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Disinformation presents major threat to democracy, media credibility: N. Ram

Fifth World Media Summit in Guangzhou, China, was attended by 197 media organisations from 103 countries

Disinformation that has been “scaled up and weaponised” on social networking platforms presents a major challenge and threat to democracy and media credibility, N. Ram, Director, The Hindu Group Publishing Private Limited, said on Sunday.

Speaking at the opening session of the fifth World Media Summit (WMS) held in Guangzhou, China, Mr. Ram said Artificial Intelligence (AI) and disinformation were “two key areas in which major and potentially disruptive challenges could become opportunities for the media to do well, empower themselves in new ways, and pursue a path of sustained development.”

“It is widely understood within media organisations that AI’s applications and implications for journalism as well as for media business operations will be major and transformative. But the realisation is also growing that AI models on the market are ‘ultimately a prediction engine’ learning from the past,” Mr. Ram observed. “They are also known to fabricate facts and make up references and links, and they can be manipulated to produce false images and articles. Moreover, they can perpetuate current prejudices. Exploring and innovating in this promising but slippery field is truly a challenge for the media industry.”

Disinformation, he added, was “rampant”, and that in countering “the menace of toxic disinformation”, professional journalism “has a great opportunity to demonstrate its indispensability and its power as a force for the social good.”

The emergence of disruptive technologies and the problem of disinformation were key topics at this year’s WMS. The WMS was first held in 2009, jointly initiated by media organisations including China’s Xinhua news agency, the Associated Press (AP) in the United States, U.K.-based Reuters, Agence-France Presse (AFP), Russia’s TASS news agency, Japan’s Kyodo news agency, and The Hindu from India, who are members of its presidium. Sunday’s summit, hosted by Xinhua in Guangzhou, was attended by 197 media organisations from 103 countries.

Melissa Fleming, United Nations Under Secretary General for Global Communications, said the WMS provided a valuable platform at a time when media across the world were facing “enormous challenges” and a “political and economic onslaught”.

‘Mounting news avoidance’

“Surveys show mounting news avoidance and slumping trust in traditional media all the while the dominance of social media just keeps on going,” she said, citing a recent Reuters Institute report showing 30% of people across the globe now turn to social media for news.

“We know on these platforms lies travel faster than facts,” she said. “Disinformation, conspiracies and hate are poisoning our information ecosystems, driving distrust in public institutions, and generating controversy instead of creating new dialogue. With Generative AI, disinformation actors have been given a potent technology with low production costs to create high quality but fake images, audio and video content at scale.” However, “reporters with skills”, she said, “can restore balance” amid this flooding of social media by providing “accurate and reliable information”.

Four global news agencies – Xinhua, Reuters, AP and AFP – discussed establishing “a cooperation mechanism” on the sidelines of the summit. Fu Hua, president of Xinhua News Agency, said the global media industry was “undergoing a significant transformation” because of “technological innovation that is reshaping the industry, and the spread of fake news”, challenges that would only be tackled by media organisations working together.

Noting that news consumption was falling while news fatigue was increasing, Sue Brooks, Reuters Head of Agency, said TikTok was now reaching almost half of 18 to 24 year olds around the world, with 20% turning to TikTok for their news consumption. “Never has our work been more needed and never have the stakes been higher,” she said.

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