Ensuring the availability of reliable data and information is the core function of the IT department. Every technical professional has somewhere in their job description the task of producing, providing and consuming accurate and uncorrupted information. So as 2017 begins, we need to ask ourselves what that means in a world where facts are no longer valued and objective truth is at best an annoyance.
The Oxford English Dictionary selected “Post-Truth” as the 2016 International Word of the Year as both a reflection and commentary on the overall state of society. Post-Truth means “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” As evidence consider the fact that in terms of readership, fake news outperformed real news for a big chunk of 2016. Apparently Stephen Colbert spoke for the nation when he said “I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen.“
To a large degree, we technical professionals are responsible for this state of affairs. We should also take responsibility for fixing it.
We ourselves may never write a blog post revealing that a presidential candidate is actually a clone or forward a chain email exposing the United Nations plot to seize and occupy the suburbs of Denver but we create and maintain the infrastructure that enables others to do so. We tune our search engines to give people more of what they want to see rather than what will give them a complete picture. We help our users consume information sources that are intended to affirm rather than inform. When business decisions are based on “alternative facts” the enterprise will suffer.
As we move into this new landscape and the information wars raging across its terrain, technical professionals need to consider how we will respond. How will we use our abilities to mitigate the tide of misinformation flooding into our organizations? This is not a call for censorship but for introspection and then considered action.
Google recently took some tentative steps in this direction by altering their fabled ranking algorithm to give precedence to higher quality, credible information while deprecating (but not deleting) the lunatic fringe and less scrupulous pundits. A Google spokesperson explained that the process for tweaking its algorithm involves making scalable, systemic changes rather than simply demoting individual websites. Dubious information is still available to those who want to ensure their worldview remains intact, but the links to it are now likely “below the fold”. Since most searchers do not explore beyond the top 10 links returned, this approach will help contain the damage done by the tin-foil hat crowd (and their more mainstream surrogates) mostly to highly-motivated true believers.
Technical professionals have a vast arsenal of tools at our disposal for providing and promoting accurate information. Cloud-based machine learning, pattern detection, cognitive search, content analytics and other prospective bullsh** detectors are now just an API call away. It is up to us to figure out how to leverage these in our systems and applications in ways that best protect both the enterprise and the society it operates within. There is a fine line to walk here. It is not for us to suppress information, but we can certainly point out when the emperor is naked…or just lying. It wouldn’t hurt to make our tools smart enough to do likewise.