Let’s fix fake news and online disinformation. Here’s how to get started…

Confronted with the recent online manipulation catastrophe, savvy media commentators have started coming to a painful realisation: the problem is much more widespread and dangerous than originally anticipated. Far beyond a few incidents, we’re seeing a systemic credibility meltdown of online information sources, be it social, political or commercial. An avalanche of dicey propaganda is burying us alive, from planting of fake news, through orchestrated radicalisation of communities, to ideological division of nations, designed to overthrow democratic leaders. It seems like everyone’s at it, making the space grotesque and scary at the same time.

Clash of the machines

Governed by AI algorithms, the social media content reaching us is far from accidental. A war on our attention is on, aimed to maximise SM platform’s advertising revenue, and the algos are fighting it out. Unfazed by ethics, they have measured that our engagement is the highest in a state of emotional distress. Outraged, shocked or confused, we stay on the platforms, lose our cool, ingest more ads and spend more money on needless stuff, delivering on the algorithm’s objectives.

As a result, highly charged and polarising content is getting the most exposure, resulting in a deranged picture of the online world. This media technique is nothing new, and has existed well before the internet, yet given the scale and intensity of the online, things are getting seriously weird.

“Fires happen, colonel. Things burn.” or peddling of the dubious.

To get people properly worked up, we need good ingredients. Fake content has to look relevant, be somewhat plausible, but most importantly, already be causing some stir. If it got vetted by others, we’re more likely to get drawn in, as the clip below demonstrates.

However, there’s one major problem online that is largely absent in the real world. We simply cannot tell if a person or a group we’re about to join is for real, not to mention if it exists at all. Just imagine in the clip above 1/3 of the people were paid to join the first dancer, and the remaining 2/3 were holograms, indistinguishable from real life. Also, the dude wasn’t dancing, but inciting racial violence, and not at a music festival, but on Facebook in Myanmar - a true story in which a lot of people died. This is roughly where we are at right now.

We met on the internet… Sort of.

There is a different dynamic to our behaviour when we’re anonymous compared to when we’re known. Take road rage for example and then, imagine having a similar fit by your office elevator if coworker cut in front of you. Feels ridiculous, doesn’t it? Yet, in the anonymous safety of a car, people swear and rant, as if the 5 seconds of difference in traffic was a matter of life and death.

Unfortunately, online space seems to follow a similar dynamic. Those spreading selfish narratives, fake news, deception have it easy, as there’s little to loose on a personal level. Some do it to vent their frustrations, but more often than not, personal gains and lust for money and power are involved.

Yet, why are people so careless about their online reputation? What is different about it from our real, in the flesh one, usually treated more carefully?

As it turns out, absolutely everything. With the biggest difference being, there is no real representation of us online, which makes it impossible to keep track of anyone’s credibility. The closest we can come to a background check is a SM account, of which we can have many. Translated into real life, it’s like having multiple ID cards with made-up names. Just imagine how many smartphones could you swingle with a dozen fake IDs? Verizon or AT&T wouldn’t last a month in this scenario, yet, we strangely wish the SM space has stayed free of fraud and manipulation.

So where is it at?

You guessed it… Digital Identity. User-held online identity specifically, of which we are the sole custodians and curators. A one that isn’t provided by Facebook, Twitter or Google as a “login with…” screen. We’re talking about a user-held wallet for digital credentials, that lets us prove things about ourselves remotely and without a doubt. An identity we care about as much, as we do about our real one, and is actually ours to keep, not depending on third party providers. As tech goes, the solution ticking all these boxes goes under the name of Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI). Sovrin Foundation, Evernym, Uport and a few others are at the forefront of this technology, also supported by several big names such as IBM, NEC, Cisco, T-Mobile and others.

Technically, SSI is a set of verifiable credentials held only by us, and issued peer-to-peer by entities that interact with us. These could be banks, firms, universities, but also friends and people who have transacted with us online. At scale, our collection of credentials becomes an instrument for conveying trust, that is impossible to forge or fake.

Instantly, we are able to prove that a news article was written by a legitimate journalist fighting for human rights, and not an impostor trying to derail a government. Or request a proof of qualifications from a scientist behind a piece on environmental research, to see if he’s not some corporate pseudo-fact peddler without an actual uni past. The list goes on, as most of our meaningful relationships are trust-based, be it business, family or friends.

Of course, people will still get bribed and corrupted, and fake news will still be peddled, as it was before the dawn of the internet — identity is no magic bullet here. Yet when everybody is a faceless phantom online, manipulation, fake news and trolling are so easy to pull off, that they’re a near mathematical consequence of the current setup.

Without online identity, a catastrophic flaw persists that no amount of good will, regulation, fiery TED talks, or even Donald Trump himself can fix. Identity is the anchor for reputation, and without it, rampant disinformation is here to stay.

We need to raise awareness of this causality, as it is often overlooked, leaving people helpless and confused in the face of the mess we’re in. Some of us are working hard on solutions that deploy self-sovereign identity in user friendly products, remodelling the human communication away from the meltdown and fixing the design faults of today’s platforms. Yet more awareness is needed, as without it, online space will deteriorate into an even bloodier mess, posing a threat to our well-being in unpredictable ways. Full proliferation of self-sovereign identity will likely take years, but it might be the only decent shot we have at reversing the craze.

Social media ethics analyst, technology blogger and entrepreneur. CEO of Joynt.works — an online event platform with tools for permanent community engagement.

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