Technology is the cause of 'fake news' — but it's the solution too
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It’s quiet. Too quiet.

That’s what I was thinking, just like in the old Westerns, as I walked through the residential streets of Las Vegas a few weeks ago, canvassing before the election for a political candidate.

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The candidate did well in Nevada but lost nationally. The campaign I was working on had by all measures an excellent “ground game,” well organized and staffed with bright, enthusiastic supporters, who were willing to put in long hours going door to door to get out the vote.

 

It was folks on the other side who were uncannily quiet and, in fact, virtually invisible. They seemed to have no ground game whatsoever. Even in a city where many folks work at night and sleep during the day, the near silence was weird.

In doing similar work in the past, walking through working class neighborhoods in the days before an election, I would see the opposition out in force.

In Las Vegas in 2016, save for a tall, tasteless, gold-tinted building looming surreally into the sky with the opposing candidate’s name blazoned across the top, the opposition had no physical presence at all.

I began to wonder, was the campaign on which I was working, playing — even if playing well — by the tried-and-true rules, missing something important?

What I couldn’t see on the streets, as has been widely noted in many election post-mortems, was the social media and internet presence of the opposition and in particular the vast amount of what is being called “fake news” driving opinions and behavior. This fake news can be surprisingly potent, magnified on the web, accelerated by faked traffic pushed by bots and hackers, from sites not just in the U.S. but all over the world.

We’ve seen accounts of hundreds of websites bolstering the celebrity candidate in this election.

These emanated from the former Soviet state of Georgia and from Macedonia (Macedonia!), where teenagers discovered that they could make money by promulgating unfounded nonsense in favor of one candidate (the Pope endorsed him) and vicious slanders about the other (she was a murderer and a child-molester) that their audiences were eager to read on their sites.

Less discussed, but at least as important, is the ability of hackers to skew the apparent interest in and support for certain kinds of faked stories, as reported in Bloomberg. This second multiplier effect takes internet lies to virulent levels of penetration.

In the last few weeks — although painfully too late — Facebook, Google and Twitter have taken steps to ameliorate the toxic effects of the fake news on their platforms, but these efforts alone won’t fix the problem.

Some believe, with more hope than evidence, that good news can drive out fake news so that the counter-strategy lies primarily in supporting legitimate news sources. We’ve been urged to subscribe to the New York Times and the Washington Post, to tweet and distribute stories from responsible publications.

But I believe we need something both more powerful and easier to put into play. We need a tool — which I would like to challenge software engineers to develop — which can evaluate the content of written material for its truthfulness. Not judge it. Certainly not censor or redact any of it.

We need a filter, a program which functions merely to advise readers, who choose to employ the tool, as to the degree of confidence which the program has in the authenticity or correctness of written statements found in a digital environment.

As a writer, I would value such a tool. I would be grateful for the ability to run a draft of this article through a filter which could identify statements I’ve made which might not be factual. I can still decide to include them and stand by them, but a tool of this sort could, at a minimum, help avoid some embarrassing gaffes.

As a reader, I would value such a tool even more, especially if, in addition to using it on specific pieces, I could subscribe to a service which would automatically, algorithmically vet any article of purported news which I open on my screen. It could work by flagging dubious statements or it could simply rate an article with a percentage signifying the degree of confidence in its truthfulness.  

Freedom of expression is our most fundamental right, the one upon which all other rights depend. Brilliant software engineers have created clever programs to deduce from our on-line lives what products we might be willing to spend money on.

I challenge them to create new mechanisms for helping all readers of digital content separate fact from fiction.

Seth Freeman is a multiple Emmy-winning writer and producer of television, a journalist and a playwright.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.