My Take on the Fake News Controversy

I attended the Daily News Innovation Lab’s session: Proposition: We can Solve the Fake News Problem. It featured an Oxford-style debate on whether there’s a solution to the fake news problem.

Some very smart people from the worlds of media, business, and technology made great arguments for each side. It was entertaining and informative. I’m pleased to say that the optimists won, according to the audience vote at the end.

Why would anyone think we can’t fix the fake news problem? In brief, it is hard to define, pervasive, systemic, and there will always be bad actors trying to game the system. Think of it like hacking, or information warfare. Plus, Google and Facebook make money on fake news, and some say they’re just giving users what they want.

Arguing for the optimists, Jane Elizabeth of American Press Institute said that these systems were created by the people, for the people, and people will solve the problem. Dean Pomerleau of The Fake News Challenge likened it to the Spam epidemic of the early 2000s, which most would agree has been contained, if not completely solved.

I unsuccessfully tried to get a question in at the end about the faulty premise of the debate. How can you even ponder a cure until you’ve more clearly defined the problem? As I pointed out in my last post, there are many varieties of fake news (propaganda, misinformation, counterfeit news sites, and yes, lies, damned lies). And it is almost impossible to define the concept of “news” itself, or “truth.”

Looking beyond this one debate, fake news has inflamed passions, as it may have tilted the US presidential election and encouraged a nut to shoot up a pizzeria. Any discussion about solutions inevitably gets into tricky areas like censorship, free speech, the roles of media and the government, and the responsibility of business.

I don’t think it will be as easy as fighting spam (this CIO article implies that AI has met its match here). But I do think there are fixes, assuming we can agree on a definition, and what might qualify as solving this.

I attempt to do so below, and also share my thoughts on the most contentious issues.

Defining the Problem

We’ll never get rid of misinformation, wacky theories, bias, rumors or propaganda. I propose defining fake news as lies or false information packaged as news. Let’s include counterfeit news sites and any gaming of algorithms and news feeds to propagate false information.

The Social Network’s Role

Some place the problem at the doorstep of social networks and online news aggregators, such as Facebook and Google respectively. Others say that it is not the platform’s jobs to be truth-tellers. Should they hire fact checkers? Who then checks the fact checkers?

Many say that Facebook and Google have no incentive to clean up the mess, as their business models are based on clicks and sharing regardless of veracity. I completely disagree. If they don’t, their brands and reputations (and hence businesses) will take a beating. No one wants to spend time in places where there is lots of junk.

They can and should take measures to combat fake news. I mean, they’re already policing their sites for bullying, obscenity, grisly pictures and other clearly unacceptable things.

It could involve a combination of crowd correction, e.g. a way for users to flag fake news items, and technology akin to spam detection. For all the grousing that it is too hard a problem to solve, check out these articles:

Who Should Judge Truth?

Some argue for greater regulation and transparency. Since algorithms play a growing role in determining what news we see on the networks, shouldn’t we all better understand how they work? Why not make their inner workings public, like open source software?

Others say that doing this would make it easier for bad actors to understand and manipulate the programs.

Can’t the government come up with laws to make sure that news feeds are unbiased and don’t spread false information? Or, perhaps there should be some watchdog group or fact checking organization to keep the networks “honest.”

Again, I think it is incumbent on the tech companies to clean up the mess. But this should not go so far as making them hand over their algorithms. It’s their intellectual property. And I am leery of government oversight or any third party organization that polices truth telling by decree.

I am in favor of setting up a group that proposes standards in fake news detection and eradication. This industry body could factor in interests of all parties – the social networks, government, users, and media to issue guidelines and also audit the networks (on a voluntary basis – think the MPAA movie ratings, the Parental Advisory Label for recorded music, or Comics Code Authority).

If Facebook, Google, Reddit, Apple News and others want to earn the seal of approval, they’d need to open up their systems and algorithms to inspection to show they are not aiding the propagation of fake news.

 

 

 



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Internet Society Drills Down on Fake News


I attended the Internet Society’s “Content Rules?!” session the other week.   The panel drilled down on what we now call The Fake News problem (I couch it like this because, as you’ll see it’s not a new one), defining it and exploring causes and solutions.

There’s been a lot already written about fake news. It’s turned into a real meme and hot button, but there’s been lots of noise and confusion. That’s not surprising because it is a complex topic, one that only recently hit our radars in the wake of the election.

Giving it a name gave it legs, a thing to blame (in some cases just because someone doesn’t like an article), and evoked lots of teeth gnashing. The session gave me the opportunity to hear from some very smart people from different sides, better understand the issues and crystallize my thoughts about how we might address the problem.

