How do you solve a problem like disinformation? That is the question with the million or perhaps even billion-dollar answer for social media companies.
It’s also at the core of Kinzen, the media company set up by former journalists Áine Kerr and Mark Little to tackle a problem that has emerged to become one of the biggest threats to democracy.
Kerr and Little first worked together at Storyful, which they founded in 2010 and sold to News Corp for €18 million in 2013. They went their separate ways – Kerr to Facebook and Little to Twitter – before reuniting three years ago in Dublin to found Kinzen.
Storyful began just as user-generated content started to increase dramatically, and the company was often first to verify and snap up online content. Kinzen might be considered a more mature venture which speaks to one of the defining phenomena of our information-saturated lives. At its core, Kinzen wants to dilute the power of online disinformation.
And while that sounds like a tall order, given that just six weeks ago every major social media platform was helping disseminate disinformation spread by one of the most prolific and notorious politicians of the digital era, Kinzen’s solution is to offer a blend of human expertise and artificial intelligence.
“We’ve always come back to this sense of mission that everybody – online communities, public conversations – should be protected from harmful disinformation,” Kerr said.
“Publishers, platforms, public communicators, everyone ultimately wants to build trust with people, and for people to have verifiable, trustworthy, factual information so that they can make decisions about the world around them.”
While Kerr didn’t name any of Kinzen’s business partners, it is working with “global content platforms and public communicators to fight back against the spread of disinformation and misinformation”.
Kerr recalled that even in the early days of Storyful, there were plenty of signs of disinformation online. Disinformation had a bumper year in 2020, however, with ex-president Trump claiming that the US election was rigged and had been stolen.
Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic has inspired all manner of tinpot conspiracies, with the overall effect that disinformation often has the upper hand.
Kinzen’s approach is to try to spot disinformation early and act on that to provide warnings to their clients. What makes it different, according to Kerr, is the blend of human expertise and artificial intelligence (AI).
“That was always a starting principle that was important to Mark and me in Storyful, and now in Kinzen as well,” she said. “You need journalists around the world to do the ‘who, what, where, why, how’ every day, and who are constantly verifying what’s real and what’s not.”
All this information is then fed into a “knowledge graph”, which Kerr said was “a little bit like Wikipedia for disinformation. So we’re using AI, but also editorial to map out relationships between bad actors, dangerous language and emerging threads”.
While Kinzen could have set up shop anywhere, Kerr said she and Little wanted to start up again in Ireland where they had previous success with Storyful and they had “muscle memory”.
She also cited the talent and expertise as well the support structure from organisations such as Enterprise Ireland. Kinzen has also been backed by Business Venture Partners, FST Growth and angel investors Ray Nolan and Derianto Kusuma.
Since 2021 began, Kinzen has been on a hiring spree, and this time it is doing things a little differently, Kerr said. Instead of the usual prescriptive job descriptions, the company is inviting the world to pitch it, and judging by the response the world is interested.
“We’ve been overwhelmed,” Kerr said, adding that they’ve had interest from Sydney to California and everywhere in between.
Everywhere, you could say, where disinformation exists and where there are those who want to root it out.