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Disinformation: The Invisible Sword Dividing Society

Supermarkets have finally restocked their toilet paper in Hong Kong after weeks of panic buying when a rumor about toilet paper shortage due to closure of factories in China went viral. The toilet paper shortage did happen, but it was because of panic buying, not because of factory closure in China. How did the rumor spread? Was disinformation one of the culprits?

On February 25th, the Internet Society Hong Kong Chapter organized a Hong Kong Internet Governance Forum Roundtable on disinformation. On the panel was Eric Wishart, News Management Member at Agence France-Presse (AFP); Masato Kajimoto from the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong; George Chen, Head of Public Policy (Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mongolia) at Facebook; and Charles Mok, a local Legislative Councillor.

Did someone spread “disinformation” about toilet paper shortage?

While a lot of people think that the rumor on toilet paper shortage is a piece of disinformation or fake news, Masato reminded us that it actually is not. Disinformation is information that is deliberately created to deceive people, which is different from “misleading information.” In the case of panic buying toilet paper, some people made an opinion about toilet paper production in light of factory closure – that is, the shortage would logically happen if factories could not operate.

Masato didn’t care much about the rumor when he first read about it in the morning. But by the same afternoon, all the toilet paper was sold out. He did not expect this to happen as he thought it was just a prediction someone made and spread online. Journalists reported on this widely by emphasizing the empty shelves in supermarkets, which led to more panic buying, and this was how the rumor spread.

The trap for journalists in reporting

Journalist followed and reinforced the narratives of the rumor with the headline: “Empty Shelves in Supermarkets.” Eric pointed out that this is a big trap for journalists. It is easy for journalists to selectively choose stories that fit into certain narratives and ignore the facts, which Eric refers to as “confirmation bias.” This is where a critical mind needs to come in, and journalists should avoid falling into this trap of following narratives.

What measures have news agencies taken to combat fake news?

In consuming news information, we should choose our sources carefully, and news agencies are one of the main sources. Eric shared the ways in which AFP has built its credibility. He stressed the importance of gaining public trust through transparency of editorial procedures and efforts of fact-checking in partnership with other organizations. For example, AFP has set up editorial standards and best practices, as well as principles of sourcing. AFP has also joined the International Fact-Checking Network and is an independent fact-checker for Facebook. These efforts have built AFP’s credibility, which AFP can utilize in the battle against disinformation.

What is the role of social media in combating fake news?

Another major source for news information is through social media platforms. George shared that Facebook partners with independent third-party fact-checkers like AFP to help them identify certain types of misinformation for removal, especially when the information violates their community standards. Repeated offenders will also have their account or page taken down. Another measure is to reduce the spread of misinformation in news feeds. When a piece of fake news is flagged, there will be a note under the post saying this is a misinformation verified by the fact-checker.

Is legislation a way out?

Although different sectors have contributed to the battle against fake news, we are still seeing its viral spread. Some legislative councillors in Hong Kong have thus proposed a fake news law in Hong Kong. However, Charles expressed his grave concern about such law. Charles pointed out that a fake news law can only function effectively when there are checks and balances in the government. But there has been an increasing number of requests made by the Hong Kong government to social media companies to remove certain content, and the Hong Kong Police Force has accused social media of damaging their reputation. Charles worried that a fake news law would be abused to suppress freedom of speech in Hong Kong.

Let’s face it: the weaponized fake news

We have discussed ways of combating fake news from different angles, but they cannot stop disinformation if people don’t distinguish between facts and opinions. Education is a major effort that the government, as well as different stakeholders, should push for.

Fake news is unfortunately an outcome of social and political conflicts, stemming from the huge pluralization in Hong Kong. A lot of the “fake news problems” we have witnessed in Hong Kong – posts about Joshua Wong’s U.S. green card, police pepper spraying a stray dog, etc. – were used to shape the information into narratives that favor certain sides of the political spectrum. In this regard, they are propaganda and therefore, political problems. Sadly, not much of the measures described above can help with these problems.

Watch the recorded live stream of the roundtable.

Encryption is essential for protecting freedom of expression and privacy. Read the fact sheet: How Encryption Can Protect Journalists and the Free Press.

Internet Governance

Hong Kong Chapter: Why Aren’t There More Women in Tech?

The tech industry in Hong Kong and across the world remains male dominated. Why aren’t there more women and what can be done to fix this?

To mark International Girls in ICT Day, which aims to encourage girls and young women to work in information and communications technology, the Internet Society Hong Kong Chapter organized an event to tackle these questions. Ladies X Tech X Gents: How Are the Three Compatible? brought together four successful developers to lead the dialogue:

  • Ivy Luk, Sales Engineer at Clare.AI (an Artificial Intelligence digital assistant solutions provider)
  • Emma Wong, Organiser of Google Developer Group and Women Techmakers Hong Kong
  • May Yeung, Director of Internet Society Hong Kong Chapter
  • Rick Mak, Co-Founder of Oursky (a web and mobile application development company)

Why are there so few women in the tech industry?

A common observation among the speakers was the high dropout rate of women developers in the tech industry – amid the already low women to men ratio. The speakers noted that it drops from roughly 3:7 at school to 1:10 at work.

One of the main reasons women leave the tech industry is the gender stereotype that it is a masculine profession. From an early age, this stereotype is ingrained by parents in Hong Kong, who discourage their daughters from studying computer science and engineering courses. Even when women enroll in tech-related courses, many do not consider pursuing a career in IT.

Why do we want women in the tech industry? Are there “women challenges” in the industry?

Studies have shown that diversity in companies is important. The multiple perspectives of a diverse team are key to innovation. (For example, a women’s perspective is needed since products are not sold to men only.) Also, women teammates may bring in a different culture and work atmosphere that can boost team morale.

The challenge for women, however, is dealing with macho and misogynist culture within the industry. Speakers also noted that women and men have distinctive communication styles, which means the workplace must be committed to mutual learning and listening to each other.

Another challenge commonly faced by women is the work-family balance due to the high pressure and heavy workload of some technical positions. But Rick Mak pointed out that this is a challenge for both women and men. As a dedicated father who believes that men should take on their share of parenting duties, he too struggles to balance work and family.

What can we do to encourage women to enter the tech industry?

As the tech industry begins to recognise the benefits of diversity, some companies have set a lower recruitment requirement for female developers. The female speakers all disapproved of this approach. They considered this discrimination against women and a reinforcement of the stereotype that women are less competent.

Instead of being offered benefits like the period leave, female employees would generally prefer to have greater C-level support. One of the participants pointed out that all-male management teams can sometimes be insensitive to women’s needs, which could be as simple as providing separate female and male toilets at the office.

Speakers suggested that having women in senior leadership roles would positively encourage other women to join a company, particularly if it is supportive of advancing women’s careers. Women in management positions are also important role models for their juniors.

Another important aspect of getting more women into tech roles today is building a stronger female developer community, where women can help and support each other in navigating the industry, and provide guidance to non-technical women who are interested in joining. In the end, it is all about mutual respect and understanding. The sometimes hostile environment in Hong Kong’s IT industry has its root in gender stereotypes imposed on both women and men. Sometimes, we think too much about a person’s gender roles rather than his or her individual qualities – in other words, people get labeled as either a man or a woman and that is it. At work, let us be impressed by a person’s work ability rather than his or her gender.

Help close the digital gender divide! Join SIG Women, which is open to everyone.