Ever since the US presidential elections last year, fake news has been hotly debated in Western media. At best these stories offer some creative interpretation of the truth – what some people will describe as “alternative facts”.
At worst they offer outrageous and discriminative claims, which can only be described as lies, manipulation and outright propaganda.
Especially Facebook and Google have become a nutritious feeding ground for the stories to exponentially grow. The tech-giants have only slowly entered the combat fought on their own turf, but the topic has gained so much traction that it has triggered a global crusade to eliminate the misleading information.
Fake news fits the Zeitgeist
Ironically, but most of all tragically, the battle against propaganda has indeed turned into propaganda itself. In a time where the majority of the world’s biggest powers are either populist, manipulative or oppressing, it hardly comes as any surprise though, no matter how dangerous and volatile it is.
As with anything, the American President has made his own major splash, boycotting several reputable media outlets from press conferences, accusing them of spreading fake news.
In one of his most recent tweeting rants, Mr. Trump “awarded” The New York Times with “The Fake News Trophy”.
This “contest” would not include Fox News, the real winners of the trophy according to Americans polled by Rasmussen, and would only focus on the coverage of himself.
If there wasn’t so much at stake, it would be the greatest comedy of our lifetime, but the problem is that the term “fake news” is simply being tossed around every time the President finds the news unpleasant, rather than commenting on the journalistic methods used to produce the content.
Although President Trump fancies the idea of himself as the inventor of fake news(whatever that even means) he is neither the first or the only one to play this game. Russia has started to earmark what they consider to be articles with incorrect information, basically allowing themselves to dispute anything contradicting the Kremlin global perspective.
And this has indeed become a worldwide phenomenon. Throughout the year we’ve seen Indonesia-based Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Islamic organization joining the battle, focusing on eliminating the spread of radical views and in Cameroun the entire internet was shut down for the English-speaking part of the population, allegedly due to the fear of fake news.
Without going into depth with the media’s own responsibility in keeping credibility, it is arguably a major democratic disruptor when the world’s most powerful people so indisputably can dodge any bullet coming towards them with the simple act of a fake news stamp.
Time for a critical mind
One reason why it has been so relatively easy for the fake news stories to flourish throughout Facebook and Google is that they are already selecting which news stories are presented to us, when we scroll down the news feed or make a search.
The deterministic algorithms carefully choose the content based on what we want to see, rather than what we need to see. Paired with the problematic process of no verification against primary and secondary sources before publishing, we begin to see the real issue.
This is in effect the forging of echo chambers, or filter bubbles, and it is difficult to imagine that fake news could ever thrive in an ecosystem free of those.
If we are already used to a very one-sided narrative, it doesn’t take much convincing to nudge us just a little further down the path we are already treading.
Therefore Facebook and Google are, in part, to be held accountable, but this is also more than ever a time for self-scrutiny.
The toxic thing about fake news is how easily and uncritically it is believed and, more importantly, shared. If we can’t expect for people to fact- and source check everything they read, we should at least expect for a little more healthy skepticism before we start sharing the fake stories, thus becoming part of the lies ourselves.
Win the war with AI
The increasing personalization in the online realm has only been possible through the extended development of AI and machine learning – some other buzzwords of the Zeitgeist – but although this can further fuel the fire of fear towards the rapidly evolving technology, we should instead look to these as the tools to fix our democracies before they become dictatorships.
AI should broaden our perspective, not narrow it down and directly shape our opinion and what we believe to be the truth. When we reach this level of personalization, echo chambers turn into propaganda, but used correctly and responsibly this technology should result in a new Age of Enlightenment and not another Cold War.
It wouldn’t be the first time we fixed a nuisance this way. Junk emails now end up in the junk folder due to this technology and if we point the binoculars beyond the issue of fake news, we have made incredible progress in health care, education, security, infrastructure and everything in-between due to this technology, which is still only at a very premature stage considering the potential.
Naturally we need to administrate it with great care, but we mustn’t stop our impressive evolution because we don’t trust our own abilities to handle it. The first step towards this will be to look through the bogus from POTUS, the pulp from Putin and before pressing that share-button, to just stop and think: “Is this too good to be true”?