"Fake News" and the Myths and Challenges of the Information Society

30 November 2016

This article is based on ideas drawn some of the chapters of my upcoming book entitled "Ethics for Humans"

Information Society and the Information ExplosionOver the last 30 years or so our society has been profoundly impacted by the explosion of digital and communications technology. The economy, education, health and even the political system have been deeply transformed by an information revolution. People are being urged to become good digital citizens and some have even suggested that we’ve entered a new golden age: The Information Society.

In this context, most people in our society would agree with the statement that having more information is always better than less. After all, it is information that leads us to knowledge and insight. It is also commonly assumed, that having more information about the people we interact with is the best way to increase social cohesion and reduce conflict among groups and even among societies. All countries (especially the so-called emerging countries) are being urged to promote greater and more open dissemination of information (i.e transparency). Indeed, countries may be ranked or graded on the basis of the degree of information transparency. Improving the score is said to be a critical factor in attracting foreign investment. In a similar manner, we have the widespread belief that “information is power” as seen in the calls for the adoption of “evidence-based” social policy driven by analysis of all the available data and not by ideology. It is hoped that this is the best way to reduce the risk and uncertainty associated with the proposed social programs. Of course putting this principle into practice is always more difficult than the advocates for this approach would like to admit.

Top 5 Election Stories by Facebook Engagement

Source: Craig Silverman 

However, recent events have demonstrated, there may be another side to the story and the information society may be failing to deliver on its promises. For one thing, people who have acquired more information about other individuals and groups may often not like what they see. This can be the cause for confrontation and indeed hatred. More recently, the very foundations of the US political process were rocked by unprecedented disclosures of information in the forms of leaks and sensational news articles.  Much of this information was later determined to be “fake” but analysts have claimed that these were so disruptive that they may have even served to determine the outcome of the elections.

As President Obama put it:

In an age where there’s so much active misinformation…If we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems 
More information, presumably gathered using scientific methods, is supposed to reduce uncertainty and risk. But what if all the polls are wrong? Mona Chalabi a data journalist at the UK Guardian, reflecting on her experience of being embedded at a top US data analytics firm FiveThirtyEight, has this to say:


The polls were wrong. And because we are obsessed with predicting opinions rather than listening to them, we didn’t see it coming.

She laments that much of the interpretation of the data “wasn’t free from subjective bias” and this was accompanied by a “certain arrogance” while the entrenched organizational hierarchy meant that predictions of the self-proclaimed gurus were often not properly scrutinized.

Indeed, we need to question the hypothesis that all we need to do to get people to make better decisions (or is it the decisions we agree with?) is to provide them with more information. Such thinking conflates generalized problem analysis with real world human decision making. Evidence drawn from diverse fields such as moral philosophy, religion, literature, psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics reveals a much more complex picture. Myriad factors come into play, including the role of culture, group psychology as well as cognitive and personal biases.  Based on such a flawed understanding of the human decision making  process,  we find ourselves asking time and time again why do our supposedly well-informed citizens keep making the “wrong” decisions (well, at least according to the elites) while our political, social and religious leaders appear to be totally out of touch with the majority of the ordinary citizens. In this article, we make the case for adopting a more nuanced view. Instead, we advance the notion that what we need the most is not more information but rather that the citizens of the Information Society need to learn to communicate and actually listen to their fellow citizens.

Confirmation Bias

Cartoon by: Chris Straub

The Response to the Information Explosion

In a farsighted keynote address delivered at The Civil Society Sector Meeting at the World Summit Of the Information Society in 2002, Professor C. J Hamelink invokes three metaphors to describe society’s response to the information explosion, namely:

  • The Titanic
  • Cassandra
  • Frankenstein

The Titanic

The TitanicFor Hamelink, The Titanic metaphor represents:

a strong belief in the perfection of technology and sufficiency: The ship cannot sink and it in not necessary to have enough lifeboats on board. As a result, the real risks of technological innovation are not taken seriously. The modern technological culture demonstrates a strong drive towards a risk-free society. This aspiration to achieve a risk-free control of the social processes is seriously hampered by the unpredictable, fickle human species. Actually, the human being is increasingly seen as the real risk factor.

Hamelink’s delivered these words back in 2002 but recent events only serve to illustrate his prescience. In early 2016, The social networking platform Facebook, sort to reduce the risk factor associated with humans, by firing most of the human editors involved in the curation of its trending news feed. It replaced them with artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies based on sophisticated algorithms and “big-data”. Unfortunately, these systems could not easily discern the difference between “fake” news sourced from unreliable sources and the “real” news. Indeed, it turned out these algorithms were easily duped by those seeking to gain financially. Various commentators have pointed out that this may have affected the outcome of the US Presidential election. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder initially responded in a post on his own platform that while “fake” or hoax news stories were being circulated on the platform the problem was relatively minor. Indeed, in a later Q&A session he went on to say:

Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook … influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea

He added that identifying the “truth” in the news was a complicated issue that Facebook would be very reluctant about "becoming arbiters of truth” of material being circulated on the platform.  So, like the captain of the Titanic, Zuckerberg apparently failed to heed the ice warnings but instead revealed that they planned to roll out the US system worldwide.

