Fake News and the Cognitive Fact Checker
By Vint Cerf
Feb 16 2017
Digital technology has drastically impacted our lives. Beyond this new threshold of interconnectedness, we should consider digital technology’s impact on citizenship and the very nature of democracy in the future. When Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1436, he knew it would ease the labor of monks who spent all day manually copying the Bible. But he probably didn’t think it would fuel colonization of the New World, or enable representative democracy via mass produced written correspondence that could reach an entire population that could share a common information base. Imagine the difficulties of lobbying, holding elections, and organizing political parties without this capability. No longer would information be controlled by masters of Kingdoms or Fiefdoms.
On to broadcast media. Whether ABC, NBC or CBS, the world had gatekeepers and the Fourth Estate as guardians of our sources of factual information. To wit, Walter Cronkite, an example of American broadcast journalism, was known for his investigative journalism, fulfilling his watchdog role, and for his matter-of-fact way of delivering the news as a CBS anchor.
But wait, now the Internet has given rise to Digital Fiefdoms whose masters use fear tactics to make entire populations feel disempowered. (ISIS is an example of a fiefdom dependent on the Internet).
“When you feel disempowered, you want to strike back with everything you’ve got, and you feel like the whole world is against you,” says Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of Snopes, a fact-checking website that has debunked many of the false stories circulating around the internet. “People who think they’ve been pushed out of the political world as it is right now are going to be susceptible to misinformation – they’re going to focus on whatever makes them feel better,” she says.
In June 2016, the U.K. held a referendum on its membership in the European Union. In November 2016, the U.S. held its national elections. In the run-up to both of these important decisional events, the Internet with its burgeoning collection of “information” dissemination applications, influenced the decisions of voters. The disturbing aspect of these (and many other decisional events) is the quantity of poor-quality content, the production of deliberately fake news, false information, alt-facts and the reinforcement of bad information through the social media.
One reaction to bad information is to remove it. That’s sometimes called censorship although it may also be considered a responsible act in accordance with appropriate use policies of the entities that support information dissemination and exchange. A different reaction is to provide more information to allow viewers/readers to decide for themselves what to accept or reject. Another reaction is to provide countervailing information (fact checking) to help inform the public. Yet another reaction is simply to ignore anything that you reject as counter to your worldview. That may lead to so-called echo chamber effects where the only information you really absorb is that which is consistent with your views, facts notwithstanding.
The wealth (I use this word gingerly) of information found on the Internet is seemingly limitless. On the other hand, it is of such uneven quality that some of us feel compelled to exercise due diligence before accepting anything in particular. That calls for critical thinking and, as I have written in the past, this is something that not everyone is prepared to or willing to expend energy on. That is not a good sign. A society that operates on the basis of bad or biased information may soon find itself in difficulties because decisions are being made on shaky ground.
Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be able to guarantee that decision makers, including voters, will apply critical thinking, due diligence, and fact checking before making decisions or propagating and reinforcing bad quality or deliberately counterfactual information. While the problem is more recognized now than ever, the proper response is far from agreed upon. It may even prove necessary to experiment with various alternatives. For example, rumors propagate rapidly through social media and recipients need tools to debunk them. The SNOPES (www.snopes.com) and Pulitzer prize winning Politifact (www.politifact.com) websites provide information to expose false rumors, fake news and alt-facts, or to confirm them using factual information and analysis.