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.