American University of Beirut

In a fast-moving world, MSFEA helps fight fake news with a virtual hackathon

On July 3–5, 2020, the Entrepreneurship Initiative at the Maroun Semaan Faculty of Engineering and Architecture partnered with the Freidrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) Lebanon a​nd Syria​ and USJ​ to host a virtual hackathon "Hack the Fake: Fighting Disinformation" that was open to university students from all majors and levels in Lebanon. Seventy students from different universities, majors, and inter-disciplinary backgrounds engaged and worked in teams to come up with innovative solutions to fight disinformation.

Disinformation, propaganda, and fake news are nothing new. What sets today apart from earlier times is the rapid dissemination and global reach via the internet and especially through social media platforms. The weekend kicked off with an opening ceremony gathering all the participants, mentors, and trainers for a panel discussion about the inter-relation between technology and disinformation. Moderated by Dr. Lilian Ghandour from FHS, who gave an introduction about disinformation in the times of COVID, three speakers—Ann Cathrin Riedel, chairwoman of LOAD e.V.; Fadi Zaraket, electrical and computer engineering associate professor at MSFEA; and Katia Raya, lecturer at ESIB-USJ—gave the participants an introduction to the world of disinformation and fake news, and dived into the details of countering them. In addition to the panel, Dr. Hazem Hajj, ECE professor at MSFEA, gave a workshop to participants about artificial intelligence (AI) advances in fighting disinformation.

“We can all agree that the viral dissemination of disinformation, or misinformation which is the lesser of the two evils, is clearly toxic as it is not only misleading but very harmful as people end up acting on this false information. Therefore, we can say that disinformation is the other silent pandemic nowadays" said Dr. Ghandour. In the short-term, disinformation can be used to distract, to obscure the truth, or to inspire its readers to take a certain course of action. In the long-term, disinformation can be part of a strategy to shape the information environment in which individuals, governments, and other actors form beliefs and take decisions. It is also used to degrade public trust in media and democratic and state institutions, and to amplify social division, resentment, and fear. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the problem of disinformation given the significant amount of fake news that was being spread throughout the crisis.

“Based on our responsibility towards Lebanon and the region in combatting COVID-19 and its effects and our commitment to better equip the youth with leadership, entrepreneurship, and innovation skills that help them create a positive change in their societies, we provide this opportunity for university students to learn more about the topic of disinformation and sharpen their entrepreneurship and technical skills by creating effective and sustainable solutions to various aspects of this problem." said Mona Itani, coordinator of the Entrepreneurship Initiative and the lead organizer of the hackathon.

Despite the severe power cuts and intermittent internet connection at the time, the vast majority of the teams made it to the pre-pitch session after they spent two and a half days working hard to deliver quality results and solutions. The virtual hackathon provided them a unique opportunity to spend a weekend of their time looking at effective solutions related to specific problems related to fake news and disinformation. This experience was enriched with the presence of ten expert mentors in the fields of media, journalism, business, and technology.

“It was a very fruitful experience, a very nice memory to keep, especially the enthusiasm and innovation of all the students… They were mature and aware! I passed three hours with them without noticing that…  It's an experience to repeat definitely!" said Nada Eid, hackathon mentor and coordinator of the Digital Arabic Content Diplome at USJ.

Each group had mixed and complementary expertise such as technical skills, design skills, business and entrepreneurship skills, and public speaking skills to name a few. Seventeen teams presented their ideas, 12 teams made it to the final pitching, and three teams were announced as co-winners. The three winning teams were:

Khabriye is an app that gives individuals the opportunity to engage with the news and learn how to avoid misinformation through a combination of articles, videos, trivia games, and an integrated points system.

Factseekers is a fact checking platform where the public and media outlets can collaborate with trained journalism students who are ready to check the overload of unconfirmed information, before having it published.

Unveil gamifies university-level media literacy educational programs through an interactive, story-driven role-playing mobile game.

“I want to congratulate the whole team leading on this fruitful experience. I was happy to see the level of knowledge and awareness of the students, moreover the ideas and the projects were really up to the level and challenge." said Philip Abou Zeid, journalist and reporter who acted as a mentor during the hackathon. He added that many teams impressed him. “I can clearly remember team Khabriye who had the idea of creating awareness at a very early stage. Children awareness is key to a healthier and better society."


For more:

You can view the opening ceremony and the opening experts' panel here.

You can view the final pitching ceremony where Dr. Ayman Kayssi, AUB; Dr. Bashar El Hassan, Lebanese University; and Ayman Mhanna, executive director at Samir Kassir Foundation acted as judges, here.

More about the hackathon on the FNF website here.

Other teams worked on the following innovative ideas:

Fight Fake News (FFN) is a Google Chrome extension that detects disinformation based on AI and machine learning that can upgrade based on people's upvoting and downvoting.

FakeWatch is an AI-backed application that can dissect a paragraph and single out the correct information sentences from the false ones.

Ta2akad is a mobile application that leverages pre-existing fact-checking tools and saves people from the hassle of surfing various websites in search of credible news, with a simplified color-coded result that is easy for everyone to understand.

Ask-إسأل is an initiative that aims to aid the elders in our society who think they are forgotten due to the fast-paced growing use of technology and provide them with simple pop up notifications with tips and tricks to differentiate between fake and authentic news.

al massadar is a new website that will allow all users around the globe to benefit from reliable information and real news. Everyone receives news, unsure about its authenticity, and then search for an option or someone who can validate it. Al Massader offers a new option that allows users to insert pieces of information that it can confirm or deny. If the information is wrong it will directly correct it.

Local-eyes is a new platform that lets people on the ground validate news going on in their geographical area, thus sieging missinformation before it circulates. Credibility scores ensure the trust across the community of users.

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