Visual mapping of disinformation in the web wins international hackathon

“Fake news is a global phenomenon, actually. It is not just hype. It extends not just to principal-level harms but to practical harms like corrupting moral institutions and social fibers. We are the moral fiber of the society, in general.” — Gabriel “Gab” Billones Jr, chief organizer of Break the Fake Hackathon 2019

Carlos Nazareno, Dominic Ligot, and Nikko Torcita emerged as the grand prize winners of this year’s Break the Fake Hackathon 2019 held at Solutions Space PH in Makati, Manila on Sept. 14.

The Filipino software developers created a visual tool that maps out websites spreading disinformation, and establishes their relationships and causal links to each other.

Team Troglodyte, which took home the P100,000 cash prize bested other entries from Malaysia and Indonesia.

The trio said the challenges of verifying information online inspired it to create its network database on fake news sites.

“We encounter a lot of fake news and slander online and in social media. The first instinct we always have is to cross-check and verify it, which can be quite time-consuming and tedious — hence the emergence of Troglodyte to help make things easier for others to verify,” Troglodyte explained.

“We would like to change the conversation regarding tech and fake news. Many people seem to think that a magic bullet AI (artificial intelligence) will eventually be able to spot fake news, but the reality is we need both machines and humans to work together. Tech alone is not a solution. Also, the producers of disinformation use tech as well, so we need to take the battle lines back using tech plus ingenuity,” Troglodyte said.

Combating disinformation through a hackathon

Break the Fake Movement was conceived by an independent group of youth leaders committed to fight against the spread of fake news by engaging the public, especially the youth, through different technology-related media literacy events after winning a grant from the U.S. Embassy in 2017.

For this year, Break the Fake Hackathon 2019 gathered several students and young professionals from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines to challenge them in creating technological innovations that will help address and combat disinformation.

Ambient from Malaysia proposed a news-generating website that rates its users for their content and determines if their post is legitimate or not.

Free WIFI from Indonesia pitched a chatbot called IVA (Information Verification Assistant) that enables people to verify information with the use of keywords through a messaging app.

Capacity to become watchdogs

Fake news is defined as falsified information disguised as news spread through one or several platforms, including social media, to deliberately deceive the audience and advance political, ideological, social, or economic interest.

“Fake news,” is actually an oxymoron because the primary characteristics of news are accuracy and truthfulness, in contrast to the fake information that disguises itself as reality which has been seen to damage a rational discourse, and therefore democracy itself, said Luis Teodoro, deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR).

The term “fake news” has been used by political leaders against the press to generate mistrust of the work of journalists, according to Frank La Rue, assistant director of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in a conference on challenges posed to journalism held in 2017.

“‘Fake news’ is a bad term primarily because it is a trap. It is not news…This is a crucial moment when we have to defend journalism. We have to promote a journalism of honesty, a journalism that is seen to build the truth,” La Rue said.

As one of the speakers in the Manila leg of the hackathon on Aug. 17, CMFR executive director Melinda Quintos de Jesus conveyed that the end goal of activities must be for the public to flourish as watchdogs.

“What we hope to come off with towards the end, of any activity such as this, we must develop the capacity to become watchdogs. ‘Yung nagbabantay, ‘yung tumitingin, nag-eevaluate, nag-didiscern (someone who’ll guard, check and evaluate) because it is only when the people can check abuse of both press power and political power can he really tell that we are using our freedom for the good that it is intended.”