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Published March 18th 2019

Fake News Week 2019: Fake News Isn’t a Technical Problem. It’s a Philosophical One.

Brandwatch’s creative technologist Matt Pearson kicks off our week-long series on fake news by laying out just how messy defining the problem can get.

This FAKE NEWS stuff (ALL CAPS is the only correct usage) is a modern Godzilla.

It’s a terrifying monster from the deep, poorly understood but capable of devastating destruction. It is blamed for all those unexpected election results – the 2016 US presidential race, the Brexit vote in the UK, Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil, etc. It is seemingly unstoppable, batting away any reasoned resistance, leaving a trail of collapsing democracies in its wake.

As a coder working with social data, FAKE NEWS has become my most frequent request. Why don’t I just write a script to detect it? With this we could simply filter disinformation out of our platforms and save democracy.

Why haven’t you fixed democracy yet, Matt? What are you waiting for?

Well sure, I can build you a filter. But before we can trap FAKE NEWS we first need to define exactly what it is, and that’s the hard bit. Here, I’m going to lay out some working definitions to demonstrate how this problem is not a technological challenge, but a philosophical one.

Universal truth

It’d be nice if we could simply say:

FAKE NEWS is news that isn’t true.

Unfortunately this definition requires the existence of an objective truth – a truth on which we all agree. This is something we don’t, and will never, have. Especially on social.

No matter the event, there will always be interpretations of the “truth” of the issue. Nothing is cut and dried. Ever.

I can demonstrate this with a stupid example.

I’m a blogger who writes a story under the headline “SKY NO LONGER BLUE”. In the post I report, with full factual accuracy, on my experience of a glorious red sunset when, indeed, the sky I saw was no longer blue. Yet, because of my selectivity (my ignorance of perspective) it is not a universal truth, and my headline is deliberately misleading.

As we’ll come to see, the measure of truth in FAKE NEWS is not a defining characteristic. It’s quite normal for us to share a news item that speaks a truth to us, even if it appears highly dubious to most others.

Universal ignorance

The level playing field of social, where the famous intellectual is given the same character limit as your mate Steve, means that there are now a bewildering array of diverse viewpoints all sharing a space. A billion biases, incompatible opinions, and unique voices. None of which, in a truly democratic society, should be denied their say.

But with a billion voices come a billion idiosyncratic ignorances, opinion being defined as much by what we don’t know as what we do. It is perhaps then bizarre that we should even hope for anything like an objective truth within this mess. If you’re looking for the magic filter that can prune this info-bush into a “true” picture of the world, you’re likely to be disappointed.

And it gets worse.

Opinion in the age of social media is liquid in a centrifuge. The feeds we curate for ourselves become echo chambers of approval, so even the smallest differences get spun out to polar extremes. Tribes form, defences are built, and the no-mans-land of compromise becomes the unfashionable part of town.

From which arises perhaps the weirdest characteristic of the FAKE NEWS phenomenon: Despite it being pervasive and ubiquitous, somehow it is only ever others who are susceptible to it.

Your news is FAKE NEWS

There are only two sides in most online arguments: right or wrong; my opinion or yours. In my tribe we are superior, well-informed and unquestionably correct. Totally woke, if you will. Meanwhile, all we hear from the other side is lies, lies, lies, and the idiotic roar of the suckers who fall for them.

FAKE NEWS is everywhere, apparently. Everywhere, except in our own choices of media. The sources we cite, by contrast, are often lone beacons of truth against this tide of misinformation.

So I offer this as a second working definition:

FAKE NEWS is news I disagree with.

With this definition, appropriately, truth doesn’t come into it at all. Truth is subjective. And my truth, naturally, is better than yours.

This makes coding that filter a little difficult, but not impossible. You just have to tell me which “alternative facts” you disagree with, then I can write a script to hide them. This is ultimately all any FAKE NEWS detector can do: enforce a consensus of reality by removing anything that disagrees with it.

My news is FAKE NEWS

We could make the job easier with a slight tweak to the definition:

FAKE NEWS is news I agree with.

This might sound counter-intuitive, but it’s the content that’s sugared towards our sensibilities, that agrees with and solidifies our biases, of which we should probably be most suspicious. If we find ourselves agreeing strongly, if it pushes our carefully monitored buttons, it’s likely that’s because it has been designed that way.

Weaponized fake news won’t aim to contradict your strongly held beliefs, because that money would be better spent on others more susceptible. Instead it mimics the self-image you project on social, aiming at the weaker ideals on which you might be swayed. The ones you won’t even notice – you being so woke, and all.

These attractive untruths are our FAKE NEWS. It’s the news we want to believe, and to share, because it says something about who we are. It says it in a font we like, and a color easy on our particular eyes. And because we like it, share it, and stick to the platforms that enable it, algorithms will keep feeding it to us.

It’s inherently human to like and share the news we want to hear. To promote the reality we’d prefer. This makes attempts to control the spread of FAKE NEWS akin to stopping the tides; it’s trying to conquer a powerful natural force. Our efforts are as doomed as the many historic attempts to control sex or free expression.

Indisputable falsehoods

Surely, though, there is a category of news that is just demonstrably false? News that can simply be disproved with some hard evidence?

Yes, there’s plenty of that kind of stuff, but this isn’t so much of a problem. It tends to be the least successful of untruths. FAKE NEWS lives or dies on it’s attractiveness. The unbelievable will fall at that first hurdle – no one will share it.

Like the old gods, FAKE NEWS is nothing without humans to believe in it. A successful untruth must confirm an interest, self image, or fundamental we might hold. This is what seduces us into retweeting. Veracity is largely irrelevant because (let’s make it our fourth definition):

FAKE NEWS is news that is true to someone.

My truth is sacrosanct. As is yours. Deny either of them and we deny our realities.

All news is FAKE NEWS

Just as we have eyes incapable of processing the full electromagnetic spectrum, we lack brains capable of processing all news. We have to filter it into a manageable stream.

The job of “news” is to provide a curated report of reality, filtering out the trivial and highlighting what is important. Our media cannot report upon, nor its readers absorb, absolutely everything that happens in the world. The measure of importance is, naturally, highly subjective and dependent on the curator, be that curator human, algorithmic, or organizational.

There is no single, definitive news source. And there never should be. Because, as Orwell warned in 1984, control the news and you can control reality. No single organization or individual should have that power.

Many and varied news sources is a sign of a healthy democracy. As is the independence of these sources.

If we want everyone to be equally represented (the ultimate aim of a true democracy) we must also accept there will be differences in our idea of “news”. What is a headline for one source may go unreported in another. A stock market fluctuation might dominate the financial news, but will be entirely inconsequential to the entertainment weekly. Meanwhile, the complexities of Kanye and Kim’s relationship probably won’t see much coverage in the FT.

This is normal. All sources are abstractions of the world. All sources give an incomplete picture. Therefore, our  fifth and final definition is:

ALL news is FAKE NEWS.

Filter out everything that could be labelled FAKE NEWS you’ll soon find you’ve nothing left.

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