Blog post

The Real Story About Fake News in the #DigitalSociety

By Frank Buytendijk | January 24, 2018 | 6 Comments

Do we really still need to discuss fake news? Isn’t that like so yesterday? Yes, we still need to discuss it, because the consequences of tolerating fake news are enormous. This is way beyond clickbait on websites (“And you won’t believe what happened when she turned around!”). It even goes beyond the spin of politicians. Fake news is a direct threat to society itself.

One of the most fundamental force fields in society is the duality between agreement and disagreement. We must agree about the basics on what we want life to look like, otherwise there is no basis for society; the core is that we share a certain philosophy. But it is equally important to be able to disagree, as different people have different perspectives. By being able to discuss, in all openness, freedom and safety, we not only maintain today’s basis, but create a basis for tomorrow as well.

What is needed for us to agree. Or disagree? At least a common set of observations. Otherwise we disagree each based on our own data set, and that doesn’t bring anything to anybody. Let alone, helping in getting a sense of agreement.

Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, made it his personal goal for 2018: making sure Facebook users will only see news from reliable sources. Zuckerberg states the company evaluated different ways of doing this. First, Facebook could come up with its own evaluation, but the company doesn’t feel comfortable with that. It could also ask external expert, but that also doesn’t lead to more objectivity, according to the company. Facebook ops for leaving this to the community of users. Learning algorithms.

It is a true and typical Silicon Valley thought. The more you connect people, the less you need centralized governance. Government itself. When everybody is connected, we have achieved the “ideal situation” of a direct democracy (and if this sound appealing, read what Plato had to say about that in “The Republic”). The only thing government will have to do, is to implement the will of the people.

However, the problem is that the digital platforms that make those connection, are owned by commercial companies and have business models aimed at advertisers. That makes that those platforms are not neutral. Digital platforms are not technology environments, but media companies with a certain responsibility of what happens on them.

This is exactly the reason why we need government: to make sure commercial and societal goals keep in balance. Germany recently started to enforce a law, the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (NetzDG), that forces social media to detect and remove “hate speech”. And the European External Action Service East Stratcom Task Force built a website, EU vs Disinfo, that exposes fake news.

And now it gets complicated.

Did the EU create a “Ministry of Truth”?

Does Germany move the responsibility of what constitutes freedom of speech and what is not in the hands of commercial companies?

And does Facebook washes its hands in innocence when internet trolls feed data to manipulate those algorithms and pretend to be the will of the people?

Disinformation, propaganda and fake news are as old as there is power. But the digital push amplifies the problem by a few factors, and there is no sight on any solution. It’s good to know society can take a punch.

Frank Buytendijk (@FrankBuytendijk) is a Research Fellow at Gartner Research & Advisory and pioneers in the field of digital philosophy and ethics, #digitalsociety, and futurism.

Comments are closed


  • Karien says:

    Great article. The netzwerkdurchsetxungsgezetz. Yess!! And then. Who is 2 correct the wisdom of crowds?

    • Frank Buytendijk says:

      Karien, long time no hear. So the opposite of wisdom of the crowd is groupthink. And the crowd is easy to rally. Plato had an interesting reasoning against direct democracy (government by referendum). Politicians will not take important decisions, because of short-termism, trying to get re-elected becomes the most important goal. Moreover, as crowds are easy to win over, populism has a good chance, and in the view of Plato that leads to dictatorship. Please note that Plato was not against democracy at all, just by direct democracy. This is why modern countries have an indirect democracy with elected officials.

  • Thanks Frank. A few months ago, I looked to see if there was a group that “certifies” news organizations and couldn’t find one. We certify lots of organizations, social service agencies, too big to fail banks, etc. Why not news?

    It shouldn’t be too hard. Just need a framework to evaluate the process by which they create and validate news stories and differentiate between news and opinion. Then we can attach watermarks or seals to the organization or their output.

    This is working in BI, why not news?

    • Frank Buytendijk says:

      Hi Wayne, good to hear from you. A Free Press is needed as a counterbalance for a healthy government. In my opinion, every organization, including public sector, starts at one moment to have the goal of trying to sustain itself. And that is not always good for society. Of course the press writes about much more than politics, but if you put an active certification on it, there may the risk of influence. I think the answer is more in checking whether the news organization has an ombudsman office, whether it is proactive with publishing corrections, whether there are fact checkers, and so forth.

  • Bill Rosser says:

    Great stuff. We need indirect democracy but we need to get the right representatives – that are now chosen by political party-driven primaries. We must shift to non-partisan primaries where those running will represent a broader spectrum of society. It is one of the few things we could actually accomplish.

  • Rob Kieboom says:

    Hi Frank,

    You say there is no sight on a solution. I am sure you have brainstormed about this. Any ideas yourself?
    Society being able to deal with punches is not so comforting 🙂

    All the best,