For all of our current challenges with fake news, the truth is that we’ve probably seen nothing yet.
The rise in phoney news – and satirical material mistaken for news – may have a very damaging impact upon our collective consciousness. That is, if we don’t get very serious about tackling the problem now.
By “we”, I mean both professional news-gatherers and, perhaps more importantly, the news-imbibing public.
The false narrative phenomenon is driven by unscrupulous companies that want to drive up their ad income on the web. It is supported by trolls who want to besmirch someone’s reputation and by unofficial political operatives who want to gain an advantage for their candidate.
Most recently, of course, the fake news arena has become the playground of foreign governments that seek to influence or interfere with domestic politics.
Four high-impact, near-future, developments will be impacted by the decisions we make now about fake news.
It is axiomatic in futurism that for every primary shift in technology – and its cultural impact – there will be a corresponding counter-shift. The synthesis between the shift and counter-shift produces a new status quo, determining much about how our future will look.
We are rapidly approaching the so-called Smart Age. Quite soon, Cloud-connected gadgets within the Internet of Things will automate our homes and may well drive everything from cars to entire factories.
Two counter-shifts to the Smart Age are almost certain to occur, in varying degrees. These and the new status quo they produce will be affected by our decisions about fake news.
One counter-shift to the Smart Revolution will be the emergence of a new breed of techno-refuseniks.
Our research at 2020Plus suggests that the generation following the now ubiquitous Millennials will be one marked by a proclivity to see rebellion as a means of reform. We call this cohort Generation Edge, because it stands on the threshold of some of the most profound changes in technology and perhaps ethics that the modern world has seen.
Edgers, now aged between five and 18 in the UK, will see the digital space as their primary avenue for reforming institutions and authoritarian organisations, both of which they almost implicitly mistrust.
Despite their familiarity with all things digital, however, Generation Edgers will resist any attempts to define them simply by their online presence.
Techno-refuseniks will form a subset of Generation Edge, but an important one. In an age of data-mining and personal data overload, the refuseniks will begin to pull back from the heavy Cloud engagement that otherwise defines their age group.
They will identify with the cause of the many people on earth for whom even our mundane, everyday technologies remain a distant dream.
The UN has said that by 2025, 51 percent of the world will own a smartphone. This is quite a stunning possibility when you consider that the first of these gadgets appeared in 2007. However, if true this figure suggests that 49 percent will still have no access to smartphones and the opportunities they provide.
The techno-refusenicks will not be neo-Luddites; most will not completely disavow technology. They will stick with enough cyber-connectivity to guarantee their ability to buy, sell, work and maintain some relationships online.
They will, however, refuse to see themselves – or allow others to see them – as a product of their online data.
The growth of fake news and the uncertainty about what has veracity online, will motivate more young people to identify themselves with at least some of the techno-refusenik cause.
Much is written about the internet’s propensity for self-correction. The theory holds that if a site or group is constantly pushing false information, the online collective will move against it or them. The marketplace of ideas will even everything out.
We may not be able to take this for granted for much longer, however – especially if a significant constituency of sceptical, Cloud-savvy digital natives removes itself from the mainstream online conversation.
The second counter-shift to Smart Age technologies will involve the emergence of what I call facto-refuseniks. These people, of diverse ages, will feel suspicious of any news information that has not been garnered by people with whom they are relatively close.
This is already happening to a degree, of course, within the world of social media. However, at this point most of the real news reported online has been collected by professional journalists and simply retweeted or rehashed by eager amateur newshounds.
Some claim that citizen journalists will replace the professional variety. I’m not a journalist, but I can’t see that happening. Those who promote the supremacy of non-specialist amateurs often ignore the formal education and on-the-job training that goes into forming a professional reporter. Citizen journalists have only their wits and a relatively limited knowledge of professional ethics to fall back on.
That said, journalism does face a challenge, one which fake news has exacerbated, though not caused.
In 2016, the OECD published a study identifying foundational areas of modern life in which public trust has been most eroded.
The survey was conducted across a number of developed nations, among what its authors called the news-gathering public – the people who like to keep themselves well informed.
Even among these news-hungry folks, media was found to be one of the core cultural institutions leaking public trust.
A number of other surveys, conducted mainly in the US, suggest that one reason for this is that reporting has morphed into commentary. Reporters and entire media companies have become much more collegiate toward one side of politics, for example, and openly antipathic toward another.
