EU-US Young Leaders Seminar: An engineer’s view into the changing media landscape

JOLT Researcher, Luka Murn, reflects on his participation in the Fullbright Schuman Programme’s EU-US Young Leaders Seminar on “Shared Transatlantic Challenges: Disinformation & the Changing Media Landscape”:

As one of the few engineers among the participants of the EU-US Young Leaders Seminar, I had a distinct and refreshing experience discussing current pressing topics of disinformation in media through the lens of journalism and political studies. The seminar presented a great opportunity to explore how our work impacts wider media landscape and the challenges new media technologies are bringing forth. I would encourage all fellow engineers to seek out seminars like these, as our engagement in these matters is still lower than it could be.  

The very first lesson came during the opening remarks of the seminar where we were introduced to the proper nomenclature for the popular “fake news” phrase. We deliberated how instead of “fake news” we’ll use the word “disinformation”, referring to the intentional spread of fabricated news pieces. There is a clear difference between dis- and misinformation, with the latter implying the unintentional spreading of false information. After agreeing upon that phrasing, we were ready to fully indulge ourselves in this year’s seminar that was before us.

During the next few days that were interwoven with panel discussions, breakout sessions and long overnight chats, we discussed ideas on how to reduce disinformation and improve media literacy. My breakout group was the one managed by Samuel, so you can read more about our joint approach in his article.  On a more personal level, I became even more aware of our social responsibility as engineers, ensuring that the software tools we develop are not used to encourage “fake news” artists to further penetrate the media landscape. The filter bubble has immensely contributed to fallacies ranging from the rise of the anti-vaxx movement, through the perpetration of conspiracy theories, all the way to influencing national elections around the globe.

There was a repeated theme over the length of the conference suggesting a need for an independent body which would monitor over our algorithms to mitigate against exploiting them for devious schemes. Governing such a thing might prove to be a challenging venture due to the complexity of the algorithms, and modification possibilities. However, it is clear that we need to be able to more efficiently visualize the algorithms and what they do in a manner that can be understandable to non-technical people, whilst promoting a sense of trust between the inquisitor and the questioned party. Otherwise, the exchange will only contribute to the hostility between the two parties and a compromise won’t be reached.

In recent years, we have witnessed the misuse of popular technology, with subsequent admissions tainting the previously innocent reputation of engineers working in computer science and AI. While the truth is always somewhere in the middle, I do understand the radicalism of some of these requirements, as it pushes us engineers to be more open about our algorithms’ output and more careful about the way we construct them.

After coming to that realization and expressing these views during the closing remarks of the seminar, we were able to continue with our amicable interactions in a care-free fashion. In the end, the importance of this seminar was not only measured in the amount of ideas we managed to develop, but also in the amount of like-minded people we were able to meet, talk and befriend.

To conclude, in the words of a certain Samuel Danzon-Chambaud, count me in for an EU-Africa, EU-Asia or EU-South America Young Leaders Seminar.

Luka Murn is an MSCA Early Stage Researcher at BBC Research and Development and PhD candidate in DCU, affiliated with the Institute for future Media and Journalism and the Insight Centre. In April, he attended the EU-US Young Leaders Seminar in Brussels, an annual event connecting participants and alumni from EU programs with Fulbright fellows.

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This project is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska Curie grant agreement No 765140