Check platform helps HK varsity students to verify 'fake news'

"We have been researching 'fake news' here in Asia well before Donald Trump made it famous!" says former CNN journalist Anne Kruger.
"We have been researching 'fake news' here in Asia well before Donald Trump made it famous!" says former CNN journalist Anne Kruger.ST PHOTO: JOYCE LIM

When news broke that supporters of Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam were paid HK$600 (S$106) to rally for her outside Wan Chai's Convention and Exhibition Centre on polling day on March 26, a group of Hong Kong University students sprung into action to find out if this was indeed the case.

This was true, they found, after tracking down the person who was using chat applications like WhatsApp, to recruit part-time supporters for Mrs Lam.

In another incident, the students checked out a rumour that disgraced former chief executive Donald Tsang had committed suicide in jail. They quickly confirmed this was not true.

These checks were part of an exercise done by students from the university's Journalism and Media Studies Centre, in a project called Cyber News Verification Lab.

Founded last September by former CNN journalist Anne Kruger, the lab uses a software called Check, which provides a digital platform for students to work together. On the platform, they can list and share the steps they have taken to verify a claim in a news report or social media post.

"We have been researching 'fake news' here in Asia well before Donald Trump made it famous!" Ms Kruger, 44, an Australian who used to co-host News Breakfast on the ABC News 24 Channel, told The Straits Times last week.

The term "fake news" became a trending topic after the United States President started using it routinely last year, to discredit news reports that he dislikes.

Hong Kong University journalism students "dispelled a number of frightening rumours" circulating on WhatsApp during the pro-democracy Occupy Central protests in 2014, said Ms Kruger.

They set up a Facebook site called Live, Verified, which had over 100,000 "likes" in the first two days as they were able to calm fears by proving many rumours to be false.

For example, a student heard talk one evening about how triad members were causing trouble in Mong Kok and immediately activated some students to check on the situation.

They spoke to people on the ground and confirmed that it was just a rumour.

Said Ms Kruger: "While I say participatory technology has led to the increasing spread of fake news, we are also at an important juncture: the technology companies are beginning to come on board and take some responsibility about finding solutions to the problems.

"It is early days and I don't believe fake news will ever be fully stamped out due to human nature, but there is hope on the horizon."

She added that good journalism often requires a journalist to carry out multiple checks before publishing a piece of news.

Ms Kruger said one thing the project has found is that social media messages sent through chat applications have a higher chance of being false or rumours.

Between January and April this year, her students found that at least 40 per cent of 31 "news" posts spread through social media applications such as WhatsApp, were false.

During the week leading up to the Chief Executive election, students conducted checks on 45 reports and found at least two of them fake. They verified at least 23 reports, found 11 inconclusive, and are still verifying the rest.

Ms Kruger warned that blogs which often portray a one-sided, biased view could have a snowball effect when people keep sharing it.

"Citizen journalism is great, however, we need to hold it accountable like we would hold a good investigative journalist accountable."

Ms Kruger will speak about the Cyber News Verification Lab project on June 19 and 20 at a Singapore conference that aims to fight the spread of fake news and improve media literacy in Asia.

Called "Keep It Real: Truth And Trust In The Media", it is organised by The Straits Times and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.

Speakers include ST political editor Zakir Hussain, ST associate opinion editor Lydia Lim, Ms Irene Jay Liu, who leads Google News Lab in the Asia-Pacific, and Ms Karolin Schwarz, a fact-checker at German non-profit investigative organisation correctiv.org

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2017, with the headline 'Check platform helps HK varsity students to verify 'fake news''. Print Edition | Subscribe