One of the main drivers of the boom in “fake news” has been the increasing separation of information from where it comes from in the digital age. We no longer know where the information we consume comes from or the context of its creation, and we no longer even understand why this loss is so devastating. Today, a photograph of Syria taken 30 years ago can be described as an outbreak in Venezuela 30 minutes ago and goes viral, with little attention to recognizing clothing, architecture, vegetation and Ubiquitous Arabic signage is not usually found in Latin America. As we become more and more separated from the production of the information we consume, what does this suggest about the future of our trust in information?
Perhaps the greatest harm done to our informational life by the Web is how it has played down the concept of understanding where information comes from. The Web has outsourced access to information and authority to algorithms and the public, and has prioritized speed over precision. We don’t care where our information comes from or even if it’s right, we just want something now.
The Web has had a tremendously positive impact by dramatically expanding society’s access to information. Its decentralized redundancy has made it progressively more difficult for the repressive governments of the world to restrict or even suppress information.
However, this duplication of content meant that we could no longer prove that a document was what it claimed to be. A speech by a prominent head of state could be reposted on thousands of websites and retrieved tens of millions of times on social media. However, without a central authority authenticating each copy, there can be no guarantee that none of those copies have been secretly modified to add or remove content.
In the early days of the web, there was little incentive for such mischief, but as the web became more commercialized, the battle for ad revenue from impressions and clicks meant that the creation of fake content was more and more incited.
The loss of our traditional custodians meant that there was no longer any semblance of verification of the information we now consume. Rather than going to a library and being referred by a knowledgeable reference librarian to a professional research resource that has been thoroughly vetted and with its publisher’s reputation online, today we are doing a web search and click on the first link that appears. . We no longer care who wrote it or why or if he cites sources for his findings, we just want something, anything, fast.
The explosion in the number of authors means that the voices we hear may no longer have any expertise or experience in the subjects they are writing about. Rather than a world famous expert’s introduction to a scientific topic, we have one random person who read a few conspiracy blog posts about it and then build a website to spread these false rumors.
The web has taught us to judge the quality and integrity of information by the quality of its visual presentation. A college website created by experts in the field but displayed on a 90s style website will be considered less reputable than an Apple style website designed by a scammer using a standard WordPress template.
Worse yet, as the web has moved from desktop to mobile devices, their tiny screens, paired with the endless scrolling of the modern web, mean we don’t even bother to fully scan the URLs of the sites we visit. In fact, we don’t even read the content we share with others anymore.
The limited interfaces of smartphones largely constrain us to the content we consume at the moment. Crossing over the details of a story and researching its images is usually beyond what we can easily achieve on our phones while walking down the street.
We are increasingly occasional consumers of information, reading material during breaks and on the move, where the focus is on relieving an informational itch rather than answering a material question. At work, speed usually trumps precision.
As the mobile age in turn gives way to the voice age, we become more and more detached from our information. The voice interface suppresses our natural ability to navigate, forcing algorithms to decide what is more reputable. The ability to communicate disagreements and conflicting information is also much more difficult in voice interfaces, for example to present a user with four different possible answers. As the fact-checking community reminds us, today’s users just want “the answer”, they don’t want choices and aren’t interested in the details, they just want to be told what they are. ‘they have to believe.
In information science, we talk about the reasons why people consume and share information. One of those reasons is “social capital” and the desire to be the person others turn to for the latest information. The constant nature of the web and its rapid updates mean that it’s more important to be the first than to be right.
Even reporters are increasingly rushing to stories based on incomplete sources when they can’t verify any of the details or have even confirmed that parts of the story are wrong, just so they can be the first. In the past, a retracted story was a blow to a media’s reputation, but today it’s just the cost of digital journalism. The ephemeral nature of the online publication means that news organizations can even rewrite their coverage as new facts become known to ensure that there is no trace of an error in their reporting. Points of sale no longer even generally recognize that an item has already changed.
More worryingly, in the aftermath of today’s major events, social media accounts posting images or details claiming to be from the event are inundated with press requests from major news outlets asking for permission to repost their content. The desire to be the first means that journalists are no longer willing to spend hours, if not days, checking such reports, they are content to grab whatever they can find on social media and stick to it. serve them, rewriting their cover on the go to write down any mistakes they make.
The anonymity of the digital age has also normalized the idea of blindly trusting others. We increasingly trust the information we find online that matches our beliefs, even as we ridicule others for the same practice. Twenty years ago, an anonymous flyer arriving in the mail asking recipients to send cash to a bank account not found in a foreign country to help an unknown charity would likely go straight in the trash. Today, an anonymous Twitter account can pretend to be a rogue group of government workers asking for donations to “resist” the democratically elected government. that came out of nowhere.
While we like to think that higher education makes us immune to “fake news” and that having a doctorate allows us to sort of discern lies on the Internet, the popularity of “Twitter Rogue” accounts among the community researchers remind us that education alone does not protect us from lies.
To truly fight fake news, we need to restore provenance to the digital world. For every word, image and video, we need to be able to know the entire chain of its digital existence, from where and when it was created to the entire chain of control, passing through our hands.
Provenance has the additional advantage of giving us access to alternative perspectives.
The most common form of “fake news” circulating today is not deliberately falsified content, but rather very real images and videos taken out of context. Many viral videos turned out to represent something very different from what was initially believed, after other videos appeared capturing other perspectives and the events leading up to the story in question. .
We need to teach our society to question everything it sees online and never share or act on any digital information until it has done at least a rudimentary verification on its own. Most importantly, we need to educate the public on the importance of provenance and why it is important to know where information comes from and the path it took to reach it.
As our consumption of information is increasingly centralized on social media platforms, we have an ideal opportunity to restore provenance by asking these platforms to track where and when a given information first entered their ecosystem. informational, if this entry point was unusual and if the trajectory of information among people with links to the event or place in question matches that of previous verified information. Providing all of these details to users as they consume a piece of information would go a long way in deciding how much we should trust what we see online.
Putting all of this together, there is little that centralized controllers, human fact checkers, and algorithmic verification can do to combat the spread of false information.
Ultimately, in order for us to truly tackle disinformation in the digital world, we need to educate the public to think critically about information and where it comes from.