From Brexit, to the US elections, to the coronavirus pandemic, it seems fake news has been a feature of every major news story in recent years, and its influence is only set to grow. Gartner predicts that by 2022, over half the news we are consuming will be fake, and with improvements in AI and deep fake technology, it may become even harder to spot them. So, can anything be done to reverse the trend and address the threat posed by fake news?
Disinformation, Fake News, and Alternative Facts
Fake news may be ubiquitous nowadays, but it’s nothing new. Disinformation campaigns were used effectively as propaganda in both World War I and World War II and, by the time of the Cold War, Russia and the US had become adept at using this powerful tool which had the potential to destabilize countries and affect world events. One early example of a fake news story that circulated in the 1980s posited that the CIA had created the AIDS virus in a lab. Although this was long before social media and the like, you could say that the story went ‘viral’ to the extent that it is still believed by some to be true. The story was in fact hatched by the KGB as part of their Cold War strategy.
The Russians were already well-versed in the practice of media manipulation and disinformation since the days of Stalin, and after the break-up of the Soviet Bloc, as they saw their political and military power begin to wane, it was to become an ever more powerful tool in their arsenal.
Fast forward to present day and we have Russian troll farms using bots and fake accounts to stir up and create divisions by starting arguments or spreading conspiracy theories. Social media tools provide a platform to infiltrate and attack international enemies without investing a penny in military weapons. And it is not just foreign actors who benefit, many companies have seen the potential for profit and jumped on the bandwagon. The media industry has been in decline for years, finding itself in competition with social media and looking for different ways to get people to consume news. The easy wins provided by fake news clickbait have been too hard to resist for many and consumers are now faced with a media environment where they are bombarded with ever more sensational headlines fighting for their attention.
So, while foreign interference in elections and other world events is nothing new, the covert nature of fake news stories has created a situation where we don’t even know we are being manipulated. What is true and what is false increasingly depends on which side of the political spectrum you fall on. As Kellyanne Conway explained in a now-infamous interview concerning Donald Trump’s untrue claims about his inauguration, it’s a question of “alternative facts”.
Who Can We Trust?
Trust forms the basis of communication and the explosion of fake news has called into question our ability to communicate effectively with those we disagree with. If each side believes the other a victim of “fake news”, there is no debate to be had. This denigration of trust is a threat to the social fabric holding us together.
Fake news does not only spread false narrative and conspiracy theories, also key to its success is the destruction of professional journalism. Ever since Donald Trump first coined the phrase “FAKE NEWS”, it has become a catchphrase used by both sides to rebuff opinions that we don’t agree with, but specifically to question the credibility of serious news organizations, or mainstream media. Serious news organizations who are held by journalistic principles and rigorous investigative procedures are thrown into the same bucket as clickbait sites and conspiracy theorists. What is real and what is fake becomes intermingled and indistinguishable. Even those who try to stay informed become overwhelmed with story after story - some true, some false.
So, it is a dire situation we find ourselves in, and it is only set to get worse. AI is already being used to create false news stories and divisive chatbots on Twitter, but has the potential to do much more harm as deep fake technology improves. If we are questioning everything we read, imagine a world in which we cannot believe our own eyes. The veracity of visual content is already being called into question as clips are taken out of context or elements of them are photoshopped. One speech by Donald Trump following his spell with coronavirus was widely questioned on Twitter after some users noticed some strange movement in the background trees. Whether the video was faked or not seems secondary to the fact that this highlights our current insecurity around the news in general. If we know technology is capable of faking video content, we start to question the powerful arguments of visual content. In the midst of such insecurity, those claiming to possess the “one truth” become attractive. Single-stream conspiracy theory groups like QAnon, which knit everything into one simple good vs evil narrative, have seen their influence spread internationally.
An Information Pandemic
To try to address this proliferation of fake news, both mainstream media organizations and social media platforms have developed some tools and strategies. But is it too little too late?
News fact checkers are beginning to take centre stage during news reports to verify or deny stories and external fact checking organizations are on the rise globally. Even news anchors are getting involved, including “fake news” warnings, or even cutting away from false claims. But many argue that such moves come much too late; by normalizing these kinds of stories and legitimizing them through their inclusion, the same media organizations must take some of the blame for creating the current scenario.
For their part, Facebook have begun flagging disputed claims and adding links to verified information in an attempt to help users check sources. In the same way, Twitter now includes a warning and has disabled the share function in an attempt to tackle the spread of fake news. However, these efforts have done little to create any kind of meaningful change. In the same way that governments have tried to impose measures to tackle the coronavirus only after months of allowing it to spread unchecked amongst the population, the fake news virus is likely to continue to wreak its destruction in spite of these moves.
In any case, perhaps it is unrealistic to expect tech companies to be at the forefront of the fight, considering that they directly benefit from the engagement that fake news provokes. Although Mark Zuckerberg earnestly claims that Facebook are dedicated to fighting fake news on its site, citing the launch of a recent project to detect deep fakes using the latest AI technology, critics argue that such efforts are merely performative. Especially when you consider that all this comes at a time when Facebook has been seeing its numbers decline - particularly amongst young people - it would be naive to assume that we could rely on the tech giant to effectively deal with an issue that is so much in opposition to its own interests.
So, if we cannot wash our hands of fake news, nor protect ourselves from it entering our consciousness, we need to find an effective vaccine and protect the most vulnerable while we await it.
Blockchain as an Antidote
While we continue to look for more permanent and robust solutions to the fake news problem, many are looking to the decentralised web as a potential source of hope.
