A Systemic Solution to Fake News? Nope.

A Systemic Solution to Fake News? Nope.

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During the Indian rebellion of the late 19th century, the British government needed to build popular support for crushing an uprising against the British East India Company. It used news reports of purported brutality to inflame anti-Indian sentiment:   

The British grossly exaggerated—and sometimes completely fabricated—tales of Indian men raping English women and girls. The stories were intended to illustrate the savagery of the Indian people and reinforce the notion of “the white man’s burden” to rule, induce order, and instil culture in less civilized peoples who could not be trusted to rule themselves.

In describing the revolt of various branches of the Indian army, The Guardian newspaper at the time referred to "overt acts of mutiny" among "these excitable and suspicious Orientals."

Around 450 B.C., the Greek general Themistocles engaged in a disinformation campaign to convince Persian King Xerxes that the Greek army wasn't up for a fight. Xerxes believed the fake news, underestimated Themistocles and lost the battle of Salamis.

Fake news has been with us as long as there have been politicians who lie, governments which are disingenuous, and human beings who use manipulation for personal gain . . . that is to say for all of human history. The problem has come into sharper relief this year because the U.S. has a president who lies on Twitter with unprecedented cheek, his political apparatus sells itself to Russian digital paratroopers, and his white supremacist and anti-semitic confederates use digital platforms to scam opinion with bountiful cunning (“Chaos is the name of the game” — Andrew Anglin, white supremacist).

The plague is ancient: Digital platforms are just today's  preferred means for the selective presentation of information, the proliferation of lies and photoshopped images and the boosting of outrageous headlines. 

Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube are taking salutary steps to try to wrestle fake news to the ground on their platforms. But  expert opinion bets that the “information environment will not improve” (51 percent) in the next 10 years, although some believe otherwise:

Three panelists at the GeekWire Summit Wednesday offered some hope that a combination of dogged fact checking, media literacy, and technological innovation could improve incentives to produce quality, trustworthy content . . . 

I'm not convinced there's a systemic solution, or at least not systemic in the sense of digital or media specific machine-enabled anti-fascist pit bosses, live fact checkers or human editorial watchdogs.  Better algorithms won't work. Neither will fake news buttons nor social platform—mainstream media surveillance partnerships. And forget those vapid Facebook cards urging us all to care more and be empathetic.

Exposing fake news when it appears has to happen with us, inside us. We—including journalists and editorialists—have to become more discerning, more schooled in critical reflection, more aware when our social platforms have grown into comfortable echo chambers for solecistic thinking. 

Literacy is the answer—tutoring in the unfashionable discipline of ontology, learning to research and understand context, becoming confident in questioning authority.  Italy may be getting part way there in partnership with Facebook and Google.  An ambitious new program will teach students in 8,000 Italian high schools how to differentiate conspiracies and fake news from truth and fact.

Still, all of us have to stop yearning for the simple reassuring answers that give easy consent to misinformation.  And our personal fake news radar will have to be upgraded to something more clear-sighted and astute.




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