Facebook's highly-publicized efforts to combat online misinformation and improve media literacy are coming to a Toronto university next year.
The Facebook Journalism Project is collaborating with the Ryerson School of Journalism and the DMZ (Ryerson's business incubator) to create the "digital news innovation challenge," which will fund and support five news-related startups from around Canada.
"Hopefully we're going to see some very interesting new ideas about how not only to produce content, but how to distribute content," said Kevin Chan, head of public policy at Facebook Canada.
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The startups will get five months of incubation and mentorship and receive $150,000 in total — $100,000 worth of seed capital and $50,000 to advertise on Facebook.
"We are going to be able to provide them with opportunities of actually, to some extent, disrupting the current status quo," said Abdullah Snobar, executive director of the DMZ.
Facebook says it 'aggressively' fights misinformation
The Facebook Journalism Project was established in January 2017 with the goals of working with media outlets to create new journalism products, providing tools and training to journalists, and improving the public's ability to tell a real story from a hoax.
It was founded after the social media platform was widely criticized for its role, as a primary source of news for many people, in allowing unverified stories to circulate online.
Some have gone as far as to suggest that fake articles amplified on Facebook swayed the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election — a charge co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has denied.
Facebook's official line is that they are a platform, not a news organization or an arbiter of truth. But Chan says they know they have an important role to play nonetheless.
"The reality is, the health of our business is directly correlated with the trust that people place in the content they encounter online," he said, adding that Facebook is "moving very aggressively" to employ artificial intelligence to identify and remove fake Facebook accounts and cracking down on so-called "ad farms."
Dance between journalism and technology
Chan said they also have other irons in the fire when it comes to the journalism project, including cross-Canada training for journalists and a partnership with the Canadian Journalism Foundation to create a news literacy award.
The role of the Ryerson School of Journalism in the challenge will be to contribute mentorship and guidance and transmit "what journalism stands for" to the startup hopefuls, said Charles Falzon, dean of the school's faculty of communication and design.
Also part of the deal? An "ongoing discussion" within the school to avoid issues like a possible conflict of interest in aligning a journalism program — which aims to teach students to report critically on powerful companies like Facebook — with the tech giant.
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He says independence will be maintained, and called the digital news challenge a part of the "evolution of the dance between technology and journalism."
"That dance is going on," said Falzon. "The school of journalism would like to be part of it to help shape it."
Startups are invited to apply to the challenge beginning in late January of next year.