news, it would be no surprise if a widely circulated video of a world figure caught in a compromising position turned out to be a fabrication. In fact, it has now been proven that technology can produce convincing clips of people saying things that they have never said.

Innovations of this kind are of more than just scientific or ivory-tower relevance. They have direct effects on our daily lives. You have probably seen the fabricated video of Mark Zuckerberg talking candidly about his power and influence as the owner of Facebook. 

The table below shows media circulation of the deepfake paper. It only includes science journalism, not traditional news stories.

fake 3

So at a time when the ‘evidence’ can be fabricated to such an extent, how can we tell whether something has been faked - indeed, how can we tell the conspiracy theories from the truth?

Let’s consider two important cases of our time - COVID-19 and the development of 5G internet technology.

It was called 'a biological weapon' - COVID-19

There has been a huge amount of coverage on COVID-19 in both the Arab World and elsewhere, with a concurrent marked spike in fake and misleading news. 

A study published on March 19, 2020, by the Center for Informed Democracy and Social-cybersecurity (IDeaS) at Carnegie Mellon University estimates that some 60 percent of US Twitter accounts discussing the coronavirus were, in fact, bots set up the previous February in order to disseminate fake content promoting conspiracy theories and the reopening of US society. 

These accounts targeted groups influential in public opinion formation – activists, minorities, and immigrants – by boosting dozens of misleading stories spread by 82 percent of real accounts. One of the main stories in this disinformation campaign focused on a theory that the virus was a biological weapon developed by hostile countries. 

The problem is not limited to the public, however. Government institutions are also important media sources. One of these institutions is the National Center for Medical Intelligence, which is responsible for the health of US military forces at home and abroad.

From the first weeks of the pandemic, US newspapers and news agencies have relied on this organisation as a trusted source, alongside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

The remarkable influence of US policy and national interests on what is published by these agencies is obvious, particularly given that most local media rely on US media to one extent or another in their coverage of international affairs. 

Fake 4
LONDON, UK: Protesters march during a "World Wide Rally For Freedom" protest on March 20, 2021. The protests, which had apparent links to the QAnon conspiracy-theory movement, were being held in cities across the globe on the same weekend, decrying both pandemic-era lockdown measures and COVID-19 vaccination campaigns. [Hollie Adams/Getty Images]

If the sort of fake news explosion we have seen recently is what is happening in the most powerful country in the world, what sort of chance do the rest of us have? 

The coronavirus pandemic is a scientific issue with great political, security, and economic ramifications, an issue in which fake news is a natural, predictable, even dominant phenomenon. 

The only way to address this phenomenon is to make sure the public is better informed. And the way to do this is through good science journalism.

There is another factor of great importance to coronavirus news-making. Traditional journalists are exposed on a daily basis to vast quantities of often negative news, but do not notice how this affects their own behaviour and mindset. 

This psychological effect naturally has implications for their work, for their choice of topics, and for the way they approach these topics. 

Emotional responses produce hasty or incomplete judgements or emotive language that says more about the writer’s state of mind than about reality. 

There has been a distinct uptick in intemperate headlines since the pandemic began. This problem can be solved, once again, by clear-headed journalists not obsessed with scoops and free from the influence of editorial policies often directly driven by politics. 

The importance of bold, objective and rigorous press coverage here is clear. And herein lies the importance of science journalism.

'A vast conspiracy' - 5G Internet 

Warnings about the supposed dangers of 5G networks had already spread like wildfire on social media and in traditional media worldwide when the coronavirus pandemic began and this development only fed the theory that these networks are part of a vast conspiracy. 

In late 2019, AFP published a report on the health risks associated with the new technology.

fake 5
BERLIN, GERMANY: A woman holds a sign accusing Germany's public broadcasters of spreading fake news as she marches with coronavirus sceptics, right-wing extremists and others in protest against coronavirus-related restrictions. [Sean Gallup/Getty Images]

You might expect that a piece from one of the oldest news agencies in the world would give you a clear and scientific answer to this sort of question, but this report would have disappointed you. 

Its closing lines told us that the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety was set to conduct a study on the effects of 5G, which were to be completed by the end of 2020. 

And, although this report was published on the section of AFP’s website dedicated to fighting fake news and concerns a purely scientific topic, no clear answer was given to the question: How dangerous is 5G internet to human health? 

Arab and international news are replete with pieces on 5G internet and the fierce international competition for control of the new network infrastructure. But objective, scientific reporting is very thin on the ground.

