Stopping fake news through technology
Complex problems typically require complex solutions. Trying to fight fake news by censoring its circulation ignores the reality that fake and sensational news have been around as long as newspapers, and furthermore, is an industry that makes millions and has a faithful audience. But in the world of traditional communication, despite the fact that there are dozens of sensationalist media dedicated to inventing conspiracies, fake news and absurd rumors of all kinds, their influence is very limited: people who read garbage, in general, know that they are doing so, and what’s more publications that peddle this kind of material are widely understand and identified as such.
We need to establish this same reality on the social networks: fake stories must be identified and labeled for what they are and their circulation restricted, but not censored, by algorithms. Furthermore, any economic incentive to circulate them can be quashed by excluding them from advertising mechanisms.
Not allowing a sensationalist tabloid such as the Daily Mail to be used as a reference source on Wikipedia makes sense, and the right-wing rag will certainly not be the last media outlet to receive such a distinction. That Wikipedia, for years accused by some as unreliable, has established itself as the best, most complete and most updated encyclopedia of all time and can now make decisions about what publications can or cannot be used in its references shows clearly that the internet and society are able to create more efficient mechanisms than those in the traditional world.
Technology will be essential in recreating these kinds of reference systems on the social networks: using teams of editors to label fake news and exclude it will not only be impossible, but potentially dangerous. A better idea would be to combine systems that examine the patterns of news dissemination with others that incorporate user labeling, along with databases that incorporate sources and news that are classified as unreliable. From there, the circulation of news tagged as fake can be limited by depriving access to automated recommendation algorithms, advertising systems and trending topics. Reading fake news because somebody has shared it with you will still be possible and part of our individual freedoms, but at least it will be properly characterized as what it is, in the same way traditional media was at a newsstand.
As said, tackling the problem of fake news will not be easy. Traditionally, a medium earns the reputation of sensationalist over time. On the internet, it is possible to set up a site in minutes that looks convincing and publish what anything we care to dream up or share. On the internet, developing fact-checking systems able to respond to these types of challenges will require the coordination of huge resources, and it will not be simple, but that does not mean that it should not be considered: it is the next big challenge facing the social networks and search engines.
It is not going to be simple: not even the Chinese government, with its humongous army of censors and its great wall, is able to keep out fake news. Collaborative exercises such as the one being developed in France that I wrote about few days ago can provide interesting frameworks and laboratories within which to try to isolate and evaluate such issues.
There is still much to do. But let’s at least, start focusing on the problem.
(En español, aquí)