Fake News, Post Truth - is it New(s) and What Can We Do?

NOVEMBER 26, 2016 by RUFUS POLLOCK

Fake news and post-truth politics are currently receiving a lot of attention. Much of the discussion treat this issue as if it was something new and therefore, for example, seek near-term causes such as the rise of Facebook. But how new is this phenomenon, and what are its real causes? Here are some reflections – which originally appeared as a series of tweets:

  1. Is there any systematic evidence that #FalseNews is worse than before or that we are more #PostFact in politics? [tweet]
  2. E.g. 2004 US presidential election had Swift Boat Veterans for Truth https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swift_Vets_and_POWs_for_Truth (among other dubious claims) [tweet]
  3. People have self-selected into the mini #EchoChamber of TV stations and newspapers for decades [tweet]
  4. True, the @Facebook Like has technologically institutionalised a form of informational mob rule on a scale we have never seen before [tweet]
  5. Whilst filter bubble of @Facebook newsfeed and @Google results gave us automated echo chambers with zero #Transparency [tweet]
  6. All in the service of giving us “what we want” - and, of course, the profit motive (but newspapers and TV had this all too!) [tweet]
  7. Even if we are more #PostFact does this just reflect an underlying growth in polarization and populism rather than cause it? [tweet]
  8. It is like the old question of whether newspapers shape their readers’ views or shape their content to their readers’ existing views [tweet]
  9. The true answer to that question - and recent controversy is a bit of both and it depends on the topic. [tweet]
  10. A big difference in past was fewer choices for news. Theory & evidence suggest lots of choice => more #EchoChamber [tweet]
  11. Political news is not a simple commodity like bread or steel [tweet]
  12. High quality news & information underpin values like trust, respect, integrity that are foundational to our democracies [tweet]
  13. #Marketplace of ideas concept is fundamentally misleading - we do not converge on one truth like we do on one price [tweet]
  14. And individually we are far from perfectly rational - we usually ignore evidence contradicting what we already believe [tweet]

One important point, that I did not get to elaborate on in the 140 characters: how the the closed information economy is contributing to fake news and post-truth politics – and how an openness could address these problems.

A “closed” information economy is one in which we allow information – software, protocols, (non-personal) data – to be exclusively owned and controlled via monopoly rights such as copyright and patents or via secrecy.

The current closed information economy has resulted in vast and powerful monopolies such as Facebook and Google. Thse companies dominate the online content space, acting as gatekeepers. Experimentation and alternatives mechanisms for online discovery of content have largely been eliminated – along with competition. Financial incentives drive an echo chamber mentality: maximizing advertising revenue means maximizing time spent on the platform by filling users’ newsfeeds or search results with “what they want” – interpreted in its crudest sense as what they like and click on! This, in turn, has damaging effects on public discourse as bad information drives out good in an informational version of gresham’s law (easy to digest emotional soundbites drive out nuanced, evidence based discussion). Meanwhile the power of these firms as gatekeepers allows them to keep the bulk of the value that users derive from online media even though these firms themselves do almost no content creation themselves – they employ no journalists, write no blogs, do no general research.

So what is the solution? Regulation, such as requiring platforms to vet content, would be addressing the symptom rather than the disease – and would even help further entrench the monopolies (any entrant would now have to bear similar regulatory burdens but with less financial resources to do so).

Another alternative, is to have the companies themselves self-regulate by checking content themselves. Whilst superficially useful, on further examination this could be disastrous as we hand over even greater power to shape and censor political discourse to these already too powerful commercial entities.

The better solution is a simple one: openness. If we were to open up Google’s and Facebook’s platform, including their algorithms we would have competition and transparency. Suddenly, experimentation and real alternatives would be possible. Different algorithms would give us different news; and even different business models for producing news – not least because under the pressure of competition these monopolies would no longer be able to take so much of the value of the content they serve up.

In short, a more open and democratic information economy would give us a more open and democratic politics.