The spread of fabricated news through Facebook & Twitter has disrupted our perception of truth despite efforts by social media firms to clamp down.
We are experiencing the early days of intentionally false or highly misleading online information.
To be sure, President Trump’s false labeling of legitimate journalism as “fake news” is disheartening because high-quality reporting is vital to a healthy democracy. And many outlets have delivered extraordinary journalism in the face of these attacks.
But the spread of fabricated news, memes and photos on social media — particularly through Facebook and Twitter — has severely disrupted our perception of the truth.
And it will almost certainly get worse despite concerted attempts by social media companies to clamp down.
1. An explosion of fake video, audio and photos is coming.
For example, big and small companies are developing systems to digitally create speech in the precise voice of a speaker – words, phrases and sentences the person never actually uttered. Some observers have called Adobe’s system “Photoshop for voice.”
Artificial intelligence entrepreneurs are also devising systems that will enable the easy fabrication of video and photos.
Soon you’ll be able to create footage, sound clips and images that make it look like people did things they never did and said things they never said. And it will be available to the masses.
The results will be “indistinguishable from reality,” said Jeff Clune, director of the Evolving Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Wyoming.
2. The internet is getting better at giving us the answers we’re looking for.
Google is the greatest information-finding machine in the history of the world. That’s good. And bad.
It’s helpful because now we can track down information to help us live our daily lives.
But it’s also dangerous because it provides easy access to crackpot conspiracy theories and rarely presents searchers with disconfirming evidence.
Microsoft researcher Ryen White concluded in a study that “search engines strongly favor a particular, usually positive, perspective, irrespective of the truth.”
It’s a recipe for confirmation bias, which supercharges the spread of bogus information.
3. Our natural human tendency is to cling to groups of like-minded people and skew the facts together.
Our intensely polarized society is a reflection of this reality. But it’s not just a political phenomenon.
Take the anti-vaccine movement, for example. It consists of people from a variety of political ideologies, including religious conservatives and natural-living liberals.
As Cultural Cognition Project researcher and Yale professor Dan Kahan told me, “people will selectively credit or reject the claim that somebody is an expert on something depending on whether the person’s view is consistent with the one that predominates in their group.”
People crave companionship. So we’d rather circulate falsehoods to maintain our relationships than champion facts that our preferred groups find objectionable.
And unfortunately, it\’s easier than ever to group together online.
4. Professional journalists are losing sway over what Americans read and see.
In response to a publicity crisis over its sluggish response to misinformation, Facebook recently announced it would change course.
Key to CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s plan: Tweak Facebook’s algorithms to give our friends and family even more control over what we see.
In other words, it’s now even harder for responsible news organizations like USA TODAY to make their news coverage visible to Facebook users.
Facebook has admitted that people will see less news in their feeds. News stories with lots of back-and-forth comments will still surface. But that raises concerns that the most controversial and sensational content will reign over nuanced and thoughtful stories that might not generate immediate comments.
For all of our faults, including increasingly hyperbolic news coverage and a bias for conflict, most professional journalists are still committed to reporting the truth.
But if legitimate news coverage is buried under a rushing river of dubious memes, it will be harder for the facts to prevail.
5. Spreading misinformation pays off.
Russia identified no later than 2014 that it would benefit from instigating social instability in the U.S. through social media.
The country’s resulting disinformation campaign stoked our fears, biases and conflicts.
And it wasn’t aimed simply at electing Trump. In fact, about two months after Trump took office, Russia took aim at Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, “hoping to foment further unrest,” according to former FBI agent Clint Watts, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.
U.S. intelligence officials have already warned that the Russian disinformation campaign is likely to carry into 2018.
Put simply, the incentives for spreading false content on social media are high, and the consequences are low.
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