Not a New Problem

Journalist and American University Professor Chuck Lewis started by explaining that fake news has been around for years in various forms, e.g. government disinformation and propaganda. Toni Muzi Falcone’s DigiDig wrap (in Italian) also discussed this.

“The irony of us feeling victimized by fake news is pretty thick,” he said. “We’ve gone from truth to truthiness to a post-truth society, and now it’s fake news,” said Chuck, “but it’s been going on for centuries.”

He blamed the number of people “spinning information” vs. reporting it, and the ratio of PR people to journalists (which has grown to 5:1), and said it is a crisis for journalism. The big questions are, who decides what is true, and how do you set standards for 200+ countries? We’ve traditionally relied on the press to be content mediation experts.

“We are at a critical, disturbing crossroad,” Lewis said, as “No one wants the government to be the mediators.”

A Systemic Problem

Compounding the problem are the changing ways we get info, and the growing influence of social networks. Gilad Lotan, head of data science at Buzzfeed, discussed this.

He’s studied political polarization in Israel. Gilad showed some fancy social graphs that tracked the spreading of stories in the wake of IDF’s bombing of a Palestinian school. Two different story lines emerged. Neither was “fake” Gilad explained; “They just chose to leave certain pieces of info out in order to drive home points of a narrative.”

Gilad further discussed how your network position defines the stories you see; this leads to polarization and homophily (a fancy way of saying echo chamber). He also explained the role of algorithmic ranking systems. “You’re much more likely to see content which aligns with your viewpoints,” he said. This spawns “personalized propaganda spaces.”

It gives bad actors a way to game the system. Gilad illustrated this via what had been the elephant in the room – the 2016 US presidential election. He shared images that showed phantom groups manipulating the spread of information.

“The awareness of how algorithms work gave them a huge advantage. To this day, if you search for ‘Hillary’s Health’ on YouTube or Google, you see conspiracy theories at the top.”

Moderator Aram Sinnreich, associate professor at American University added: “My impression as a media scholar and critic… is that there’s been a lot of finger-pointing… everyone feels that there’s been a hollowing out of the Democratic process… undermining of the traditional role that the media has played as the gatekeeper of the shared narrative and shared truths; people want to hold the platforms accountable.”

Flavors of Fake News

Andrew Bridges, a lawyer who represents tech platforms, said that it is important to define the problem before considering solutions. The knee-jerk reaction has been to try to turn social networks into enforcement agencies, but that would be a mistake, according to Bridges. That’s because there are seven things calling fake news that could have different solutions (I list them with the examples he cited):

  1. Research and reporting with a pretense of being objective (e.g., major newspapers)
  2. Research and reporting in service of a cause (National Review, Nation, New Republic)
  3. Pretend journalism – claim to be a news source but is a curator (Daily Kos)
  4. Lies – the ones that Politifact and others give Pinocchio noses or “pants on fire” awards
  5. Propaganda – the systematic pattern of lying for political gain
  6. Make-believe news, like Macedonian sites.  They make up news from whole cloth.
  7. Counterfeit sites – they make you think you are at ABC News.com, for example

Then, he dramatically challenged the panel and audience to label certain big ticket topics as fake news or not: Evolution, global warming, the importance of low-fat diets, the importance of low carb diets.

Bridges said that there’s not necessarily a quick fix or tech solution to the problem. “These things have been out there in society, in front of our eyes for years.”  He likened the problem to gerrymandering, gated communities and questions about Hillary’s health.

Some have proposed algorithmic transparency (not surprisingly, Bridges thinks it is an awful idea; “Opening them up just makes it easier to game the system”).

What could work, according to the lawyer? “I think we should look to algorithmic opacity, and brand values of the organizations applying the algorithm.” What about content moderation? He said “Do we turn it over to a third party, like a Politifact? Who moderates the moderator? We know what moderation is – it’s censorship.”

In Bridges view, education is important. We should teach the importance of research and fact checking, and keep each other honest: “Friends don’t let friends spread fake news.”

Other Challenges

Jessa Lingel, Ph.D. and assistant professor at Annenberg School of Communications, seemed to be the youngest on the panel and spoke up for millennials:

“You can’t promise a generation of Internet-loving people a sense of control and agency over content and not expect this breakdown in trust.” She talked about the growth of citizen-driven journalism and the shift from content generation to interpretation. Jessa bemoaned the digital natives’ loss of innocence:

“We were promised a Democratic web and got a populist one; a web that that connects us to different people, instead we got silos. Geography wasn’t supposed to matter… anyone with an Internet connection is the same… instead, geography matters a lot.”

Jessa siad that algorithmic transparency is important but said that it is not enough. “Opacity? I do want to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. We need more than that tiny little button that explains ‘why did I get this ad?’”

Up Next: More on Solutions

As you have hopefully seen from my post, there are many opinions on the situation, and it’s a complex topic.

