The big deal about fake news

What makes the current fake news phenomenon more frightening is that there is no specific force behind it, writes James Francis.

Read time 5min 00sec
James Francis.
James Francis.

May we live in interesting times.

That is not really an ancient Chinese saying, but from a British statesman less than a century ago. Still, it has a nice ring to it, so the myth sticks.

Is this also what happens with fake news? Do we happily adopt truisms because we like the way they sound? Then we reciprocate with a share. We rarely read the actual article. Back when magazines were the main source of information, many readers also didn't dig far into things, not unless they were really interested in the topic and liked what it said.

At least, that's what I have always thought. All I'm offering is anecdotal, and if I get enough of you to repeat it, it becomes apocryphal. If I'm wrong and I don't know it, I gave you misinformation. If I intentionally lied, I'm spreading disinformation. Suitably, it has a nice Russian origin, the menacing-sounding dezinformatsiya. At least, so says Wikipedia with three citations, which is a lot more than I'm going to do to back that claim up.

Fake news itself is not even new, as noted by numerous news sources, including here on ITWeb. The most obvious example is the yellow journalism from the late 19th century. But there was also the United Fruit Company claiming bogus wars and sterling employee relations to mollycoddled journalists it flew around. South Africa's Apartheid regime had its own impressive propaganda system that effectively bamboozled much of the world for quite a number of years. It even had an African American spokesman in the US.

But what makes the current phenomenon more frightening is that there is no specific force behind it. The liberation of publishing tools has brought down the walls of due process, and everyone can have a go at it. Opinion can now carry as much clout as fact, deserved or not. The only real question is if it's causing damage.

No, at least not as far as a Stanford University paper studying the recent US presidential elections has determined: "Our data suggest that social media were not the most important source of election news, and even the most widely circulated fake news stories were seen by only a small fraction of Americans."

Fake news' prevalence will eventually force us to start valuing information again, something we lost in the current glut of knowledge.

Locally, we have had a similar experience: an apparent covert social media smear campaign of the ruling party's opponents did not sway the election.

The real problem here is good old sensationalism. Media outlets led the charge on fake news, perhaps in a sense of vindication for their slow collapse into the 21st century. People needed something to blame, especially after the shocking US election result, and many turned their anger onto social media. But have we forgotten that the media itself was complicit in how voter attitudes were affected? Outlets such as CNN, MSNBC and their peers gorged in particular on Trump-related news. Today still those themes dominate news coverage, especially in the US. Yet they had the gall to blame technology for what happened.

This has stuck: demands that technology be used to police fake news keep being made. It's a reverberation of the calls for encryption backdoors that law agencies could use, demonstrating some staggering misconceptions of what technology is capable of.

This should be put to rest: machines cannot police humans. Facebook's automated system still struggles to discern pornographic nudity from a nipple on a painting. Microsoft's AI, Tay, was turned into a ranting racist bigot within a day by online people. Machines have no chance against the human powers of context, satire and emotion. We do not have the technology yet and we're nowhere close to unlocking it.

There could certainly be more ways to allow users to curate their content. But will that really work? We already curate by sharing and we happen to love curating nonsense. Facebook plans to introduce buttons that indicate a post as potentially fake, plus it hopes to build fact-checking partnerships with news organisations.

It will be interesting to see the effectiveness. Do we choose stories because we want the truth or because what they say appeals to us ? even in a negative way? Are we slaves to what is now famously known as cognitive dissonance, or can we invite fact over affirmation?

I'm a bit cynical, so I'm betting it's the latter for both questions. But here is a universal truth that has always counted: those with the best information are the ones who stand the best chance at winning. Fake news is unlikely to tear our societies apart. Its impact is being grossly exaggerated. But fake news' prevalence will eventually force us to start valuing information again, something we lost in the current glut of knowledge.

Fake news is not as worrying as everyone shouting at each other and inventing scapegoats to avoid our own complicity. The ones who come out on top are those who will listen carefully and choose their information smartly. For everything else, there's Wikipedia.

The Chinese have a better saying: rather to be a dog in peace than a human in anarchy. Right now, we have information anarchy and we think fake news is to blame. But it's us and it will always be us.

* James Francis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several local and international publications.

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