When Tom Van de Weghe explains why the Chinese government favors the use of artificial intelligence to control journalists, he begins with the story of an assault. It was 2008, only months after the Beijing Olympics, and Van de Weghe, a Belgian investigative journalist, was in China’s Henan Province with an Australian cameraman and a Belgian-Chinese fixer. They were preparing a report for World AIDS Day on the HIV crisis in Henan, where in the 1990s local governments and businesses bought plasma from farmers. The get-rich-quick scheme—geared toward selling plasma globally—had infected thousands with contaminated equipment. Van de Weghe heard rumors of villages wiped out, leaving only orphans. He arranged to interview an orphanage director, but when he arrived, the director had just been arrested. Van de Weghe and his team interviewed the director’s wife in an alley, but afterward the police stopped them and beat them on the roadside so violently that Van de Weghe feared for his life. His camera equipment—including the tape with the recording—were confiscated.
The attack resulted in a PR disaster for China. The Olympics had been the nation’s opportunity to celebrate its opening to the world, and the central government had lifted restrictions on foreign journalists. The Guardian and the New York Times, among other papers, picked up Van de Weghe’s story. The Chinese government eventually issued an apology and returned the camera equipment, though the tape had been erased.
The following year brought even more bad publicity for China, with rallies in Hong Kong for Tiananmen’s 20th anniversary and the Ürümqi riots—clashes between police, Uighurs (a Muslim minority) and Han (China’s dominant ethnic group) in the Uighur autonomous region. The government rolled back press freedoms, but this time, rather than relying on physical intimidation to control journalists, it used artificial intelligence—automated surveillance systems that tracked journalists, reported on them to authorities and exercised strict censorship online, removing articles and social media posts.
“Camera surveillance was already present,” Van de Weghe says of the eight years he spent covering China, “but there wasn’t a significant system behind it. AI became the unifying element.”
As a 2019 John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford, Van de Weghe has been investigating the ways that AI can be a subtly powerful tool to silence journalists and shape the news—one that requires relatively little manpower and is less likely to generate the sort of bad publicity arising from a physical attack.
In recent years, AI has become a catchall term referring to many types of automated computer systems and machine learning software that perform activities traditionally thought to require human intelligence—such as interpreting data, finding patterns in it and extrapolating from those patterns to accomplish tasks. As research in AI has expanded, its uses have proliferated: self-driving cars, medical diagnostics, safeguards against fraudulent financial transactions and automated weapon systems. Its impact on news media in particular has been profound and immediate. Aside from monitoring journalists, as in China, it can also direct internet users to certain types of news, thereby skewing public opinion, consumer habits or election results. By controlling people’s access to information, AI can transform cultures without revealing that it is guiding billions of human lives. People click on news links and consume media that influences their beliefs and behavior, and yet they know little or nothing about who designed the AI or why, or even how the software is affecting them.
But just as AI can harm the free press, it can support it. Computer scientists and journalists are increasingly trying to democratize AI—to make sure its use isn’t limited to the powerful. In fact, dozens of scholars at Stanford are developing AI that can analyze data for investigative journalism or help newsrooms prevent bias and misinformation. They see access to AI as crucial to sustaining a free press and preventing the media—and its ability to shape cultural values—from falling under the exclusive control of governments and powerful interests.
> Read the full story on the Stanford Magazine website.