What do you think? In my next post, I’ll share my thoughts on fake news problems and solutions.



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In Defense of “Fake News”

More people are wondering about the weird crap that mysteriously appears in their news

Is News Today too Much Like the Magic 8 Ball?

Is News Today too Much Like the Magic 8 Ball?

feeds. How much is fake news? Did disinformation tilt an election? What are Google and Facebook going to do to clean up the mess?

You could almost hear the entire PR industry shifting uncomfortably amidst the backlash. I mean, crafting news (that some might call fake, or at least a stretch) is our stock in trade. We package propaganda as newsworthy information and sell it to the media; and, increasingly publish directly to the Web and social networks.

I understand that the fuss is more about blatant lies, not the average press release. But it highlights the challenges of determining what is newsworthy and true; a role that is increasingly being taken on by algorithms.

The Web and social media gave us all ways to easily share and spread information. This can include rumor, conjecture, commercial information, news, and yes, slander and outright lies.

I would never defend the last two; but will fight for our right to issue press releases, and traffic in other kinds of info. Any good system needs to be able to deal with all of this, i.e. anticipate some BS and surface the most credible and significant information, whether via the wisdom of the crowds, programs or a combination.

It is naïve to think that a publication, editors, or algorithms (which of course are written by humans) can present news without bias. The journalistic piece you just wrote might be pristine, free of opinion; but the very act of deciding which stories to feature shows partiality.

That said, the social networking platforms where more of us are getting news can do a much better job of separating the wheat from the chaff. I thought I’d share some of the great stories I’ve seen about the controversy and takeaways from each.

TechCrunch – How Facebook can Escape the Echo Chamber

Anna Escher says “Facebook is hiding behind its [position that] ‘we’re a tech company, not a media company’ … For such an influential platform that preaches social responsibility and prioritizes user experience, it’s irresponsible …”

She recommends that they bring journalists into the process, remove the influence of engagement on news selection during elections, and expand Trending Topics to show a greater diversity of political stories – not just the ones that are the most popular.

Tim O’Reilly – Media in the Age of Algorithms

Tim’s exhaustive Medium piece looks at all sides. He rails against “operating from an out-of-date map of the world [in which] algorithms are overseen by humans who intervene in specific cases to compensate for their mistakes,“ and says:

“Google has long demonstrated that you can help guide people to better results without preventing anyone’s free speech… They do this without actually making judgments about the actual content of the page. The ‘truth signal’ is in the metadata, not the data.”

Tim makes an analogy between news algorithms and airplanes “Designing an effective algorithm for search or the newsfeed has more in common with designing an airplane so it flies… than with deciding where that airplane flies.”

He cited an example from the history of aircraft design. While it’s impossible to build a plane that doesn’t suffer from cracks and fatigue… “the right approach … kept them from propagating so far that they led to catastrophic failure. That is also Facebook’s challenge.”

Nieman Lab – It’s Time to Reimagine the Role of a Public Editor

Mike Ananny writes about the public editor’s role, and the challenges they face in the increasingly tech-driven environment. He writes:

“Today, it is harder to say where newsrooms stop and audiences begin. Public editors still need to look after the public interest, hold powerful forces accountable, and explain to audiences how and why journalism works as it does — but to do so they need to speak and shape a new language of news platform ethics.”

He asks “Will the public editor have access to Facebook’s software engineers and News Feed algorithms, as she does to Times journalists and editorial decisions?” and says:

“… public editors must speak a new language of platform ethics that is part professional journalism, part technology design, all public values. This means a public editor who can hold accountable a new mix of online journalists, social media companies, algorithm engineers, and fragmented audiences — who can explain to readers what this mix is and why it matters.”



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Google and Facebook Updates

The Wall Street Journal wrote last week about Google’s plans to give marketers and publishers a way tonews-97862_1280 post stories to search results.  It is not the same as AMP (accelerated mobile pages) – in this case, Google will actually host content.  AMP caches content for faster page loading.  As the article said:

“Google has built a Web-based interface through which posts can be formatted and uploaded directly to its systems. The posts can be up to 14,400 characters in length and can include links and up to 10 images or videos. The pages also include options to share them via Twitter, Facebook or email. Each post is hosted by Google… and appears in a carousel in results pages for searches related to their authors for up to a week… After seven days, the posts remain live but won’t be surfaced in search results. Rather, they can be accessed via a link.”

They are now testing the feature with a small number of partners – the article mentions some of the first to jump in, and links to a page where you can join a wait list.  It did not say if there will be a fee.

In other news, Facebook reported a change to their News feed algorithm  MediaPost reported that it now takes into account the time a user spends on an article: “Facebook is once again fiddling with its News Feed algorithm — this time to give more play to posts that users spend more time viewing.”



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