Cassandra

CassandraIn the Casandra Metaphor, Hamelink recalls the myth of Cassandra who was the daughter of the Trojan King Priam.

Casandra warned the Trojans that there were Greeks in the Wooden horse. Cassandra was gifted with the ability to foresee the future. However, she was cursed by Apollo with the punishment that no one would listen to her warnings.

So paradoxically, the leaders in the information society  are prone to ignore any dissenting voices, as they are swept away by:

a new era, a winning mood, and the pressures of time and competition: all traffic lights are ignored

So our policy makers in the educational sector failed to heed warnings that investing countless millions on gadgets like laptops, mobile devices and other electronic gadgets would like prior investments in radio and television, do little to transform a dysfunctional educational system. Indeed, efforts to fix broken schools with technology, often at the expense or as a substitute for better trained, more committed teachers, a more relevant syllabus and so on are likely to make the performance of failing institutions even worse.  So the  warning of the experts that poorly designed ITC policy implementation in the education system: 

often served to exacerbate various entrenched inequities in education systems (urban-rural, rich-poor, boy-girl, linguistic and cultural divides, special needs students – the list is long).

are typically ignored. The lesson here is that the proponents of evidence-based policy are often prepared to ignore inconvenient truths even when they from their own experts. 

Frankenstein

FrankenstienThe third metaphor is derived from Mary Shelly’s novel Dr. Frankenstein. The doctor creates a monster.  However, he flees from the laboratory and is haunted by the monster who challenges him to take responsibility for what he has created. In this metaphor, Hamelink asks the question “Who is responsible when things go wrong?”.  After at first denying that “fake news” was a real problem on the platform, Facebook’s Zuckerberg seemed to have a had a changed his views on the matter. A few days after his initial response, he posted:

The bottom line is: we take misinformation seriously. Our goal is to connect people with the stories they find most meaningful, and we know people want accurate information. We’ve been working on this problem for a long time and we take this responsibility seriously. We’ve made significant progress, but there is more work to be done.

He even seemed to acknowledge that algorithms and machine intelligence were not sufficient and announced a number of concrete measures including the use of respected third party fact checking organizations for verification. However, many prominent critics have pointed out that these measures are unlikely to be effective until Facebook and the other digital gatekeepers like Google and Twitter acknowledge that as publishers and distributors of information and news they have a duty to be arbiters of the truth. Indeed, Richard Thomson, chief executive of News Corps believes that:

these companies are in digital denial…they have a responsibility to protect the provenance of news…You can’t absolve yourself from that burden of the cost of compliance by saying “We are a technology company”


So What is to be Done?

Unfortunately, when the business models of the digital gatekeepers rely so heavily on sharing and "engagement" of "content" there can be little incentive for them to make fundamental changes. After all, the value of what is being shared on these platforms is determined by the amount of engagement (likes, shares and so on) that it can generate. People have a tendency to respond and share what gives them an emotional response. In this world, the latest cat meme or vitriolic post by a politician may elicit more engagement that a carefully crafted piece of research. 

But we can not just blame Facebook, Google, Twitter etc. for the situation, the more we "like" the sensationalized material and share it with our friends the algorithms assume that this is what we like and show us more of the same.  This, of course, draws in like-minded individuals to want to "engage" with us and very soon our news feed becomes an echo chamber full of one sided, sensationalized "content".  We only want to connect  with like-minded people and we  “unfriend” those whose viewpoints we don’t agree with, This leads to insularity and social discourse suffers as the "connected" people in the information society find that have very little in common with one another. 

But all is not lost, we can escape the "Information Bubble" and turn off the "Echo Chamber" by developing the capacity to listen and dialog with our fellow man. The solution is not to close our social networking accounts or to turn off the internet, although many of us would want to consider cutting back. The problem is that many of the citizens of the information society never really learned to communicate and dialogue with one another.  In my article on new years resolutions, I urged my readers to take up extra new years resolutions including a resolution to Watch the Way We Speak to One Another and to Listen.  In speaking, posting or sharing we must avoid the urge to denigrate. And even if it may go against our nature, we must be open minded enough to really listen to the other side in an argument. We repeat this quote from author Karen Armstrong that:

True listening means more than simply hearing words that are spoken. We have to become alert to the underlying message too and hear what is not uttered aloud. Angry speech in particular, requires careful decoding. We should make an effort to hear the pain or fear that surfaces in body language, tone of voice, and choice of imagery. 

We must develop the art of conversation even on digital platforms. Good conversation entails not only listening but sometimes periods of silence, contemplation and self-reflection.