Interview with Bettina Paur

Interview with Bettina Paur

Radical groups could spread Fake News to weaken their opponents

Interview with Bettina Paur

Bettina Paur is a researcher and an assistant at the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna. Her research focuses on crisis and war communication, radicalization and terror (reporting), Social Media, gender studies and communication history. She was one of the speakers at the conference “Fake News and other AI Challenges for the News Media in the 21st Century”, which took place in Vienna on the 29th and 30th of November of 2018.

For this interview, Bettina Paur answered questions regarding the Fake News, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Social Media and radicalization.

Q: According to your perception, what does Fake News actually mean?

BP: There is still a great disagreement about the definition of Fake News. The term can be understood in many different ways – either as a satire or a parody to amuse the recipient, or as a misleading, fraudulent and invented content. Or, alternatively, as false contexts to overworking content. This false context is provided with the intention of deceiving the recipient, which could be done either by changing a picture in Photoshop or by rewriting an authentic text with the inclusion of incorrect content. Practically, it means that authentic sources are revised.

One common definition of Fake News is that it is information disseminated by the media, which is targeted and strategically and deliberately misleading. Usually, the purpose of this kind of information is to sharpen the public opinion, either for political or for commercial reasons. Although, sometimes Fake News can also be created unconsciously-erroneously. For instance, this could happen when journalists do an incorrect research or are not able to research properly as in the case of dictatorships.

Q: Do you believe that Fake News is a concept that has always been part of a disinformation communication, or is it a new and more powerful tool that arose with the emergence of new media?

BP: Of course, Fake News is not new, it is as old as information and lies. In the context of media science, you can find this phenomenon in essays in the early 17th century, just a few years after the foundation of the first newspaper. Philosophers and lawyers discussed already at that time the dangers of strategical Fake News “to make people headless, so that they favour this or that party.” And even the ancient Romans were not immune.

The only thing that has changed is that education and, of course, technological progresses have greatly simplified and multiplied dissemination.

Q: Since the focus of your work is radicalization and Social Media, how do you perceive the impact of internet use, if at all, on an individuals’ process of radicalization?

BP: Radicalization is a complex individual process, but as social scientists, we can observe and identify certain patterns.

For example, the internet and Social Media facilitate processes such as victimization, indignation, the desire to belong to a group, to find a place amongst like-minded people or the need to find an own identity. In this context, the consumption of Fake News can lead to anger for example and can definitely heat up opinions. But not only Fake News can do that, also the truth can.

Q: How are Fake News connected to radicalization? 

BP: Radical groups spread Fake News to weaken or even dehumanize their opponents or to present themselves as the good guys. Last but not least, they can also use Fake News to recruit new members.

Q: Do you think that Social Media providers should be more active in promoting truthful news through developing algorithms to better examine the content of the news?

BP: I am not sure if that is the job of Social Media platforms. I believe that it is rather the task of traditional media and recipients, who should track down Fake News and refuse it.

Q: What would be possible threats of this kind of decision-making regarding “approved” news through Social Media providers?

BP: Social Media platforms are commercial companies with motivations and goals, located in certain countries. How to recognize the truth? Can they identify local forms of sarcasm for example? And can we trust Facebook or Twitter? What are their goals?

Another point is, we have to recognize that an unfiltered pure und true information also needs to be examined critically. Truth and ethics are not always the same – as Heinz von Foerster once said: “Truth is the invention of a liar”. But there is only a thin line between regulation and censorship.

Q: Do you think that Social Media can be used as an essential tool for social change, and if so, how can AI assist with this task?

BP: Of course, Social Media bring and will bring social change – in both directions.

In a political understanding of social change, flash mobs and demonstrations can be organized and messages can be exchanged – across the borders of a country. AI can function as a catalyst, for example, when algorithms control which information is accessible to the majority.

In a private space, Social Media can strengthen social relationships – but can also lead to isolation or bullying, and whereby AI can be a gatekeeper. We just have to be careful, so that freedom of opinion does not take on fascist traits.

If you are interested in learning more about the interplay of Fake News and AI, check out the other interviews that SAIL LABS Technology conducted with specialists about the topic.

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