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The Curse Everybody Knows But No Body Wants To Tackle

As the digital revolution matures no one is left speechless. We share. We shout. We are connected. We are confused. Immense wealth and endless utility have defined the digital dividend along with a poverty of opportunity and understanding. These are still big days for fake news.

women and children firstMarking the 28th anniversary of the World Wide Web’s auspicious debut Tim Berners-Lee, credited with that first bit of code, called out fake news “spreading like wildfire” as a major threat to his invention, in an open letter (March 12). “Today, most people find news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines. These sites make more money when we click on the links they show us. And, they choose what to show us based on algorithms which learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting. The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or ‘fake news’, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases can spread like wildfire. And through the use of data science and armies of bots, those with bad intentions can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain.”

Two other trends have increased Sir Tim’s disquiet: data privacy and political advertising. “These are complex problems, and the solutions will not be simple,” he continued. “We must push back against misinformation by encouraging gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook to continue their efforts to combat the problem, while avoiding the creation of any central bodies to decide what is ‘true’ or not.”

“I may have invented the web,” he wrote in conclusion, “but all of you have helped to create what it is today.” The double entendre may or may not have been intentional. “May you live in interesting times,” said the oft-quoted Chinese curse. Alas, China scholars in the last century debunked the origin. Fake news.

Social media portal Facebook and web search provider Google are redundantly obvious beneficiaries of the Web, the digital dividend and the 21st Century’s technology eruption, not to forget investors with very deep pockets. As such they have become common objects of scorn from advocates for civility to striving competitors. Attempts to bring these Web giants to heel regularly fall on judgmental quandary, legal and otherwise.

After years of denying any role in the modern fake news phenomenon both Facebook and Google have turned tact, promising to blot out the bad stuff, usually with algorithms. The result has been underwhelming.

Facebook has turned to a strategy initiated by Google of bringing traditional publishers into the process of weeding out fake news. Several French news outlets - including Le Monde and AFP - are participating in a fact-checking exercise with an eye on the looming presidential elections, fake news and the rise of Trumptopia creating angst. In Germany Facebook is working with investigative non-profit Correctiv, German publishers abstaining until “fair sharing of revenues” is forthcoming said publisher Gruner+Jahr in a statement quoted by media portal (February 21).

"I consider it a fundamental mistake to help the social media,” said Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döphner, quoted by Handelsblatt (March 9). “This is not our task at all. And maybe it's not Facebook's job either.” Herr Döphner has long encouraged Facebook to keep out of that walled garden of publishing and stick with technology.

Facebook’s expertise at rooting out evil fell into deep question as part of UK public broadcaster BBC’s news investigation of child abuse. Reporters found dodgy material and contacted a Facebook executive who agreed to be interviewed “on condition the BBC provided examples,” reported the BBC (March 7). The BBC complied after which Facebook reported the BBC to the National Crime Agency for distributing “images of child exploitation.” Somebody here isn’t serious.

UK publishers support group News Media Association (NMA) also co-mingles the fake news problem with the revenue problem. “As with their US counterparts, UK news publishers are squeezed by the Facebook-Google duopoly and by new forms of digital advertising that very often bypass real news for fake,” said a NMA statement quoted by Press Gazette (March 9). “Fake news travels fast on social media, where algorithms connect users to news by second-guessing what the user might like, rather than assessing the quality of the source. As it thrives, it attracts advertisers hungry for audiences in the digital environment.”

In response to the BBCs interaction with Facebook, UK parliament committee on culture, media and sport Damien Collins suggested the tech giants need to “get their house in order,” quoted by the Guardian (March 8), and will face a formal inquiry this spring. “If we reach a tipping point where the level and virality of fake news is such it is crowding out (real) news it is a challenge to democracy.” MP Collins also called out US president Donald Trump for referring to “any news organization he dislikes” as fake news, “a particularly pernicious act.”

The challenge to democratic values and potential damage has been noted at the highest levels of civil society. “Fake news has emerged as a global topic of concern and there is a risk that efforts to counter it could lead to censorship, the suppression of critical thinking and other approaches contrary to human rights law,” said United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye, in a statement (March 3). “State actors should not make, sponsor, encourage or further disseminate statements which they know or reasonably should know to be false (disinformation) or which demonstrate a reckless disregard for verifiable information (propaganda).”

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