If journalism cannot keep its distance from political factions and maintain an obvious objectivity, people who already mistrust the media might easily disengage from “real” news altogether.
This would rob the wider community of some of its most insightful minds, removing important checks on the rise of online fakery.
A third impact of fake news will be the advent of fake avatars. We are already fast approaching an age of avatarism.
Avatars are simply digital “personalities” devised to represent us in the digital world. In a sense, every social media account you have today is driven by an avataric representation of you. My Instagram and Twitter feeds are driven by an “entity”, controlled by me, which is called “@malfletcher”.
Of course, I use the term “entity” carefully because at this point in time my Twitter avatar is completely reliant on me for content. However, soon we will invest online avatars with much greater power, as we seek to simplify our cluttered online experience.
Imagine a time when you have so many social media and other Cloud-based accounts and interests that you pay someone to devise one avatar for all of your online experiences. Or perhaps you’d be happy to have a handful of avatars – perhaps one for all shopping and banking, another for family life and a third for social and cultural engagement.
At that point, avatars will likely lose some of the boring two dimensional quality they have today. They may become well-rounded characterisations of you – or even slight improvements on you - complete with personality tweaks to suit their use.
In time, avatars may become capable of making independent decisions based on algorithms that “know” how you will likely respond in any given situation.
We already have algorithms suggesting what we might want to buy – or buy next – on Amazon, Spotify and Kindle. When we Google search a subject, bots point us first to pages they “believe” we’re most likely to want to read. Both mechanisms are based on our past web buying or browsing history.
The downside of this is the we become locked into “bubble think”, a form of confirmation bias in which we’re only ever exposed to ideas that support our existing beliefs. We end up never hearing a dissenting voice or learning anything new.
This circular and insular thinking is made all the more dangerous if we’re building our assumptions on false information derived from fake news.
And what of the effect of fake news on the machines themselves? The bots we use online represent a rudimentary form of machine learning, in which computers and networks thereof “learn” by mining huge amounts of information online. The next step is that computers will increasingly improve on their own programming as a result.
What happens, though, if the information our machines process is rife with errors, especially if those errors occur on sites that machines have been programmed to treat as reliable?
Moreover, what happens when someone hacks an avatar, or prevents its owner from controlling or intervening in its functions? Fake news may then become very personal indeed.
An invasion of your avatar account would leave you stranded on many levels. It might also destroy your ability to control your own personal narrative – and narrative is almost as important today as money. After all, one’s online story affects one’s ability to find a job or the right life partner.
Finally, it is almost inevitable that fake news will lead to the rigging of an entire election as distinct from simply influencing voters’ thinking. Automation of election processes promises many benefits to governments, local, regional and national continue – not least in terms of cost and manpower.
At least one nation in the eastern bloc has discovered that by allowing remote digital voting it has diminished the electoral prospects of communist parties.
Being able to vote remotely has encouraged educated and world-experienced expats living in abroad, places such as the USA, to re-engage with domestic politics. These young professionals tend to vote for progressive rather than regressive parties.
Traditional paper-based voting systems will increasingly give way to Cloud-based varieties. The danger is that while an individual’s political conscience can’t easily be hacked, a computerised polling system can.
It is high time we all stepped up to the plate when it comes to tackling fake news. As responsible citizens we should educate ourselves about what is going on the world.
We should refuse to frequent sites that promote obvious falsehoods on a consistent basis. If we’re not sure about particular content, we should avoid passing it along via social media or word-of-mouth.
For their part, internet companies need to recognise that they are the new independent broadcasters and publishers of our time. They make large sums of money from this position. They must also accept the concomitant social responsibility. Insisting on rights without accepting responsibility is the formula for anarchy
Though we already have laws to cover such things as hate speech and libel, internet platforms should adopt a shared code of ethics and self-imposed penalties for infringing that code.
In conjunction with that code, there should be a more rigorous legal framework to hold internet companies accountable.
Anonymous membership of web services should be phased out, so that people know they’re being held accountable for their words.
Finally, so-called “news” sites should be subject to a benign but rigorous editorship, perhaps driven by educated volunteers using a similar system to Wikipedia. It’s a far from perfect system and is sometimes too subjective, but it might at least make it harder for fake news stories to become a permanent part of the record.
Fake news will likely survive whatever we do. It will not, however, thrive unless we all either buy into its claims – because they suit our outlook – or ignore it hoping that it will just go away.