A Google search, for example, gives us 3,840,000 results relating to 5G internet and its political impact, but only 436,000 on its health risks - and tens of thousands of the pieces in the latter category cannot be counted as science journalism in any sense. 

Activating a 5G network requires transmitters (transmission towers) to be set up in order to broadcast the high-frequency waves that carry the data. In all the countries that choose to adopt the new technology, transmitters will have to be put up in residential areas in order to provide the service. 

Fake 6
VIENNA, AUSTRIA: An activist holds up a sign reading '5G kills brain cells and bees! Boycott 5G!' at the Climate Kirtag portion of the R20 Austrian World Summit on May 28, 2019. Conspiracy theories about the effects of 5G on health were rife on the internet at the time. [Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images]

These transmitters are 1.2m tall and operate constantly at high frequencies. In 2017, 171 scientists from 36 different countries signed a petition warning of the possible negative effects of 5G on human health. This was based on an earlier petition, submitted to the UN by 220 scientists, which called for a range of measures to be taken to protect humans from the risks of “unsafe electromagnetic fields,” by which they meant the 5G frequency.

This petition stated that: “Numerous recent scientific publications have shown that EMF affects living organisms at levels well below most international and national guidelines. 

“Effects include increased cancer risk, cellular stress, increase in harmful free radicals, genetic damages, structural and functional changes of the reproductive system, learning and memory deficits, neurological disorders, and negative impacts on general well-being in humans. 

“Damage goes well beyond the human race, as there is growing evidence of harmful effects to both plant and animal life.” 

Is this enough to form a solid conclusion on the health risks of 5G? What has changed since it was first published? How did these scientists reach their conclusions? Who funded the studies that confirm or deny the existence of health risks? Are there measures that can be taken to counteract any possible dangers to human health? 

These are just some of the many questions someone interested in a scientific issue has to ask – and yet more evidence of the importance of specialised science journalism.

 

A version of this article appeared in the Al Jazeera Media Institute's publication, the Science Journalism Handbook

 

 

More Articles

‘You will be silenced’ - investigating human traffickers in Nigeria

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: Philip Obaji Jr has devoted years to uncovering and reporting on the sexual abuse and human trafficking of displaced women and girls in Nigeria. This is his story

Philip Obaji Jr
Philip Obaji Jr Published on: 18 May, 2022
‘Like walking on a tightrope’ - navigating a career as a journalist in Vietnam

THE LONG READ: Through a series of in-depth interviews with journalists in Vietnam, our writer - who remains anonymous for security reasons - paints a picture of censorship and journalists facing fines and even prison for mentioning ‘toxic’ subjects

headshot
Al Jazeera Journalism Review Correspondent Published on: 12 May, 2022
‘It takes courage to be a journalist in India’ - charting the collapse of press autonomy

THE LONG READ: With a rising number of journalists in India receiving ‘summons’ from the police and even finding themselves in prison just for doing their jobs, we ask - why has the profession come under so much pressure in recent years?

Abeer Khan Published on: 21 Apr, 2022
Beyond bystanders: Citizen journalism during the Egyptian revolution

A journalist looks back at the founding of RASSD News Network during the Egyptian revolution, which trained and supported ordinary citizens to become journalists

Khaled Faheem
Khaled Faheem Published on: 14 Apr, 2022
‘The bottom of human misery’ - reporting on Rohingya refugee women and girls

THE LONG READ: How should we go about reporting on members of vulnerable communities in an ethical way? We examine the case of Rohingya refugees, overwhelmed and struggling for survival in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh 

Azraa
Azraa Muthy Published on: 11 Apr, 2022
How smartphones are changing the face of news journalism

The telegraph transformed the way that newspapers could report the news more than 150 years ago. Now, smartphones are doing the same for TV news organisations

Rokeya
Rokeya Lita Published on: 5 Apr, 2022
Telling the stories of brutality - reporting on political prisoners in Belarus

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: Constructing a long-form feature to document the narratives of Belarusians imprisoned for protesting after the 2020 presidential election was a pain-staking, months-long task fraught with danger

Olga
Olga Loginova, Ottavia Spaggiari Published on: 30 Mar, 2022
From Syria to Ukraine - telling the stories of Russian aggression

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: Omar Al Hajj, a Syrian journalist working for Al Jazeera, explains what it’s like to go from covering war in his own country to bearing witness to another on a different continent

A picture of the author, Mohammad Ahdad.
Mohammad Ahdad Published on: 15 Mar, 2022
‘A sense of belonging has been taken away from us’ - the closure of the Kashmir Press Club

