Web 2.0 has radically changed journalism and public relations, two industries that rely on the free exchange of information and ideas. But one highly undesirable outcome is “fake news.” It’s a war of information being waged on keyboards and in the cloud and it affects all of us. The online communications revolution has unleashed a Pandora’s box of disturbing problems that threaten privacy, democracy — even the concept of objective truth.
But whose responsibility is it to fight fake news? If the big tech platforms try to identify and sift out hate- mongering posts or users, then they become editors. If big tech chooses to sift out bad news sites, then they become publishers. Another dilemma for the platforms is that both human intervention and technology algorithms have disadvantages, so in a way, they ‘re in a trial-and-error phase.
The tech giants
Alphabet’s Google News Initiative earmarked $300 million in the war against misinformation. So, what does that entail? They will work to curb bad information during breaking news by attempting to prioritize accurate and legitimate news. The initiative will create a subscription tool for consumers, so readers can safely subscribe to their favorite news outlets through Google. It also includes the development of educational programs for young journalists and programs to assist the growth of reputable news outlets. It’s their way of supporting journalism into the future, which is a good thing.
After catching heat for a Parkland shooting conspiracy video, Google’s YouTube took steps to thwart the promotion of extremist or misinformation videos. Any time YouTube finds a questionable piece of video content, it will add a text box linking pertinent “factual” information supplied by Wikipedia. The platform will label government-funded videos as such. It’s also launching a media literacy campaign as part of its larger strategy.
Facebook & Twitter
Even before the Cambridge Analytica controversy, Facebook had come under fire for its role in featuring fake news that may have influenced the 2016 presidential election. For well over a year, Facebook has been trying various tools to curb the spread of misinformation. In February, the platform retooled its algorithm to deprioritize paid publishers’ content.
Now, Facebook is considering vetting news organizations. This comes in contrast to the approach taken by Alphabet, which warns that social platforms shouldn’t become news editors. Meanwhile, Twitter is attempting to weed out fraudulent news outlets manually. It has recently been fighting spambots and retooling its automated posting options.
But the big tech companies aren’t the only ones fighting fake news.
What’s interesting about the fake news crisis is that some tech startups are also fighting misinformation. Newsguard Technologies will in effect create a ratings system, or as they put it, a “nutrition label” for news sources. They say that a battalion of journalists will be vetting the legitimacy of news sites. Another software startup, the UK-based Serelay, claims to be able to find fraudulent online photos by combing through the metadata and the pixels to detect manipulation. Of course, for every AI company charging ahead to parse out misinformation, there’s likely an AI company working to spread misinformation.
If Facebook and Google decide it’s not their job to regulate the content, and tech startups cannot do the job, then the government might decide to do so. Despite protests, the Malaysian parliament passed a fake news bill. The bill will punish the malicious spread of false news with a fine of up to $170,o00 or up to six years in prison. Such harsh government censorship of media, however, is unlikely to work in the U.S.
The truth is we have unleashed a beast of sorts with Web 2.0. In some ways the billionaire creators of this social media revolution have lost control of their creation – and are scrambling to regain it. Time will tell which actors and methods prove effective in the battle to preserve journalistic integrity. One thing is certain: the fight against fake news is not only a technical problem, but is also a moral and ethical one.