Universities develop approach to fighting fake news

One of the Philippines’ most prestigious universities is working to combat the spread of misinformation online as academics use their subject knowledge and authoritative expertise to fight against fake news on the internet.

Online trolling and the spread of fake news articles on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter played a crucial role in last year’s elections in the Philippines won by Rodrigo Duterte, and continues to shape the political landscape in the so-called era of ‘post-truth’ politics.

Last November, the University of the Philippines launched TVUP, an online public service television network that serves as a repository of stand-alone lectures, panel discussions, interviews and documentaries, accessible free online to anyone in the world.

“The internet has billions of voices and conversations,” said Grace Alfonso, executive director of TVUP. “It’s very difficult to detect what is real and what is not. What do we do as academics? We claim the space that we can claim and we put our ideas there.”

The initiative is part of a larger effort by the university to modernise the way it shares information by providing daily, round-the-clock educational programming, which will begin in March.

Professors of varying disciplines from each of the university’s seven constituent institutions across the country will host programmes that cover a range of topics including national politics, financial literacy, public health, science, legal issues, history, and arts and culture.

Entertaining, but evidence-based programming and coursework streamed online for free that is accessible to anyone at any time and anywhere in the world is how universities can begin to counter the fake news trend, according to Alfonso at TVUP. That, she says, is how higher education institutions around the world can play a role in fighting misinformation in the digital age.

Fake news in the Philippines

Many observers credit the rise of Duterte, at least in part, to dedicated online supporters who took to social media throughout the campaign to expose opposition and ridicule critics, often at the expense of sound reasoning and evidence.

This has made it more difficult for news consumers to differentiate between verifiable sources of information and falsified information, a worrying development for many university professors.

“We talk about [fake news] a lot in the classroom and it is something that has bothered us,” said Elizabeth Enriquez, a professor of broadcast communication at the University of the Philippines Diliman. “It’s also an opportunity to look for ways by which to increase the level of criticality among ourselves and our students.”

The fake news phenomenon is not unique to Duterte and his allies, or to the Philippines. It emerged as an issue in the United States during drawn-out presidential elections last year, while governments in Europe – Germany in particular – have become concerned about the role of fake news on Facebook and other misinformation spread online during elections.

However, in the Philippines it has become a fixture of political discourse on the Internet, so that one Philippine senator recently called for an inquiry into fake news and disinformation on social media platforms to assess whether new laws should be put in place to address it.

“The propagation of fake news stories has become an effective weapon of several political operatives to influence public opinion and national discourse,” Philippines Senator Francis Pangilinan wrote in a Senate resolution filed on 18 January. “As a result, the level and quality of public discourse have suffered.”

“Discerning the truth from the lies has become more difficult everyday as manipulation of information and blatant fabrication of stories have become increasingly rampant,” he said.

MOOCs approach

The gap between the information found online and the public’s ability to discern its credibility is where TVUP's open-sourced and massive open online model can help.

“My advocacy really is to help bring open and technologically enhanced pedagogies into my university for our teaching,” said TVUP’s Alfonso. “And we can help bring about broad access to quality education through the creation of open educational resources.”

Online teaching and learning is not new to the Philippines. The University of the Philippines’ Open University, established in 1995, specialises “in the study and practice of open learning and distance education”, according to its website.

In 2013, the university began offering free massive open online courses, or MOOCs. It is only recently, however, through the creation of TVUP, that the open online model has been used to counter misinformation on the internet.

Masato Kajimoto, an assistant professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, has been teaching news literacy courses since 2012 in coordination with Stony Brook University in the United States.

Although his programme is purely educational, whereas TVUP seeks to educate and entertain through multimedia content production, both aim to help news consumers become more discerning.

In January, Kajimoto co-launched a free MOOC entitled "Making Sense of the News: News literacy lessons for digital citizens", hosted by the online learning platform Coursera.

The six-week news literacy course seeks to “help learners develop their critical thinking skills to enable them to better identify reliable information in news reports and to become better informed about the world in which we live”, according to the online description of the course. About 3,600 students registered for its latest session.

One of the biggest hurdles, Kajimoto says, is convincing students to acknowledge that news literacy skills are not innate. They have to be developed. “Even if students think they’re smart enough to identify biases [in news], if you blind test them you realise they don’t know,” he says.

But even if students develop the skills to distinguish fact from fiction and news from opinion, will they be willing to think critically while engaging on social media? Alfonso at TVUP remains hopeful. “I think it still matters because [thinking critically] challenges everyone,” said Alfonso. “It allows us to be able to know what to believe and what not to believe.”