Experts are divided on how tech will tackle the problem of fake news

Experts are divided on how tech will tackle the problem of fake news
Fake news stories that appeared on USA Daily News 24, a fake news site registered in Veles, Macedonia, in December 2016. Raphael Satter/AP
Fake news stories that appeared on USA Daily News 24, a fake news site registered in Veles, Macedonia, in December 2016. Raphael Satter/AP

A group of internet and tech experts and researchers are split on whether the spreading of fake and hoax news stories will worsen in coming years, and many of those experts are skeptical that technological advancements will help solve the problem, according to canvassing results released Thursday.

The results, which were gleaned from a nonscientific canvassing of more than 8,000 technologists, professionals, internet researchers, policy experts and others, painted a stark divide of how experts view tech’s influence on the fake news ecosystem. Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center conducted the canvassing between July 2 and Aug. 7, 2017.

Slightly more than half of the 1,116 respondents said they believed the fake news environment will only worsen. Many of those respondents said tech advancements will only magnify echo chambers and exacerbate the problem of misinformation online as bad actors figure out ways to exploit new systems.

Tech companies continue to grapple with how to manage, target and slow the spread of fake news on their platforms.
Tech companies continue to grapple with how to manage, target and slow the spread of fake news on their platforms. keport/Shutterstock

“Things will not improve,” Stephen Downes, a researcher with the National Research Council of Canada, said in the results. “There is too much incentive to spread disinformation, fake news, malware and the rest. Governments and organizations are major actors in this space.”

But 49% of the respondents disagreed. Those respondents said they believed the fake news landscape will improve over time, and many of those respondents expressed confidence in tech advancements to establish ways to rein in the spread of fake news. They said that “smart people and processes,” as well as improved information literacy, will help solve the problem of fake news.

“I am hopeful that the principal digital information platforms will take creative initiatives to privilege more authoritative and credible sources and to call out and demote information sources that appear to be propaganda and manipulation engines, whether human or robotic,” Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute, told the canvassers. “In fact, the companies are already beginning to take steps in this direction.”

Those people were also hopeful that increased regulation might improve the problem, although some warned against relying too heavily on companies like Twitter and Facebook.

“It’s encouraging to see some of the big platforms beginning to deploy internet solutions to some of the issues around online extremism, violence and fake news,” Sally Wentworth, the vice president of global policy development at the Internet Society, said in the survey. “And yet, it feels like as a society, we are outsourcing this function to private entities that exist, ultimately, to make a profit and not necessarily for a social good. How much power are we turning over to them to govern our social discourse? Do we know where that might eventually lead?”

“On the one hand, it’s good that the big players are finally stepping up and taking responsibility,” Wentworth said. “But governments, users and society are being too quick to turn all of the responsibility over to internet platforms. Who holds them accountable for the decisions they make on behalf of all of us? Do we even know what those decisions are?”

Tech companies continue to grapple with how to manage, target and slow the spread of fake news on their platforms. In the wake of a deadly mass shooting in Las Vegas this month, both Facebook and Google’s algorithms included fake news and misinformation in search results about the attack. Facebook is under pressure, too, after the company disclosed that Russian-linked accounts spent thousands of dollars spreading fake news stories on the platform during the 2016 election.

In the Calfornia state legislature, a bill attempting to crack down on fake news was pulled after concerns were raised that the legislation would infringe on free speech.

In a poll released by Politico and Morning Consult Wednesday, 46% of respondents said they believed the media made up fake news about President Donald Trump.

The full report from Pew Research Center and Elon University can be read here.