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Fakeout

original-LOC-opper-newspaper.png"Fake news is not some unfortunate consequence," the writer and policy consultant Maria Farrell commented at the UK Internet Governance Forum last week. "It is the system working as it should in the attention economy."

The occasion was a panel featuring Simon Milner, Facebook's UK policy director; Carl Miller, from the Demos think tank, James Cook, Business Insider UK's technology editor; the MP and shadow minister for industrial strategy Chi Onwurah (Labour - Newcastle upon Tyne Central); and, as moderator, Nominet chair Mark Wood.

cropped-Official_portrait_of_Chi_Onwurah.jpgThey all agreed to disagree on the definition of "fake news". Cook largely saw it as a journalism problem: fact checkers and sub-editors are vanishing. Milner said Facebook has a four-pronged strategy: collaborate with others to find industry solutions, as in the Facebook Journalism Project; disrupt the economic flow - that is, target clickbait designed to take people *off* Facebook to sites full of ads (irony alert); take down fake accounts (30,000 before the French election); try to build new products that improve information diversity and educate users. Miller wants digital literacy added to the national curriculum: "We have to change the skills we teach people. Journalists used to make those decisions on our behalf, but they don't any more." Onwurah, a chartered electrical engineer who has worked for Ofcom, focused on consequences: she felt the technology giants could do more to combat the problem, and expressed intelligent concern about algorithmic "black boxes" that determine what we see.

Boil this down. Onwurah is talking technology and oversight. Milner also wants technology: solutions should be content-neutral but identify and eliminate bad behavior at the scale of 2 billion users, who don't want to read terms and conditions or be repeatedly asked for ratings. Miller - "It undermines our democracy" - wants governments to take greater responsibility: "it's a race between politics and technology". Cook wants better journalism, but, "It's terrifying, as someone in technology, to think of government seeing inside the Facebook algorithm." Because other governments will want their privilege, too; Apple is censoring its app store in order to continue selling iPhones in China.

Thumbnail image for MariaFarrellPortrait.jpgIt was Farrell's comment, though, that sparked the realization that fake news cannot be solved by thinking of it as a problem in only one of the fields of journalism, international relations, economic inequality, market forces, or technology. It is all those things and more, and we will not make any progress until we take an approach that combines all those disciplines.

Fake news is the democratization of institutional practices that have become structural over many decades. Much of today's fake news uses tactics originally developed by publishers to sell papers. Even journalists often fail to ask the right questions, sometimes because of editorial agendas, sometimes because the threat of lost access to top people inhibits what they ask.

Everyone needs the traditional journalist's mindset of asking, "What's the source?" and "What's their agenda?" before deciding on a story's truth. But there's no future in blaming the people who share these stories (with or without believing them) or calling them stupid. Today we're talking about absurdist junk designed to make people share it; tomorrow's equivalent may be crafted for greater credibility and hence be far more dangerous. Miller's concern for the future of democracy is right. It's not just that these stories are used to poison the information supply and sow division just before an election; the incessant stream of everyday crap causes people to disengage because they trust nothing.

In 1987 I founded The Skeptic in 1987 to counter what the late, great Simon Hoggart called paranormal beliefs' "background noise, interfering with the truth". Of course it matters that a lie on the internet can nearly cause a shoot-out at a pizza restaurant. But we can't solve it with technology, fact-checking, or government fiat at it. Today's generation is growing up in a world where everybody cheats and then lies about it: sports stars.

What we're really talking about here is where to draw the line between acceptable fakery ("spin") and unacceptable fakery. Astrology columns get a pass. Apparently so do professional PR people, as in the 1995 book Toxic Sludge Is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry, by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton (made into a TV documentary in 2002). In mainstream discussions we don't hear that Big Tobacco's decades-long denial about its own research or Exxon Mobil's approach to climate change undermine democracy. If these are acceptable, it seems harder to condemn the Macedonian teen seeking ad revenue.

This is the same imbalance as prosecuting lone, young, often neuro-atypical computer hackers while the really pressing issues are attacks by criminals and organized gangs.

That analogy is the point: fake news and cybersecurity are sibling problems. Both are tennis, not figure skating; that is, at all times there is an adversary actively trying to frustrate you. "Fixing the users" through training is only one piece of either puzzle.

Treating cybersecurity as a purely technical problem failed. Today's crosses many fields: computer science, philosophy, psychology, law, international relations, economics. So does the VOX-Pol project to study online extremism. This is what we need for fake news.


Illustrations: "The fin de siecle newspaper proprietor", by Frederick Burr Opper, 1894 (from the Library of Congress via Wikipedia); Chi Onwurah; Maria Farrell.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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