News headlines today present us with the latest in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and algorithms, which are sold as the “cure all” solution to our problems. From curing cancer or solving the ongoing problem of climate change, to stopping the mass spread of fake news that can impact democracy and politics, these technologies are believed to be our golden ticket.
While AI, algorithms and machine learning can certainly have an impact, they are not advanced enough to offer lasting solutions on their own. In fact, one estimate says that even the smartest AI is only as intelligent as a four-year-old.
Of all the challenges we face in 2017 and beyond, “fake news” has certainly made its way to the top of the list. Not only is it said to have changed the outcome of U.S. politics, it has also, in appearance at least, disrupted leaders of some of the world’s largest companies and news organizations — Facebook, AP and CNN included.
Can technology solve this issue head-on? In short, my answer is no. Fake news is too big of a problem for technology to solve in a silo. Technology will play a role in the fake news fight, but ultimately, humans created fake news, and it will take human intervention to stop it.
Don’t be deceived. Fake news is common and famously started the Spanish-American War (thank you William Randolph Hearst for that one). For decades, nations have battled the effects propaganda has on their political systems and populaces. Today, of course, Facebook and other free social platforms make it easier for individuals and organized groups to spread misinformation and fakery to incite upheaval.
The web itself (and cheap domain-name registry and hosting) make it convenient for anyone to fake it and spread false information. Sites like www.usatoday.com.co (a spoof of www.usatoday.com) or www.washingtonpost.com.co (an imposter to www.washingtonpost.com), can be up and running with little more than a credit card and a free content platform.
It is no wonder the U.S. presidential election was heavily influenced by the mass sharing of misleading and false news articles in this same manner. Based on reports from BuzzFeed, The Guardian and even The New York Times, the impact of fake news was felt most harshly because it was a long time coming and will have ongoing repercussions.
With a growing list of more than 600 confirmed fake news sites, it is clear to see why readers may have a hard time distilling fake news from fact. Even as recently as this January, we heard about Cameron Harris, a right-wing lone-operator, who published fake news to make a living. To put his story in perspective, although Harris reportedly earned $5,000 per fake news story, his actions were to not only to pay his bills but to discredit the Democratic Party.
Similar stories from abroad include Macedonian teenagers who turned thousands of dollars to profit by spreading fake news and alleged Russian propaganda campaigns created to damage the reputation of recent presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, help President Trump’s reputation and undermine the American democracy. While certainly morally questionable, the action of writing and spreading fake news technically remains legal. With all this in play, it’s difficult to believe that in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. election, internet giants like Facebook and Google not only denied it being an issue, but also any responsibility for its impact.
What solutions exist and what can we do about it?
With new research available on the sociopolitical effects of fake news, the likes of Google and Facebook took initial steps to stop fake news in its tracks. Google is banning websites and vendors spreading fake news, as well as placing restrictions on Google Ads; Facebook is implementing a series of small targeted updates to change how fake news is spread across its site.
Enterprises also are implementing fake–news filters and detectors into their platforms and software systems to impede the spread of fake news in corporate environments. Team messaging, however, even within big multi-billion-dollar corporations, do not always insist on the proper protocols and safeguards within their technical solutions.
The outlook seems grim if these tech giants are only able to impact the tip of the fake news iceberg. That said, there are many more tools and solutions attempting to address the issue by using automation and algorithms to fact check, machine and deep learning to detect trolls, micro aggressions and insults and, finally, AI to stamp out fake news and detect violence in live videos.
While these solutions provide surface-level responses to the complexities surrounding fake news, it is imperative to add a human element. The 600 fake news sites mentioned previously were compiled and vetted not by machines, but by humans; while they can be integrated into news and social platforms with the help of technology, humans must be involved in this process.
No end in sight
There is not likely going to be an end anytime soon to the problem of fake news or the potential threat it poses to the livelihood of people, governments and businesses as a whole. But by recognizing that machines alone are not going to win this war without the guidance of humans, we will be able to change its level of impact, and this is an important and necessary first step.