Jul 31 2018

The Weaponizing of Fake News

I encounter a range of opinions regarding the current state of politics and misinformation. At one extreme are those who argue for what I think is a false equivalence – politicians have always lied, the news has always been fake, there is nothing to see here. At the other end are those who argue that social media has changed everything.

I think reality is somewhere in the middle. Lying politicians and biased journalism have existed as long as there have been politicians and journalism. But social media has fundamentally changed the dynamic, and we have yet to adapt to the new world we have created.

This appears to primarily be a problem in societies that are based on open democracy. Ironically our freedoms have been weaponized against us. Russia interfering with the 2016 election is only the most obvious example, and is perhaps not the worst or most pernicious.

The Role of Social Media

While social media is a fantastic tool for communication and accessing information, it has some vulnerabilities. Traditional media had to build a brick-and-mortar infrastructure in order to have societal penetration, and that infrastructure was often built over years. This model favored, at least to an extent, quality control. If a news outlet was persistently wrong, or “tabloid” in its style, it was relegated to the supermarket checkout lane.

Social media has discarded any quality control that resulted from the old order. Now a huge infrastructure is not needed to spread information. You need almost no infrastructure – a computer and an internet connection is all you need. You can use existing social media platforms to spread misinformation with only an investment in time. Further, social media tends to scrub the source of information – you see a news item pop up in your feed (on whatever platform you are using) and you don’t necessarily know where it is from.

Overall this has a leveling effect – a news article from RT (Russian Today) will look the same as one from the New York Times. On numerous occasions I have had people forward a blatant propaganda piece from RT in order to make some point – and they were completely oblivious to the fact that they were spreading Russian propaganda.

In addition, for a small investment, it is possible to launch a dedicated campaign to shift public opinion.

This is not just about election interference from foreign powers. Such campaigns can also be waged by industry to promote not only its products and services, but to steer public opinion away from scientific conclusions it finds inconvenient. The fossil fuel industry can raise doubt about climate change while the organic industry stokes fears about GMOs.

Social media also facilitated the rise of companies and even industries based on misinformation. There is a cottage industry selling fake medicine and false cures of every kind. Again – this has always been the case, but now it is happening on a far more massive scale.

Further still the information itself is both the product and the means of selling other products. Natural News, an infamous fake medicine empire, sells conspiracy theories and misinformation about health care. Meanwhile, it sells supplements and dubious products in the margin.

Alex Jones is perhaps the most vile example of this model. He sells insane conspiracy theories that some people actually believe. Meanwhile, his crazy stories are often tied to a product that he then sells which promises a solution to the made up problem he just screamed into his microphone.

At the more benign end of the spectrum information is the only product. Sensational news items, even entirely fake news items, are used to drive traffic to web pages that make money by advertising other sensational news items, which generate clicks and revenue by advertising other sensational news sites. Most regular social media users have fallen down an endless rabbit hole of click-bait at least once.

Again – nothing here is completely new. What is new is the scale on which this is happening, and the ways in which fake news of various kinds is being weaponized for commercial, political, and even hostile ends. The question is – are we getting to a tipping point where fake news is overwhelming quality news to the point that open democracies are threatened?

Some people think we are. Tory MP Damian Collins,┬áCommons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee chairman has said that fake news is “crowding out” real news, and called for an overhaul of election laws in order to protect democracy. I think he has a point.

So the question is – what can be done?

There are some obvious answers, that will be partial solutions at best. Education is always important. Digital literacy needs to become part of the public school curriculum. There is no substitute for a citizenry that can discern propaganda and marketing from real news. That is basically the point of my book which comes out in October. That is also a main goal of the skeptical movement, such as it is. But this needs to become a priority for society.

Collins and other politicians are also calling for more transparency built into social media, and this is also a good idea. Political advertising should be clearly marked with its source, including its funding source(s).

But of course this will not address every type of fake news. Alex Jones, for example, in operating in plain sight. And of course bad actors will hide their true source. This means that social media giants have to get involved. They need to explore mechanisms to have verification processes that disclose the true source of all information spread on their network.

At best such mechanisms will make it harder to deceive the person who consume the information, but it is hard to imagine a system that makes it impossible.

Many people also fret over the power this gives social media giants like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Well, like it or not, they have this power. We have given it to them. The best we can do is have government be a watchdog on social media corporations, who in turn are watchdogs on information brokers, who in turn are watchdogs on the government. We needs checks and balances with transparency, and an educated public to be savvy consumers of information.

All things considered, protecting our democracy from hostile foreign actors may be the easiest problem to solve. I worry more about outlets like Fox News, that sell a narrative and pretend it’s news. Again, yes, all outlets do this to some degree, but there is a real difference in magnitude and brazenness. The fact that there is a continuum with no clear demarcation is part of the problem, because those who watch Fox News can tell themselves it is no different than CNN or the NYTs.

Information, entertainment, propaganda, and marketing are now all one giant mish-mash. Is Alex Jones an entertainer, a snake-oil salesman, or a sincere purveyor of genuine (if non-mainstream) information? When does bias become spin, and spin become fake news? Everyone has plausible deniability.

This is a problem for which I do not see any effective solution. All we can do is fight misinformation with better quality information, and teach critical thinking skills.

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