THE LONG READ: The closure of the Kashmir Press Club in January this year has come as a major blow to independent journalists in the troubled region who relied on it for camaraderie, respite and a ‘place to share ideas’

Meher
Meher Qadri Published on: 10 Mar, 2022
Reporter’s Notebook: Inside Europe’s largest brothel 

While covering a story about a Spanish proposal to outlaw middlemen involved in prostitution, AJE senior correspondent Natasha Ghoneim and her team came up against a wall of silence, but managed to get a story nevertheless

Natasha Ghoneim
Natasha Ghoneim Published on: 8 Mar, 2022
Investigating racist conviction laws in America - and seeing a man freed after 25 years

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK:  How a team of journalists spent nearly a year investigating the conviction and 25-year imprisonment of Brandon Jackson and then watched him walk free

Jeremy Young
Jeremy Young Published on: 2 Mar, 2022
Reporter’s Notebook - on the trail of Boko Haram

For one journalist in Nigeria, covering the activities of the militant Islamist group, Boko Haram, primarily means documenting the horrifying stories of its victims, sometimes to his own cost

Philip Obaji Jr
Philip Obaji Jr Published on: 21 Feb, 2022
Avoiding mistakes in the newsroom - verifying video from external sources

When video of Osama Bin Laden surfaced around the time of the September 11 attacks on New York in 2001, many people questioned its credibility. We examine how Al Jazeera verifies the authenticity of outside materials, much of it produced by 'citizen journalists' 

A picture of the author, Montaser Marai.
Montaser Marai Published on: 15 Feb, 2022
Branded a ‘troublemaker’ and summoned by the police - life for female journalists in Kashmir

The repeal of Kashmir’s autonomous status by the Indian government, combined with a crackdown on press freedom, has made life extremely tough for women journalists in the region.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 10 Feb, 2022
Making the world a better place - one camera ‘click’ at a time

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: How one photojournalist in Nigeria takes a ‘solutions-based’ approach to the images he captures.

Femi2
Femi Amogunla Published on: 2 Feb, 2022
Deploying news teams to dangerous places - what media organisations need to know

Reporting from the heat of battle or covering the tragedy and desolation of a humanitarian disaster can be perilous, but the risks are less if media professionals are prepared for the task. 

Aidan
Aidan White Published on: 27 Jan, 2022
When war is on your doorstep - the impossible road taken by a citizen journalist 

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: The 11-year war in Syria has shone a light on the struggles of local journalists who are often dismissed as ‘mere’ activists and whose plight is largely ignored by the international community. 

Zaina
Zaina Erhaim Published on: 20 Jan, 2022
How to do science journalism - and do it right

THE LONG READ: With a new variant of COVID-19 sweeping the world, putting healthcare systems under strain, good science journalism has never been more important. This is our guide to how to report responsibly, accurately and ethically on scientific issues.

Ali
Ali Shehab Published on: 9 Jan, 2022
‘Kill the rented journalists’ - the reality of life for local journalists and fixers left behind in Afghanistan

THE LONG READ: The recent takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban shines a light on the often exploitative relationship between Western foreign correspondents and the Afghan ‘fixers’ they leave behind.

Sayed Jalal
Sayed Jalal Shajjan Published on: 4 Jan, 2022
Investigative journalism in the digital age

Data-driven journalism is an increasingly integral part of investigative reporting. We look at the ways to put it to best use. 

Malak Khalil Published on: 21 Dec, 2021
‘Violence and degradation’ – covering refugee stories on the doorstep of the EU

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: From changing the wet clothes of babies who have just arrived across the Aegean Sea to dodging police to interview vulnerable people who have poisoned themselves to avoid deportation - life as an aid-worker-turned-journalist in Eastern Europe.

Lucy Papachristou Published on: 6 Dec, 2021
‘It was a black day for all women journalists’ - supporting our Afghan sisters

THE LONG READ: How women journalists in India are coming together in solidarity with female reporters and media workers in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 2 Dec, 2021
Planning and pitching refugee stories

In part three of our series on covering refugee stories, we look at best practice when it comes to planning and pitching to editors. 

Kareem
Kareem Shaheen Published on: 29 Nov, 2021
Why language matters when we report refugee stories

As tragedy strikes in the English Channel and the refugee crisis mounts at the Polish border, we examine why it is so important to use the correct language when covering refugee stories. Part two of our series.

Kareem
Kareem Shaheen Published on: 25 Nov, 2021