Fake news : should the answer be technological or human ?

Fake or real, Boy considering the question, on grunge background, writing and thinking, copy space

Dealing with Fake News has become a really hot issue for any media platform. From Facebook that takes the question very seriously to the french leading newspaper “Le Monde” that recently launched a kind of fake news detector [In French], fake news seem to be the new digital plague.

Not all Fake News are equal

What’s a Fake news ? It comes in many forms and flavors and consists of an information that looks like a real and trusted one but isn’t. It’s not an wrong one (due to a mistake) but a purposely biased one, whatever the purpose is (humor, disinformation).

It’s about mass information

There are so many examples of people having been mislead by a fake news or have mistaken a parodic site with a real news one that it’s now a credibility issue for media, especially those where are republished third part content. Maybe being mislead by a parodic media is less serious that being manipulated by a malicious one but when someone’s judgement is being lured by a content it should deserve our attention, most of all in a context where there is a critical mass of content and readers.

Because fake news are…nothing new.

Orson Welles: the father of fake news.

When, in 1938, Orson Welles aired “The War of the Worlds”, people started to panic because they really believed that ETs were attacking us.

I also remember many years ago, a radio presenter of a local station in the US said that traces of Dihydrogen Monoxide were found in the drinking water system. Just for the record, Dihydrogen monoxide is…. H2O. Water. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s just what one should expect to find in the drinking water system. Unfortunately for him, most of the audience did not remind of what they learned in high school, went into panic…and the presenter eventually got fired.

These examples are only worth what they are and I voluntarily omitted disinformation cases, which are so numerous that I don’t think I need to elaborate much about them.

And I’m sure there are many traces of fake news in the history. Each era had its challenges, media, audiences. When information was poorly flowing, when its “reach” was low and that not everybody had access to information or the skills to access it (one century ago not everybody was able to read), the impact was just lower than today.

Information : a professional business gone amateur

Information used to be the business of professional for a long time.

First in the design stage. In the past not everybody had the education to produce information (academic knowledge, ability to formalize, to write). Slowly, more and more people were able to produce information, until today where most people on earth (not to say everybody) is able to produce information.

Then broadcasting. From monastic scribes to today’s big media site, including the invention of printing, we went from limited broadcasting capabilities to anyone able to share an information with the 3/4 of the world population in one click.

Then consumption. From the times were the media was written when very few people read it and then broadcasted it orally to the web, including the invention of radio and television and nearly everybody capable to read,  the landscape has dramatically changed.

More producers, more broadcasters, more consumers. Media became mass media and the consummer….more consumer and less erudite. The speed and scale of information skyrocketed while erudition and education are not a barrier to consumption anymore.

Consuming information is not understanding it

That’s the moment when fake news arrive. Or, rather, that it comes important enough in terms of quantity and audience (so in terms of impact) that it becomes an issue.

A lower entry barrier helped to educate and inform at the planet scale but, in the same time, generated non-quality and possibilities of disinformation. Lower barriers to consumption removed the erudition filter that was a kind of quality check on quality and veracity. Huge progress, huge issues.

Consuming information does not mean understanding it. That’s the problem.

Should the information market be controlled ?

Hence a recent tendency to inform the consumer on the quality of what he consumes. Reliable or not reliable site. Information of disinformation. Serious or parodic.

It looks like a good idea that will improve our informational security, in the same way we’ve tried to increase food security.

But a good idea that raises questions :

• what’s the legitimacy and the relevance of an algorithm to tell if an article is relevant or an information tue (same question as when Google wants to promote “content of quality”) ?

• what are the risks of having a system designed to inform about quality being turned into a system that says what’s true or wrong and even prevents from publishing what does not match his vision of truth ? We have so many examples from the past that shows that the cure can be worth than the disease.

In fact there are three problems with fake news.

Education to critical thinking and the use of one’s judgement capability, what is something we lost in the education system, that we also lost in the societe that is so focuses of protecting people from themselves that it makes them irresponsible. People have become information consumer and not active learners. Information is not a means to educate and inform anymore but a means to entertain.

• the lack of knowledge / expertise / skills about the topics we read about. It’s a matter of education of course, but also due to the fact we can access so many information about anything that we always reach our limits one day or the other.

• consumers’ maturity regarding new media. I can understand that some people are not educated enough or lack critical thinking to distinguish what’s relevant and what’s not. But when a minister quotes a parodic site to illustrate his words, or retweets such a content thinking the information is real, I think we have a problem.

Behind the fake news we have to major challenges. Help people and give them the capabilities to help themselves.

There is no choice between protecting and educating. We must do both. But the question is : were to put the cursor.

Photo Credit : Fotolia