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Why fake news is a tech problem

Mike Elgan | Jan. 30, 2017
With fake news wrecking everything, Silicon Valley is our last hope.

News used to be reliable.

While "fake news" has always existed, we enjoyed a halcyon period in the second half of the 20th Century where the news media in industrial democracies produced a reliable, shared reality. People disagreed, but their opinions were mostly based on credible facts produced by solid journalism standards, fact-checking and editorial integrity.

Then the web arrived, followed by the social web. Now, instead of three reputable news sources, you hear facts and ideas from thousands of sources of varying reliability. These appear before your eyeballs by invisible means -- by the compatibility of the content with the secret algorithms used to determine what spreads widely -- and what doesn't.

A broad range of people with political, commercial or anti-social interests have been evolving their techniques for gaming the social algorithms for ever-accelerating the spread of fake news. Dana Boyd calls it "hacking the attention economy."

Why semi-fake news is the worst kind

Here's the problem: Patently false news is ridiculous and, as such, harmless. The worst kind of fake news is a Russian export called "disinformatzya."

Guardian journalist and Russia specialist Luke Harding says the Kremlin's "disinformatzya" tactics were honed by the KGB during the Cold War. They've been around for decades, but only in Russia.

What's new is that in recent years Russia has been applying "disinformatzya" to English-language audiences. We're not used to "disinformatzya," and so it's extra effective.

The goal of "disinformatzya" isn't to get people to believe lies, but to "confuse and bamboozle everybody else by floating conspiracy theories, so there are 10 different explanations for an event," Harding said in an interview with NPR's Terry Gross. The Russian government does this through the publication of semi fake news and also "by hiring armies of trolls," which spread misinformation and disrupt online conversations with abusive, hateful posts, thus preventing rational conversation.

Inside Russia, "disinformatzya" seeks to erode trust in all institutions so that a "strong man" like Putin can present himself as the only solution.

Outside Russia, "disinformatzya" helps Russia destabilize and weaken rivals, while simultaneously enabling the Russian leader to convince the Russian public that the West is just as corrupt and dysfunctional as Russia is.

The worst part is that this manipulative tactic of using "disinformatzya" to deliberately create confusion and havoc works. And because of that, it's being instinctively picked up by American and European organizations, trolls and politicians.

That's what's new. That's why "fake news" is such a big problem now.

Muddying the waters is that the "fake news" label is being thrown around irresponsibly.

"The National Catholic Register" slammed an article in The Atlantic about the political effect of ultrasound technology as "fake news."


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