Fake News

Annalee Newitz of Ars Technica takes a look at the proliferation of fake news.

The problem is that most people weren't raised to expect that their social spaces would be full of bots, blabbing the results of simple algorithms and infecting human conversations with misdirection. Rarely do audiences on Twitter and Facebook pause to wonder where their information is coming from.

Newitz comes to a similar conclusion as I do that the solution is education.

One of the most hopeful responses I've seen to these problems has come from an unlikely place: the Girl Scouts of America. The group has just created a cybersecurity badge that girls can earn alongside more traditional badges for skills like camping, first aid, and music (apparently the "whittling" badge I was so proud of as a kid is no longer offered).

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Perhaps the next step will be encouraging teachers and librarians to teach kids defensive social-media skills. Lessons would start with the basics, like how to find the sources for an article and how to understand who has made edits on Wikipedia. More advanced students could be trained to recognize the kinds of bots that are used in propaganda campaigns. Eventually, students could learn to build tools that block known sources of malicious information, much the way Block Together works to prevent the spread of trolling and sockpuppet armies on Twitter.

The optimism of future generations creating better software is great, but the whole reason education is necessary is that trying to creating systems which automatically block news from proliferating is inherently dangerous. We don't think any group of humans should have sole say over what news gets spread, and I'm unsure why we'd think an algorithm should aspire to similar goals.

Obviously the goal of this software is to properly surface awesome content, but I think the dream would include that it can surface content which is gaining popularity rapidly amongst a small group of users. Some times the information will be fake, but many other times it will be coming from those most interested in the subject and be well thought out and verifiable.