A friend recently asked me if we were ever going to overcome disinformation. Without hesitation, I emphatically said “No. Disinformation will always be with us. Learn to live with it.”
But what about fact checkers like Snopes and FactCheck? They are only useful if people accept them as credible. When a fact checker discredits something, fans of that something simply dismiss the fact checker itself as biased, partisan and wrong. Confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance are core values of the human species.
But what about Artificial Intelligence? Surely machines can tell the difference between real and fake? Sure, but AI does what it is told to do. It can be used to detect disinformation, but more often it is used to create disinformation. Disinformation is much easier to create and disseminate than real information and rebuttals don’t get many clicks and even fewer likes. In our current climate, lies tend to be more useful and profitable than truths for those with an agenda. AI detection is in an unwinnable game of whack-a-mole.
Even if Artificial Intelligence were to get the upper hand in detecting and discrediting disinformation, AI cannot make us accept what we don’t want to hear. We like disinformation. Fake news spreads six times as fast and 20 times as broadly as real news. We have created an online environment that feeds our biases, reinforces our worldview and pushes us further into our entrenched opinions. Technology won’t save us from ourselves.
But what about regulations? Surely, if we make the penalties for creating and spreading disinformation severe enough, people won’t risk spreading fake news. First amendment issues aside, punishing creators and suppliers won’t work. That approach failed in the “War on Drugs” and it won’t work any better against “Truth Decay”. As a society, we are addicted to disinformation. Where there is demand, there will always be supply.
The only way to overcome an addiction is to treat the addict. Once the cravings subside and the demand diminishes, the supply slowly dries up. Treating disinformation addiction requires digital literacy, critical thinking and allegiance to informed, evidence based opinion.
We should encourage disagreement and debate over the meaning and application of facts, but never over the facts themselves. Until these values become pervasive in our culture, disinformation will dominate. We will need to learn to live with it.