The Significance of the Fake News Phenomenon
The journalistic endeavor, at least theoretically, is grounded in objectivity- the holy grail of information dissemination; as idealized as it is elusive and perhaps idealized because it is elusive. The addictive struggle of journalism seems to lie in the attempt of highly emotional agents to communicate objective information to highly emotional receptors. Personally, I fall into the camp of people who trusts that perfect objectivity is impossible- no more attainable than pure justice is attainable in a courtroom. However pure our intentions, as the reader or the writer, we will always be a biased towards tension, where character is forged, and narrative revealed. Even dispassionate objectivity is a passion. It is fitting then, that the emergence of the fake news phenomenon has corresponded to this time of great polarization, political score-keeping and ideological tribalism.
Several watershed moments can be identified in the development of the world of the publication. Among them, the block-printing of the Diamond Sutra by Chinese monks in 860 AD, Gutenberg’s development of moveable metal type in 15th century Luxemburg, the birth of the free press in the Enlightenment era, before the World-Wide Web was published in 1991. Back then, Enlightenment philosopher Condorcet made a prediction that the free press would advance knowledge and create a more informed public. The scepticism with which it was received in 1798 seems more relevant than ever today. As it turns out, the precedent for fake news was set long before 2015. As early as the 1640s broadsides and pamphlets disseminated in Britain and colonial America took on increasingly partisan tones. However, it is undeniable that the issue reached new heights with the onset of Trump-mania. Whether your tribe won or lost, the ripples of fake news were seen clearly in the decisive role played by misinformation in both the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election. The willingness of politicians and public figures to dabble in this dark art, disseminating material of questionable credibility to bolster party lines surely played a large role in facilitating the arrival of fake news to the mainstream.
Today everyone seems to be talking about fake news, it was the Collins dictionary’s 2017 word of the year, and as of roughly 6 months ago, 78,000 articles have talked about how we should be taking fake-news seriously. I was never known for my punctuality and to be honest, I’m not ashamed of arriving to this party late- making ‘fake news’ out to be anything more than an infantile world leader’s pram toy is how it was legitimized in the first place (not that it wasn’t a long time coming). I distinctly remember the moment that Kay Burley first validated those 9 characters on television; I’ve not known peace since.
As of a 2017 report by researchers at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, six different definitions of fake news have been identified in. There’s news satire like ‘Mock the week’ which uses humour to mock real-world events. There’s news parody, like ‘The Onion’, which is differs from satire in that it creates made-up stories with comedic intent. It also includes state-commissioned propaganda which attempts to influence public perceptions, as well as the active manipulation of photo or video to create false narratives (For example the gif of the Parkland shooting lightning-rod Emma Gonzalez seemingly tearing up the US constitution). Content generated by advertising teams which appear as though it has been generated by legitimate news outlets also falls under the category, next to the most popular definition of fake news, news fabrication. It refers to claims which have no factual grounding and attempt to pass as legitimate news items. Prominent examples include the Pope endorsing Donald Trump and the infamous ‘£350 million-a-week NHS bonus’ emblazoned on the Brexit battle bus.
The notion of fake news being a matter of pressing public concern might have seemed laughable a couple of years ago, but now as in most industries, technology is advancing at a rate at which regulation cannot keep up. Silicon valley tech gurus warn against an impending ‘Infocalypse’ resulting from fast-developing tools powered by artificial intelligence, machine learning, and augmented reality tech which could be hijacked and used by bad actors to spread ‘fake news’ to the extent that it can realistically distort reality; inducing ‘reality apathy’ whereby people so beset by a torrent of constant misinformation and bias, start to believe that everything that they don’t feel to be instinctually right is ‘fake news’. This is already a common occurrence on social media platforms. A potential outcome of this is that people stop paying attention to the news, meaning that the most fundamental level of information required for a functioning democracy becomes compromised.
For those paying close attention to developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning, none of this feels like much of a stretch. Software currently in development at Nvidia can already convincingly generate hyper-realistic photos of objects, people, and even some landscapes by using tens of thousands of images. Adobe also recently piloted two projects, ‘Voco’ and ‘Cloak’. The former is essentially a photoshop for audio material, the latter is a tool that can seamlessly remove objects and people from video in a matter of clicks. The implication of tools like these ones mean that hyper-realistic fake news stories can be generated by almost anyone once they become democratized and widespread. The worst-case scenarios could be extremely destabilizing and might include diplomacy manipulation to create the belief than an event has occurred in order to influence geopolitics, as well as polity simulation by net-bots to compete for legislator attention or to influence online grass-roots movements.
Given the ease with which our democracy and society has already been manipulated by the most basic misinformation techniques, it is vital that the greater public, as well as lawmakers and legislators view these troubling developments as matter of pressing public concern.
Several solutions have been posed. They can generally be characterised as falling into two categories. One which relies on heavy state-intervention to the tune of impractically strict dissemination regulations, infringement of fundamental rights such as freedom of the press and an invasion of privacy. This could see the British government rolling out high-tech ‘reality anchors’ like Block chain or cryptographic verification of images and audio which could help us distinguish what’s real and what’s manipulated. The second relies on a collective public effort to de-legitimize ‘fake news’ and, to consume information more critically and as objectively as possible. What’s more, it is of utmost importance that members of our Parliament (as well as other representatives of the public) do not flirt with or dabble in the dark art of fake news. It should not be tolerated, regardless of whether it bolsters the party line or not. There is only one reasonable, comprehensive solution to this phenomenon, and it will not come from ‘Newsfeed integrity’ efforts or top-down regulation. Fake news is an attack on the Enlightenment-era thought which established many of the fundamental rights we cherish in this country. It is perpetrated by adversaries trying to create a post-truth society. It is a direct threat to the foundations of our current civilization. It must be universally condemned.