Election dangers at unregulated end of information spectrum

There was a reassuring sense of common purpose in a joint media release this week by the four bodies charged with keeping the next election’s media campaigns honest. So why did I get a feeling it was like a rerun of the League of Nations in the 1930s?

The media release announced a short video described as a consumer guide to complaints processes during the election. The video explained the roles of the Electoral Commission (NZEC), Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA), Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), and New Zealand Media Council (NZMC) in the complaints process. The four bodies also helpfully provided an infographic on who does what.

Each organisation has specific jurisdiction during elections and rules that must be followed. The Electoral Commission has comprehensive rules for political parties, candidates, and third party promoters on everything from hoardings and flyers to how much can be spent on advertising. Both the Advertising Standards Authority and Broadcasting Standards Authority have comprehensive rules, guides, and a stack of past rulings that light their path. The Media Council simply requires election editorial coverage to comply with its 12 principles of good journalism.

The release carried a solemn statement from the four bodies:

Political speech and election related content, which includes campaign material and commentary on advocacy groups, politicians, political parties and their policies, are vital components of the right to freedom of expression and a democratic election process. We are committed to supporting all those who publish or promote election related content to comply with the standards expected within New Zealand, and encourage members of the public who view, read or hear content that concerns them to raise this with us.”

Now, all this is very reassuring and New Zealand does have a good working model for ensuring election advertising and media coverage is above board. Electors have been reasonably well served in past elections and over time a system has developed that allows for fast redress on matters requiring urgent attention.

The League of Nations also had its successes – it managed to ban the use of gas in war – but it was spectacularly ineffective in preventing the Second World War. Continue reading “Election dangers at unregulated end of information spectrum”

Text generators must not become killer robots

Disclosure: This commentary was written by me. It is not the product of a generative artificial intelligence programme. Any intelligence you may find here is from my own, admittedly limited, resources.

There is, however, the worrying prospect that it could have been produced by ChatGPT, a programme with alarmingly human-like text generating capabilities. In fact, some commentators have used it to produce parts of their columns to show how good it is at creating content virtually indistinguishable from their own words of wisdom.

Generative AI is good, but it isn’t that good. Last month the U.S. tech website CNET admitted that it had used it to create at least 75 stories, many of which were attributed to “CNET Money Staff”. Retrospective fact-checking found the stories riddled with errors that human reporters were unlikely to make.

That revelation has not halted media use of AI in its tracks. Sports Illustrated last week told the Wall Street Journal it was publishing AI-generated stories on men’s fitness tips, drawing on 17 years of archived stories in its own library. The caveat is that all of the stories are reviewed and fact-checked by flesh-and-blood journalists.

This sort of AI may not be perfect, although it is good enough to create alarm among university staff over student essay assignments. However, it is about to get better. Continue reading “Text generators must not become killer robots”

By Dickens, what a year it has been

Every time I sit down to review the past year, I am drawn to the words of a former reporter on London’s Morning Chronicle.

No matter what the year, the opening lines to one of his better-known pieces of writing seems to resonate: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

And, by Dickens, that sums up the past 12 months.

The New Zealand media’s year has been, to put it far less eloquently than the author of A Tale of Two Cities, one of ups and downs. Of course, media cannot be held entirely responsible for those oscillations. In many respects they are simply mirroring or reacting to what is happening more widely in society and on the global stage. And that world is full of paradoxes – some of the best rises out of the worst. Continue reading “By Dickens, what a year it has been”

Alarm bells must bring out disinformation fire fighters

The cancellation of two disinformation seminars this week amid threats and harassment should be ringing very loud alarm bells.

The seminars, organised by the Disinformation Project and communicated through the Science Media Centre, were to allow journalists to discuss disinformation with a range of experts. However, details of the media-only events in Auckland and Wellington somehow appeared on extremist social media channels. Traffic on those channels suggested the events could be gate crashed and they were cancelled as a safety precaution.

The director of The Disinformation Project, Kate Hannah, told Newsroom political reporter Marc Daalder she had received a death threat after the decision to cancel had been made but before legitimate attendees had been notified. Members of the project had been scheduled to brief journalists.

What is disturbing about this episode – the latest in a string of intimidating actions – is that the invitations were privately despatched to individuals via the Science Media Centre. Like the Disinformation Project itself, the SMC is a highly reputable organisation (whose advisory board I had the privilege of chairing). The fact that a screenshot of the invitation then appeared on Telegram fringe channels raised the ugly possibility that one of the potential invitees shared it with someone connected to those channels, or that their email accounts have been hacked or otherwise compromised. Continue reading “Alarm bells must bring out disinformation fire fighters”