It’s everywhere and it’s getting worse. What is it? Pollution? Of sorts. Crime? Definitely. The public internet and world wide web as we know it allows for a free and mostly unhindered flow of information. There’s the problem. The information can be for mankind’s benefit. And it can be used against mankind by mankind. What is it?
We see the source everywhere and thanks to the growth and spread of information across the interwebs, many people cannot tell the difference between legitimate news and fake news.
Fake news is a type of hoax or deliberate spread of misinformation, be it via the traditional news media or via social media, with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically. It often employs eye-catching headlines or entirely fabricated news-stories in order to increase readership and, in the case of internet-based stories, online sharing. In the latter case, profit is made in a similar fashion to clickbait and relies on ad-revenue generated regardless of the veracity of the published stories.
That definition is a bit wordy but explains the method but not the problem.
Fake news is a neologism used to refer to non-satirical news stories, which have originated online (on social media or fake news websites) or in the traditional news media, have no basis in fact, but are presented as and believed to be factually accurate. The intention and purpose behind fake news is important. What appears to be fake news may in fact be news satire, which uses exaggeration and introduces non-factual elements, and is intended to amuse or make a point, rather than to deceive. Fake news may actually be convincing fiction, such as the radio dramatisation of H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds, broadcast in 1938; or it may be one of the variety of possible hoaxes. Propaganda can also be fake news.
Wikipedia has a list of fake news websites, many of which are designed to appear much like the websites they copy. Among a longer list:
And, the very popular InfoWars and a site which may have influenced President Trump:
Managed by Alex Jones. Has previously claimed that millions of people have voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election, that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax, and that the Democratic Party was hosting a child sex slave ring out of a pizza restaurant.
Who says fake news is bad? None other than the godfather of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
Today marks 28 years since I submitted my original proposal for the world wide web. I imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries. In many ways, the web has lived up to this vision, though it has been a recurring battle to keep it open. But over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly worried about three new trends, which I believe we must tackle in order for the web to fulfill its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity.
Berners-Lee then goes on to detail the trends.
- We’ve lost control of our personal data – The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data. Many of us agree to this – albeit often by accepting long and confusing terms and conditions documents – but fundamentally we do not mind some information being collected in exchange for free services. But, we’re missing a trick. As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it.
- It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web – 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.
- Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding – Political advertising online has rapidly become a sophisticated industry. The fact that most people get their information from just a few platforms and the increasing sophistication of algorithms drawing upon rich pools of personal data, means that political campaigns are now building individual adverts targeted directly at users. One source suggests that in the 2016 US election, as many as 50,000 variations of adverts were being served every single day on Facebook, a near-impossible situation to monitor.
See the problem? It’s complicated.
Fake news is a scourge that must be controlled or eliminated. But how? Education? Government monitoring? And who monitors the monitors? The internet’s users should be the ones to benefit most from the free flow of information and yet they’re the very ones hurt but that flow.
I don’t know how what is so broken can be fixed.