This system of storing information in ledgers, using immutable and untraceable blockchain technology usually employed for financial transactions, could provide a useful way of checking the veracity of news content.
News content would be uploaded to the blockchain by a verified journalist or news agency, who then passes it on to publishers or editors for publication. The publishers can easily check the source of the information on the blockchain and decide if they want to publish it. Before they edit or modify the content, users would also have to be registered on the platform - blockchain technology would create automatic smart contracts that would check users' credentials using an API connected to a journalistic database.
The key here is that each modification is saved in the blockchain, making it easy to check its origin. As an extra layer of verification, a community of crowd auditors could be tasked with judging the authenticity of content by tracing its origin. Each piece of news would feature a QR code which would eventually lead back to the original source. Evidently, fake news could easily mimic such technology, but having crowd auditors checking content consistently would ensure that fake news would be identified and flagged pretty quickly.
Employing blockchain is seen by many as the antidote to the proliferation of fake news.The R&D wing of The New York Times has already been looking into this technology as part of its News Provenance project. They see blockchain as a potential solution because of its traceable technology;
‘files are not so much changed as built upon. Any updates to what is published are recorded in a sequential string (or “blocks” in a “chain”) with the string of those changes adding up to create a provenance.’
In particular, they cite how the technology can be used to verify visual content. As part of this verification process, they are considering metadata, watermarking, and other information about the photo’s digital history.
This is by no means the only project looking to blockchain to solve the fake news problem. The Geppetto tool, developed by Digital Ventures company Pollen uses blockchain and machine learning to detect fake news stories. Its machine learning algorithms first check coherence between headline and article content in order to weed out clickbait and classifies fake news into three categories: Fake title with valid content, Valid title with fake content, Totally fabricated news. NLP can be used to scan the article for “emotive” language; articles with more feelings and opinions rather than facts are given a lower score, then further machine learning is put into place to verify whatever facts there are. The final step is “human” fact-checkers. With articles stored on the blockchain, users are crowdsourced - incentivized by tokens - to verify the validity of the Geppetto score. All in all, it’s a pretty robust approach which many hope will bring significant change to the media landscape.
A Technological Solution to a Human Problem
Despite its promise, some fear that using technology to address the disinformation issue may bring its own set of problems. If we allow an algorithm to decide what’s true and what isn’t, is there a risk that we are putting too much power into the hands of technology? Google are well-aware of the risks involved in allowing an algorithm free reign; with theirs frequently landing them in hot water due to sexist or racist search results. The realm of elite sport is another venue where the idea that technology could “fix” a human problem was quickly disproved. There were hopes that the introduction of VAR (video assisted referees) into the English Premier League and other football competitions around the world would create a fairer playing field by reducing the number of controversial decisions. In fact, the technology has only served to intensify the controversy, including complaints that the game has changed for the worse. Humans are capable of detecting nuance which an algorithm cannot and we are often too quick to apply new technology everywhere, assuming it will act like a human without the capacity for human error. The system may also be susceptible to human bias from those performing the validation on the blockchain. Systems like these which are reputation-based need robust protections against such biases and also against those who may be acting with malicious intent (a very real problem when you consider how mainstream platforms have been used in this way), otherwise the system becomes corrupt and we once again lose faith in all content.
Then there is the algorithm itself; technology programmed by a human is certainly capable of filtering out news it doesn’t want us to see, narrowing the focus too far in the direction of specific perspectives, curtailing free speech, and limiting expression. This perceived threat to the sanctity of free speech has been the principal argument used against any kind of measures to combat fake news, mostly by those on the right of the political spectrum. As their accounts have been blocked or their posts censored by Twitter and Facebook, many of them have migrated to Parler, an alternative social media platform which claims to support free speech. The platform saw its users skyrocket in the weeks following the US general election as high profile Republicans and other right-wing media celebrities set up accounts there. Even if we don’t like some of the opinions expressed in certain online content, there is an argument for having these voices where we can hear them. If harmful content is pushed off mainstream platforms, it may become more difficult to identify the most problematic sources. A study from ITU in Lahore identified the issue as follows,
‘The best way to perform content moderation of objectionable material, which has traditionally relied on a centralized authority, is less clear in a decentralized network such as the blockchain.’
A further issue with the blockchain system is that it assumes the original content uploaded to the system is not fake to begin with. While the blockchain is useful in determining whether content has been manipulated after it has been uploaded, there is nothing to stop users from uploading fake content to the blockchain. Perhaps the AI technology used in schemes such as the Provenance project could address these issues but, what is clear, is that blockchain would only be the first step in a much longer process needed to realistically tackle what is a much more complex issue.
Secure, Immutable and Reliable….for the Masses
Fake news is more than a glitch in the system that can be fixed with an out-of-the-box solution. It is an international industry encompassing a wide-ranging number of high-level interests, from government to Big Tech to global media, all of whom stand to profit in some way from the uncertainty and discord sown by the proliferation of fake news. In addition, some of the shifts we have seen towards a more divided and partisan society make it difficult to see how such significant change can ever be reversed. Certainly, there is no magic bullet, but blockchain and other decentralized technology may represent another way which, as it becomes accepted more widely, can address many of the fears that abound today. The key lies in understanding and acceptance. People need something they can believe and trust in again and blockchain, with its catchy slogan ‘immutable, secure and reliable’, simply needs to catch the imagination of the people in order to forge a safer, more harmonious way forward.
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