Zackie: an AI personal assistant for reporters

Zackie – an AI personal assistant for reporters (work in progress) / Algorithmic net-art installation (software, database, archival material)

Zackie: an AI personal assistant for reporters is an algorithmic installation. It simulates an Artificial Intelligence personal assistant for journalists and reporters. Similarly to other digital assistants, it helps its owner to perform specific tasks, facilitating her/his work. More concretely, it retrieves & analyzes all available data concerning a case and assists the journalist /reporter to write a report on the case.

However, Zackie does not have any particular intelligence. It randomly and uncritically combines information (according to a custom algorithm) from a database populated from the newsfeed of various news sites, official reports, testimonies and opinions on social media. Thus, the report is fake, often self-contradictory or even absurd. The work reflects on the circulation of fake news, the uncritical reproduction of such news and the construction of dominant narratives by authorities and mainstream media.

Digital assistants and chatbots are often given feminine names (such as Eliza, Alexa, Nina, Silvia or Denise) and display feminine attributes thus reinforcing traditional and normative notions of gender and femininity [1]. Following this trend, the AI assistant was named Zackie. This name was inspired in Zak Kostopoulos, an LGBTQ+ activist and artist performing as drag queen Zackie Oh.

Kostopoulos was murdered on 21st September 2018 in the center of Athens in public view. [2] The crime was followed by an unprecedented operation of covering up the murder and misinforming the public by spreading fake, contradictory, and ever-changing news reports through mainstream media channels, personal blogs, and social media.[3]

The event was initially broadcasted as an attempted robbery at a jewelry store by an armed, drug addicted man who injured himself fatally when he tried to escape. A video that came to light shortly after the event shows two men lynching the young man brutally when he attempts to leave the store. Further data question all the elements of the original narrative: The motivation of the man on entering the store, whether he was armed or not, the circumstances under which he was trapped, whether he was under the influence of drugs or not, the brutal attack and the identities of the attackers, the role of the police, the cause of his death, e.t.c. An international movement of support has risen (e.g., a campaign on the Amnesty International site or,  crowdfunding campaigns for the financial support of the judicial struggle [4]) and investigations on the case go on (e.g. the London based research agency Forensic Architecture calls for audiovisual evidence [5])

The murder of Zak Kostopoulos was used as a case study to ‘train’ the algorithm of Zackie AI personal assistant. Digital material on the case of Kostopoulos was selected by various sources (news sites, testimonies of eyewitnesses, official reports, newspapers, personal blogs and social media). A timeline of the main scenes of the incident was constructed. Further processing of the original material resulted in a number of different versions (this process resemble the Street Scene by Bertolt Brecht, where various eyewitnesses describe a street accident, while their social background influences the interpretation and narration of the events [6]). The available versions of each scene are annotated with metadata and stored in a database accessed by the AI assistant. Part of the content is selected and combined by Zackie, thus providing the reporter with an updated narrative of the events, whenever s/he asks for it. The same methodology will be used by the personal assistant to ‘solve’ future contradictory cases.

[1] Pedro Costa and Luísa Ribas (2018). ‘Conversations with Eliza: on Gender and Artificial Intelligence’, in the proceedings of the 6th Conference on Computation, Communication, Aesthetics & X Madrid, Spain

[2] https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/gay-activist-dies-athens-after-brutal-public-beating-n913056

[3] https://www.thepressproject.gr/article/134723/Distortions-and-cover-ups-in-the-Zak-Kostopoulos-case

[4] https://gogetfunding.com/justice-for-zak/

[5] https://www.zakcallforevidence.org/

[6] Bertolt Brecht (1950). ‘The Street Scene: A Basic Model for an Epic Theatre’, in J. Willet (Ed.), Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic (pp. 121–129). London: Methuen.

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