The War Against Fake News: Who Will Win?
2021 World Press Freedom Day comes at an incredibly special time. Today, more than ever before, we feel the urge to advocate for higher-quality information on the Internet. Hundreds of people died in Iran after drinking Methanol, which they believed could fight Coronavirus. A staggering number of human beings are performing the craziest actions, in hope to repel our invisible enemy. Blinded by fear, they are all preys of misleading rumors and blatantly false claims.
This health emergency has already prompted many popular social media platforms to filter false content and redirect their users to official sources. Facebook alone says than it has redirected more than 100 million users in March. Even though those actions are temporarily slowing down the diffusion of fake news, we are still far from winning the war against misinformation. False knowledge which is – physically – harming people now was cultivated over a longer period of time and is the product of well-organized communities that efficiently spread it. It is amplified by echo chambers, ranging from family WhatsApp groups to anti-vaxxers’ Facebook pages, and propagates more easily than Covid-19, according to WHO’s director, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. A few months ago, he announced that we are not just fighting a pandemic; we are fighting an infodemic.
The war against fake news started many years ago and, when Covid-19 is over (yes, despite appearances, one day that will happen), the infodemic will stay. The time has come to properly acknowledge its existence and think about how technology can end it.
Why it all began
Before talking about the innovations that could stop the infodemic, we should look at its beginning. Fake news has been around since we invented writing, but its impact has massively increased over the last two decades. That’s mainly due to the birth of Internet, which represented a new, highly efficient propagation medium for bogus claims. People could communicate with an unprecedented easiness, barbecue lovers as well as conspiracy theorists could effortlessly create and grow their respective virtual communities.
Faced with this epochal change in the way contents were generated, the news industry has struggled to keep up. While other industries underwent major transformations to embrace the digital revolution, the news market followed a diﬀerent path. It stayed non-digital till recent times and still lacks innovations that couldbring it into the digital world. A clear example is given by online newspapers, which are mostly old-style newspapers, just delivered on your screen. These outdated tools cannot keep the pace of research in AI-driven content production, which has made increasingly harder to ensure photos and videos are authentic. After watching the video below, a distracted user could swear to have seen former US President Barack Obama delivering this unusual speech. Well, that speech was instead pronounced by Jordan Peele.
More time and resources are required today to verify contents since those can be cheaply faked using the right softwares. Technology and, with it, the world around us evolve rapidly and journalists need to further specialize to be knowledgeable enough to write accurate articles. Instead, the loss of profits from the sale of paper copies has bankrupted many newspapers, and forced others to drastically reduce their workforce. As The Guardian put it, we have probably entered a Dark Age of journalism, dominated by a worldwide wave of mergers among ailing publishers. To worsen things, premium plans, required to unlock full access to contents, have redirected casual readers towards lower-quality websites, even more helpless against fake news.
Also, Internet users mostly play a negative role in this picture. The two most popular ways of accessing online news, social media and news aggregators, do nothing but accelerating, in their own ways, the decline of journalism. Social networks are purposefully designed to prioritize sensational and popular content and therefore do not work well with news. Multiple researches have shown that false contents, leveraging anger and fear, provoke much stronger emotional reactions than reliable information. Those contents are thus more likely to receive reactions and comments, which are interpreted by recommending algorithms as a sign of their relevance. As to news aggregators, they unfairly take advantage of the hard work of field reporters, by collecting articles from newspapers’ websites without financially supporting them.
By now, it should be clear that technology has played a major role in the crisis of journalism and Internet has so far eagerly helped to spread fake news, crafted both by ill-informed bloggers and state-funded criminals. But, what can technology do to end this crisis?