Mak­ing sense of so­cial me­dia re­quires brains and ro­bots

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - OPINION - Me­lanie Pe­ters

MIN­UTES af­ter a strong earth­quake shook a moun­tain­ous re­gion in south-western China, a robot filed the first news re­port on the cri­sis for a na­tional news web­site.

Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence or AI as techies call it, has been per­co­lat­ing in news­rooms for some time now. It’s a game changer. But not nec­es­sar­ily a re­al­ity news hacks want to em­brace in a time when they al­ready face much un­cer­tainty in an in­dus­try that is un­der­go­ing a ma­jor shift.

The way peo­ple con­sume in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­cate is un­der­go­ing a rev­o­lu­tion, from text to video and even mak­ing a state­ment with a ubiq­ui­tous emoji.

Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence in news­rooms was one of the top­ics at this year’s Me­dia Co-op­er­a­tion Fo­rum on the Belt And Road hosted by the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party’s of­fi­cial mouth­piece Peo­ple’s Daily. It was the fourth such an­nual event held in Dun­huang, Gansu prov­ince. More than 300 jour­nal­ists, se­nior of­fi­cials, busi­ness lead­ers, ex­perts and big­wigs of global me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions from 126 coun­tries at­tended.

Ac­cord­ing to or­gan­is­ers, the event is an ef­fort to pro­mote trust among coun­tries along China’s Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive, a plan to re­ju­ve­nate the old Silk Road. This year’s theme was a “Com­mon Des­tiny, New Vi­sions of Co-op­er­a­tion.” Mi­crosoft vi­cepres­i­dent David Chen, in his ad­dress, spoke of how Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence could be used as a tool to as­sist jour­nal­ists. “Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence is the op­po­site of nat­u­ral stu­pid­ity.”

Print jour­nal­ists can’t com­pete with news which is put out al­most in­stantly on so­cial me­dia and the web. For ex­am­ple, 400 mil­lion tweets flow through Twit­ter a day. It is a con­stant chal­lenge for tra­di­tional me­dia. How­ever, much of the news on so­cial me­dia was fake.

Print me­dia could use big data, an­a­lyt­ics and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to an­a­lyse vast amounts of in­for­ma­tion on so­cial me­dia and as­sist in the cov­er­age of break­ing news. These tools could weed out fake news and de­tect in­for­ma­tion put out by ma­chines or the “wa­ter army”, a group of ghost­writ­ers paid to post in­for­ma­tion on­line.

Mi­crosoft’s most pop­u­lar news­room ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence prod­uct is a Chi­nese chat­bot called Xiaoice. The pop­u­lar bot was even hired by Chi­nese me­dia to do weather re­ports, a stint as a news an­chor, work as a re­porter and write her own col­umn.

Chief ex­ec­u­tive of Reuters World Fi­nan­cial News Re­port­ing Jonathan Leff, said over the last 10 years, the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia had brought ir­rev­o­ca­ble changes to the me­dia. “These changes are af­fect­ing jour­nal­ists and news re­port­ing in im­por­tant ways. Break­ing news is in­creas­ingly from Face­book and Twit­ter and tra­di­tional me­dia side­lined. Our clients are be­com­ing de­mand­ing. They ex­pect in­for­ma­tion they re­ceive to be rel­e­vant to them, to be de­liv­ered to them in a way they find in­ter­est­ing and at their con­ve­nience.” These de­mands mean the agency has to pro­vide news con­tent more promptly and honed to in­di­vid­ual de­mands.

“We have to have the ut­most flex­i­bil­ity in com­bin­ing video, texts and pho­tos in pre­sent­ing a story.” Leff said that if the news in­dus­try wanted to keep up to speed with its re­port­ing in line with the in­ter­net, then jour­nal­ists would have to mas­ter ground-break­ing tech­nol­ogy such as big data, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and lan­guage pro­cess­ing.

Gen­eral man­ager of the Bri­tish Daily Mail news­pa­per and Gen­eral Trust James Lever en­cour­aged tra­di­tional me­dia to use tech­nol­ogy to en­gage its au­di­ence.

The me­dia still played a role in seek­ing the truth and in help­ing so­ci­ety dig through the rub­bish.

Fi­nan­cial Times’s Bei­jing bu­reau chief Thomas Mitchell took a swipe at gov­ern­ments who used tech­nol­ogy to block web­sites such as Face­book and Twit­ter. As for ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, he said he would only be con­cerned when ro­bots could write a good col­umn. A sub­stan­tial point to pon­der.

How­ever pop­u­lar Xiaoice may be, she still skirts around sen­si­tive is­sues about China. Ask her about Ti­betan spir­i­tual leader the Dalai Lama? She’ll re­spond: “If you like me, why would you talk to me like this?” A clear ex­am­ple of how ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence can be eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated. A hard-nosed hack, worth his salt, does not shy away from the truth or con­tro­versy.

Pe­ters is the live edi­tor for Week­end Ar­gus. She is on a 10-month schol­ar­ship with the China Africa Press Cen­tre.

In­sta­gram: mel­s_chi­ne­se_­take­out

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