Making sense of social media requires brains and robots

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 vice-president 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.

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