AIT, the OVE initiative ScienceClip.at and the Austrian Ministry of Defence teach media skills for effectively dealing with disinformation on the Internet
On Friday, 23 August 2019, Junior Alpbach dedicated a workshop to the highly topical subject of fake news. The workshop was opened by Barbara Weitgruber, Director General for Scientific Research and International Relations at the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education (BMBWF). Junior Alpbach, which explores science and technology issues for young people, has been a tried and tested format of the Technology Symposium at the European Forum Alpbach for the past 21 years.
For the first time in human history the Internet, and social media in particular, has given every individual a voice and a means of spreading their messages online. This represents an enormous democratization of our communication mechanisms. However, within only a few years it has also demonstrated the dangerous downside of allowing anyone to serve as a source of information. We have virtually arrived in a “post factual age”, in which the wealth of deliberate disinformation renders it almost impossible to determine who is still trustworthy. This is compounded by the human psychological disposition to believe unquestioningly, hindering the much-needed practice of critically examining information. At the same time, social platforms allow rumours and half-truths to be disseminated almost instantly on a global scale. Fake news is a huge problem, and one which our enlightened societies must increasingly combat by means of information and education.
“The nationwide introduction of compulsory basic digital education for all pupils in their first year of secondary school will confront every child with this phenomenon. This new subject focuses on the rational use of media and technologies. Encouraging a critical approach is absolutely key to dealing with the problem of fake news,” says Barbara Weitgruber, Director General for Scientific Research at the BMBWF.
Fake news in practice – international progress reports and demonstrations
This year’s workshop was organised by the Center for Digital Safety & Security at the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology together with the science communication platform ScienceClip.at, an initiative of the OVE Austrian Electrotechnical Association, and in close association with the Austrian Federal Ministry of Defence (BMLV) and the Office of Science and Technology Austria (OSTA) at the Austrian Embassy in Beijing.
The first part of the Junior Alpbach workshop was held in the gym at the Alpbach secondary school. Manfred Schleinzer, Head of the Department of Cyber Defence and ICT Security at the BMLV, gave the young participants a live demonstration on the manipulation of data and mobile devices, and showed them which technologies are already being used today in creating deepfakes.
Manfred Schleinzer: “Security and education are two strongly emotional topics which personally affect people across a broad spectrum of the population, significantly increasing their willingness to actively engage in attractive strategies. Efforts should be made to encourage pupils, as well as all stakeholders in society, to take a sustained interest in the subject of information technology in general, and cyber security in particular. This will ensure that there is always a sufficient number of young qualified and talented people prepared to protect Europe’s economy and cyberspace, and keep it competitive. Furthermore, society as a whole should be made aware of these challenges, and encouraged to actively play a part in facing and overcoming them. Only if we succeed in initiating and expanding the sustained and continuous transfer of knowledge between our business and science experts and the education sector will we be able to promptly capitalise on the opportunities that digitalisation offers.”
Following the presentation, the youngsters, aged between 12 and 17 were divided into groups and instructed by Kerstin Kotal and Jessica Braunegger from ScienceClip.at in professional interview techniques, preparing them to subsequently record their questions in video interviews with the workshop speakers.
Two keynote speeches, given by Helmut Leopold, Head of the AIT Center for Digital Safety & Security, and Philipp Agathonos, the Director of the Office for Science and Technology at the Austrian Embassy in Beijing, offered the workshop participants detailed, real-life insights into the broad subject of fake news. Starting with the opportunities offered by the Internet as well as the dangers it poses, they covered the various forms of fake news, noting the countermeasures which are available to combat disinformation. They also explored the topics of big data – taking the People’s Republic of China as an example (e.g. social rankings) – as well as questions about ethics, identity theft, and protection of the private sphere. They also provided these “digital natives” with valuable tips on managing their ubiquitous devices and services.
Helmut Leopold: “Today the Internet is both a blessing and a curse for our digital society. The unlimited opportunities it offers on the one hand are counteracted by the huge variety of dangers and risks on the other; how we use the Internet determines our experience of it, and this in turn depends upon having media skills which every user must develop from childhood onwards. It is only through education that we can create a fundamental understanding of how we use, assess and distribute content, today and in the future.”
Philipp Agathonos: “China recently described big data as the diamond mines of the 21st century, and is investing billions in research and development. In China there is public consensus that official bodies should have access to private data. If we are to remain competitive, here in Europe we must quickly master the balancing act of protecting our private data while making this valuable resource available for research and development.”
Learning by doing – youngsters try their hand at science journalism
Based on what they had seen and heard, as well as their own experiences, the workshop groups then drew up their own interview guidelines. Their task was to critically examine the topic, incorporating as many different perspectives as possible into the questions. The interviews with the speakers, filmed and recorded with the support of ScienceClip.at, were designed to demonstrate the know-how the participants had acquired during this one-day project. The video interviews will also be made available on the science platform ScienceClip.at so that the youngsters, and the public in general, can benefit from the insights into fake news, the potential defence strategies, and current research work into deepfake forensics using artificial intelligence (AI). The video information effectively provides youngsters with guidelines on how to deal with the problem of disinformation by critically examining sources and authors.
“Nowadays young people primarily draw their information from social media. That makes it all the more important to give them the proper tools for distinguishing real information from fake news. I am delighted that the OVE, through its ScienceClip.at initiative, can help pupils to critically question social media content,” said Peter Reichel, General Secretary of the OVE.
In addition to the focus on one of today’s greatest societal challenges, the workshop also provided participants with their first intensive experience of science journalism. In view of the major challenges facing mankind today, effective science journalism is more necessary than ever, functioning as a mediator and translator of outstanding research achievements. The Junior Alpbach workshop is also a call for the future teaching of media competences and the skills to develop digital literacy in our school system from the start of secondary education. This will allow upcoming generations to successfully grow into our complex information societies.