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When Our News Has Become An Algorithm, How Can We Know What Is True?

17/11/2016 17:18
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It sounds like a posthuman dystopian nightmare - that the technology which we use on a daily basis is spreading misinformation as fact, lies as truth.

Whilst the reality might not be as dramatic as this, it is true that the Information Age seems to lack safeguards for accurate information in the world of big data, social networks and online news.

Jesse Holcomb of the Pew Research Centre in Washington DC has said that "the role of digital and social media in the news environment suggests it's playing a pretty significant role in the habits of America". Holcomb also stressed that 4 out of every 10 Americans get their news online. This probably rings true to the habits of most of us in the Western world. It is also likely that a significant portion of this news is becoming increasingly unreliable.

But, as Facebook and Google - two digital giants accused of allowing "fake news" to play a significant role in the 2016 US Election - now take aim at these fake news sites (AmericanNews, 70News and RealNewsRightNow to name a few), my question to them is: why bother?

There is a rather depressing irony to the stories and reports illustrating Facebook's move to tackle fake news, as several of the reports themselves have been denied by the social network. Tech blog Gizmodo, for instance, claimed that the website created an algorithm which would quash fake news, but that it disproportionately affected conservative news sites.

I wouldn't be surprised if this were true, as the example of 70News' infamous headline "Trump won both popular and electoral college vote" - which reached the top news link on Google for searches on the final election results - clearly indicated that the success of many fake news headlines seems to rely heavily on popular right-wing opinions.

But the problem is that we don't even know whether it is true or not that Facebook created such an algorithm to begin with. A similar problem arose from an apparently leaked memo claiming that the government has no plan for Brexit, the UK's decision to leave the EU, something which the UK government denies. We seem to have gone beyond the crisis of postmodernity; today's crisis is our struggle to grasp truth in a digital world which is now fueled by bias and misinformation. Is a rumour news? Is a denied rumour just basic PR?

A more pertinent problem than "fake news" is the way in which some online platforms have inadvertently created a culture of confirmation bias (the tendency to use news to validate your opinions about the world) and echo chambers (environments in which the same ideas and beliefs are amplified, closing off our perception of opposing views). Facebook especially - a social media network used by 1.79 billion users - is guilty of encouraging this culture of confirmation bias and echo chambers through the methods it uses to tailor each user's News Feed.

According Facebook's News Feed Values, at the core of its News Feed-tailoring algorithm is the notion that "friends and family come first". In addition to influencing the news you receive based on your clicking habits, something which is already utilised on many digital platforms, Facebook tailors the media you receive by prioritising the ideas and news your friends share, aligning them with the ideas you agree with, and the news media that supports your conclusions.

So is it any wonder that fake news entered the mix? There are currently no restrictions - and nor should there be - on what you can share on Facebook (within reason). Any such restriction would set a dangerous precedent for issues like free speech & censorship. But fake news is not the only issue here: the main problem, I think, is our susceptibility to fake news and widely-shared "clickbait" news.

The rise of sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy has shown us that a very effective formula can draw in a lot of traffic. Both of them gained notoriety years ago for regularly running headlines like "17 Facts You Won't Believe Are True" and "Here Is What Happens When... (Etc.)" They were making the best use of existing algorithms on social media to draw in traffic. And with more and more people sharing them, many people accepted the veracity of the ideas they expressed.

This form of headline paved the way for all sorts of problems, such as reliability, quality and sources. And now we have seen those problems magnified because of the adoption of their methods from fake news websites, such as American News' headline "Denzel Washington Backs Trump In The Most Epic Way Possible" which reached so much popularity, the BBC reported on it.

Misinformation seems to provide a basis for a lot of advertising on online news networks now as well, as media publications are pressured to allow questionable adverts and bogus promoted or sponsored stories in the sidebar to receive advertising revenue. One such "promoted story" runs the headline "You Won't Believe What These Child Stars Look Like Today," written in typical click bait fashion. And really, you probably shouldn't believe it.

If you want to discern between truth and falsehood in a digital sea of misinformation, I would strongly suggest that you fact-check with the website Snopes, which frequently busts myths and misinformation spread over the internet. No Facebook algorithm or Google Chrome add-on will truly solve this problem; it must come down to our human judgment to strive towards truth.

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