CheckCon Report: “Disagreement Helps Keep Us Honest”

By Tracy Makhlouf |

The Check conference taking place on Friday the 21st of April and Saturday the 22nd, was introduced by Ed Bice and Dima Saber. The event was launched with Katherine Maher, executive director of WikiMedia, as she spoke of “reliable sources”, open-access technology and their role in the fake news battle.

Katherine started off by identifying Wikipedia and WikiMedia as platforms where information is accumulated and archived and easily edited: “Millions of people contribute with us and billions of visits and edits are made a day. We even exist now in 300 different languages.”

Katherine stated that even if they aren’t considered by academics, journalists, researchers and governments credible enough to be viewed as a media, they believe they are so. “We’re not supported by the government but by the people”, she said. The executive director of Wikimedia defended her perspective saying that this publication is a mean where knowledge is shared upon people coming from different backgrounds and with different ideas. Everyone has something to contribute regardless of their background, values and views.  “I find this crazy and emotional to talk about, to find people collaborating to find the truth within all the chaos that is happening around the world.”

Regarding the reliability of the sources, she agreed that Wikipedia and Wikimedia are full of mistakes and errors but she insisted they are “trying to fix those errors and to be better, I find this much better than working in an authoritarian position.” In the same context, Katherine reflected that fake news is a not a recent or current phenomenon but have been going on for so long in history, it’s the expression of the issue is what has changed. As for solutions to that, Katherine highlighted the importance of verification, validity and neutrality. Those three factors are vital for people to know where, why, how and by who the information comes from. This is often neglected by journalists because they tend to base their news on what is trending rather than providing the audience with the paths of change the information has went through to come to its last version.

Ultimately, she focused on the importance of being radical in values rather than politics, and how diversity is a successful outcome to the world.

The first panel commenced, introduced and moderated by Abir Ghattas, highlighting the status of digital rights in the MENA region and their evolution, as well as a session debunking the myth of Facebook as a neutral social platform.

All panelists agreed that different legal frameworks are being used to suppress freedom of speech and access to information in MENA Region.

Mohammad Najem, co-founder of SMEX, an organization that fights for a better Arab internet ecosystem, started by explaining the reality of the virtual world in the MENA region and discussed “harsher measurements and punishments implemented on people who break the law using the online space than the offline”.

Next, Wafaa Bin Hassin, a Tunisian activist in the digital world, who backed the idea that bans and limitations in different forms are installed by MENA region governments, assured it’s impossible to replicate the same struggle against suppression freedom of expression in all countries: “We need to create our own mechanism that suits our society to face governments, and we have to be creative in our resilience just as they are being creative to limit freedom”.

Bin Hassin raised the outrageous case of Mohammed Ramadan in Egypt, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a Facebook post. As the panel was emphasizing digital rights and activism, and their role in the Arab uprisings since 2011, it shifted to discuss the social media platform, Facebook, as an “oppressor, and its king, Zuckerburg, who believes that he’s going to save the world in his own way” as Jillian York, an activist from Electronic Frontier Foundation described. According to her, Facebook decides for us what we must see and what must not see, and make us report our friends if they do not match its regulations.

Jillian brought up a very compelling case of Facebook being “the world’s biggest authoritarian government and the world’s largest censor.”

The controversial argument of Facebook limiting or controlling access to content dominated the discussion that followed, until it was interrupted by Jessica Dheere from SMEX who objected to the idea of focusing on the platform rather than on the main panel topic which was digital activism and policies. This opposition brought the participants to agree on adding this topic on tomorrow’s Check Con’s Day 2 schedule to work proactively on a future vision of the internet rather than re-actively, wrapping up the panel with what was first started off by Katherine Maher’s belief that “disagreements helps keep us honest”.