Spread of Misinformation

Exhibit 12..2   Excerpts from Carole Cadwalladr talk at the TED Stage, on why she thinks the ‘gods of Silicon Valley’ are failing democracies across the globe.

“If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and off their phones, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems” — President Barack Obama.

Perceptions and beliefs are more important than the truth in influencing people’s minds. While facts do have a strong bearing on what people believe, so does fiction. People ultimately believe what they want to believe. Which is what makes fake news so powerful, and social cloisters so divisive.

In this context, the spread of misinformation in cyberspace, planted by individuals or organizations seeking to dishonestly further their personal agendas, is a major concern.

To be clear, we have always been exposed to propaganda. Governments, politicians and political organisations, activist groups, companies, religious organizations, the media, as well as individuals have indulged in the distortion of facts, and continue to do so.

What has changed is scale. Social media empowers anyone and everyone to say what they want. There often is an element or an emphasis in their words, however large or small, that favours some opinions over others. And sometimes what is said is blatantly untrue.

Fake news has impact and reach because it is made to be sensational and demands to be shared. It is, in effect, gaming the system — packaged to appeal to the emotions of netizens.

The production and generation of fake news is not merely unethical, it can also be malicious. The reports may originate from demagogues or mere opportunists and charlatans, and their intent may vary from attracting eye balls, to selling a product or a political party, or to something more sinister like peddling terrorism.

The primary motivation, especially for “news” websites that publish bogus reports, is often financial. There exists an entire industry that manufactures and distributes fake news specifically to profit from advertising. The owners of these sites mostly do not care about what they write; they see it as an easy way to make money.

Ordinary people find it difficult to decipher fact from fiction. This is exasperated by the fact that bogus reports are usually packaged well, and mega internet platforms lend them credibility. For instance, Google’s top news link for the final results of the US election of 2016, went to a bogus site with the fake content, including the factually incorrect headline “Trump won both popular and electoral college … ”. Similarly, earlier in the year, Facebook trended a fake news story about Megyn Kelly, which claimed that the Fox News anchor was sacked for secretly supporting Hillary Clinton. That such stories can top Facebook’s trending list, lends them credibility.

Brexit is a case in point. In June 2016, British citizens voted to exit the European Union, an outcome that none of the polls had predicted. According to Carole Cadwalladr, the Welsh journalist who exposed Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s role in the referendum, voters had been misled by fake content via ads and news feed on Facebook.

The riveting video excerpt in Exhibit 12.2, taken from Carole Cadwalladr talk at the TED Stage on July 2019, explains why she thinks the “gods of Silicon Valley” are failing democracies across the globe.

Carole is absolutely spot on when she says “hate and fear are being sown online”. Yet contrary to her belief that the “smartest people” are finding “new ways of manipulating us”, it is more likely that the gods are themselves being manipulated. The computer algorithms that the social networks rely on are just not smart enough to quickly detect fake news.

Social media platforms are compelled to rely on automation to filter out fakes from the colossal content that floods their network. Human editors previously employed by Facebook to curate its trending news section were unable to cope with the deluge. Present-day machine learning based algorithms, however, are just not smart enough to do their jobs.

Major social networks, on their part, have acknowledged that more needs to be done, and they say that they keep improving their ability to detect misinformation, and to swiftly remove it. However, since it is not something that they are currently on top of, marketers and politicians need mechanisms to deal with it.

In this context the spread of misinformation complicates marketing efforts. Besides competing with bogus content for netizen’s mindshare, marketers must take actions to contain the impact of fraudulent reports that could damage their brands and their reputations. Many of them too are guilty of spreading their own spurious content.

Misinformation is a growing social problem that needs to be contained. There ought to be consensus that purposeful lying or intentional misrepresentation should not be condoned. The measures needed to stem the problem, however, are debateable. Every person and every government has their own view on freedom of expression.

Given this background, governments around the world are increasingly scrutinizing social networks, in an effort to contain the spread of fake and hateful content. To cite a few examples, after the US election results of 2016, President Barack Obama sharply criticised the bogus news reports saying they threatened democracy. In December 2015, the German government struck a deal with Google, Facebook and Twitter to remove any German anti-migrant sentiments from their networks. Earlier that year, the French prime minister and European Commission officials met separately with Facebook, Google, Twitter and other companies to demand faster action against online terrorism incitement and hate speech. And in 2009, China, for a variety of reasons including censorship, blocked Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and FourSquare. Later in 2010, Google, which had maintained a service that conformed to the country’s censorship policies, shut down its Chinese search engine after a cyberattack that targeted it and some other companies.

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