Bots 'are enemies of press freedom'

by Emma Hattstein

In times when most of the people are consuming news online, the profession of the journalist had to become digital as well. And the answer to that are bots. For good and for bad.

Bots are the enemies of press freedom Robots at London Science Museum. Photo: ECPMF

Part 2: Bots are the journalist’s enemies

After depicting all the positive aspects that come along with the usage of bots, we should take a look into the potential risks and difficulties caused by these softwares.  These softwares allow newspapers to work faster and more efficiently. Lets take a look into what they are capable of doing and what possible difficulties we ware facing with their employment. In this two part mini-series, ECPMF’s Emma Hattstein examines the question: are bots the friends or the enemies of press freedom? 

After we talked about Charlotte a positive example, meet Tay who really is a the trouble maker in the world of bots:  

Microsoft’s bot Tay was created in 2016 with the intention to interact with people on Twitter. By answering questions and reposting tweets, Tay should learn from the other users. It was designed to act like a teenage girl, using ordinary language to communicate with the aim of becoming a popular part of the network. Tay was often just copying the content of other users and as a result it was creating a lot of conflicting statements. 

It only took a couple of hours, until it was re-tweeting a lot of racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic statements. Thanks to its discrimination against all these people, the bot had to be taken down by its developers and the inappropriate tweets had to be deleted. Tay indeed learned from the others, unfortunately people tend to say things that are not so nice.  

Bots can spread hate

What we can deduce is, that if a bot simply just mirrors people's words, it will contribute to the problem of hate speech, fake news etc...  

Bots on twitter already operate as journalists: they are re-tweeting a lot of things, determining general trends and driving awareness towards certain issues. 

Some of these bots out there are designed with the only intention of making the life of journalists very hard or even silencing them by flooding them with mails, insulting them in public, digging up old stories and spreading them on social media platforms. 

Reporters without Borders already warned people of the companies that offer to buy Instagram followers in order to appear more successful. What makes this business so convenient is that accounts with a lot of followers seem trustworthy, so people are being influenced and manipulated by that a lot. This tool was used in the past to manipulate elections in a way that is not representative of the truth. 

Do we trust bots? 

The Reuters Digital News Report 2017 found that:

Across nine markets surveyed 40% trust the news media and feel journalists do a good job in checking sources, verifying facts, and providing evidence to back up claims

Trust is a big issue these days already. In times when people not only questioning the press a lot but calling it fake, the trust in journalistic work should not be put at risk because of the employment of bots. 

We all trust spellcheckers to correct our language. No more persistent spelling mistakes that survive all corrections, no more missing commas, no longer checking a text again and again for extra spaces. It's convenient, right? 

But we shouldn’t forget that filtering the language could become an issue when it is used to abandon language that, for example, doesn’t suit a governmental mind-set.

Censorship already is a big problem online: with bots it will be even easier to silence all the voices that say uncomfortable things, with the excuse of correcting the language. 

Will bots leave us all unemployed? 

Generally there is the fear of replacement of human workforce in the future. 

Even if the Council of Europe reported that „the automation of jobs has the potential to liberate people from manual monotone labour allowing them to shift direction towards more creative and meaningful tasks“ and doesn’t have the intention to replace them, they might not be able to guarantee this forever.  

You don’t have to have a full understanding of the situation to see that it is just very convenient to replace a human workforce with a machine that don’t rely on needs like food or sleep, will neither suffer from illness or fatigue nor be distracted from work in any other way and most importantly they can work 24 hours seven days a week. 

ECPMF'S Jane Whyatt recently attended the Automated Journalism Conference in LMU University, Munich. She says:

There is a danger, already presented by some experts at the conference, that humans will no longer create the news. Instead they will feed facts to the machine, which does the writing.

Revealing the truth about the source or the author is a good thing in most cases but not when it comes to whistleblowers. These people rely on the fact that they are anonymous, so that they do not face reprisals from their employers. Yet they perform an important role for democracy.

We also need to keep in mind that journalists are part of a bigger system: the democratic society they live in. This brings along an awareness of what should one do and what shouldn’t. Also what is acceptable for example from the ethical side and what is a threat to it. Robots do not have a conscience, therefore they are very easy to manipulate. They won’t defend themselves from any type of pressure or hacking…  

Another thing to think about is the fact that bots just use all the data they find despite the fact that it might be manipulated or in the worst case wrong. Their inability to check if a source is accurate or not, makes them very vulnerable in terms of correctness of the content. 

What about journalistic intuition?

Last but not least: creativity is something bots lack: even though some people say that they might be able to develop an intuition, there are things people can’t really define for themselves which makes it nearly impossible to teach them to a machine.

The uncertainties, ethical problems and the lack of trust in the technology lead to the impression that even though the developers intentions are often great, we still need to figure out how the employment of bots can be supportive of our lives without having to sacrifice many of the existing conditions. 

In the end it is up to everyone to decide for him - or herself how to face the challenge of the employment of bots and use them in a way that they supports the work of the individual journalist and by doing that helps to defend press freedom. 


For part 1 please click here 


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