The World Congress of Science and Factual Producers: we should finally retire the term ‘fake news’

The year 2020 was a challenging one for science journalists across the world. They followed not only the spread of the novel coronavirus, but also an epidemic of half-truths, lies, conspiracy theories, and questionable statements made by world leaders.

Unintentional misinformation and intentional disinformation were often difficult to combat. Many of us spent time thinking about doing our jobs better and conveying scientific truth to a public that needed it more than ever.

The World Federation of Science Journalists organized a panel at the World Congress of Science & Factual Producers (WCSFJ), a must-attend event that took place online from December 8 to 10. Keynote speakers included Dr. Anthony Fauci, Bill Gates, Luisa Neubauer, and more.

Andrada Fiscutean, a member of the WFSJ Board of Directors, and WFSJ President Milica Momcilovic, developed a panel to discuss the problem of misinformation and COVID-19. Entitled “Science Denial, Alternate Facts, and the Pandemic”, the event featured Pakinam Amer (Egypt), Anubha Bhonsle (India), and Thiago Medaglia (Brazil), and was moderated by Milica Momčilović (Serbia), the president of the World Federation of Science Journalists.

Hosted by Momcilovic, the panel address how COVID-19 narratives often exploited existing biases and divisions in our society, along with vulnerable groups who were the ones who suffered the most. They talked about what journalists can do to ethically inform an audience. And they also suggested retiring the term “fake news” because the information that’s neither accurate nor truthful is not news. 

Thiago Medaglia, the founder of Ambiental Media in Brazil, an initiative that transforms scientific content into compelling and innovative journalism, pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic showed, once again, that science denial can be a political strategy. Disinformation serves a political agenda — it starts at a high level, and then it is often spread forward by well-meaning members of the public. 

Thiago said that knowledge is not the only thing that can be produced — so is ignorance. During the pandemic, state leaders across the world often created doubt deliberately. This tactic is not new: it was also used by climate change deniers, as well as by those who supported the tobacco industry. Thiago quoted from an internal Tobacco Memo: “Doubt is our product.”

Anubha Bhonsle, an independent journalist and author from India who now runs the new media platform NewsWorthy, said that journalists should be transparent about the process of investigating and writing stories. They should mention their biases and the things they don’t know about the topics they cover. 

Anubha emphasized the fact that journalists shouldn’t hold on to mistakes just because it took a lot of time to make them. She also suggested that journalists operating on online platforms such as Instagram or Twitter could also use arts to create a closer relationship with their audience and balance hard news with more hopeful content.

Pakinam Amer, a science journalist and podcast producer from Egypt, currently a research affiliate at MIT, highlighted the fact false information can often be more pervasive and more “viral” than truth. She said that people tend to believe things that align with their beliefs and their political leanings.

Pakinam was part of an MIT team that created a “deepfake” video of Richard Nixon, ‘In the Event of the Moon Disaster,’ that was meant to show how technology can be used to create things that never happened. The team used artificial intelligence to stage a speech that former US President Richard Nixon never delivered. The statement was written in case the Apollo 11 mission had gone wrong, and the astronauts had died. Creating the Richard Nixon speech clip took hundreds of hours, but the cost of producing deepfake videos could drop in the future, as technology advances, Pakinam said.

At the end of the session, the panelists offered some practical solutions everyone could apply. One would be to check if the source is legitimate. Pakinam also suggested educating people into taking a deep breath before pressing share, analyzing information with a critical eye. She also pointed out that rather than tackling each rumor independently, it would be more beneficial to go to the roots of misinformation.

The COVID-19 pandemic, the panelists agreed, has often been distracting us from covering other big stories, such as climate change or social media platforms’ transparency issues. Journalists, the panelists said, should keep an eye on those stories too.