In 2016 we hardly need to be told that the web has a truth problem. Facebook is still considering ways to combat fake news, Google is still grappling with veracity in semantic search, experimenting with Knowledge Based Trust (KBT) as a means of ensuring that search is as reliable as possible in its answers.
On the surface of it the problem and its solution appear to be deceptively simple. Apply machine-based evaluations of the nodes of the semantic web and you have a verifiable pool of information to draw answers and inferences from. After all a fact is a fact and it should not be confused with opinion.
However, the fact (pun unintended) that we are can get so much traction with Fake News and we are still discussing exactly what is it that makes a fact …well, a fact suggests that there is a larger, more complex, underlying problem that has to do with emotion, perception and networking.
For all its ability to remake itself and grow our brain is still patterned after the small-world orientated organ that developed mental heuristics that allowed us to thrive in a tribal, openly communal environment. In that setting facts were based on what we had experienced (and could prove) and what we knew others had experienced (and could prove). Relationships and connections were fostered by physical proximity. Trust was evidence-based and it developed, slowly, over time.
Gatekeepers and Networks
In my book The Tribe That Discovered Trust I detailed how conmen like Bernie Madoff managed to gain people’s trust by acting like a virus: they infiltrate the ‘system’ via befriending and getting recommendations from trusted sources and then rely on compartmentalization and isolation to leverage the value of networked connections and continue to con people.
Social networks are not dissimilar in their ability to replicate the effect. Power users within them can significantly slant the view of what we see. In addition, traditional points of authority such as the media have eroded our trust in them by ritualizing and over-stylizing the presentation of what they give us, making it fit a format that has less to do with our interests and a lot to do with how they want to work.
The relatively cozy, small-world feel of social networks (Facebook in particular) fits perfectly with our brain’s mental heuristics honed by centuries of small community settings and allows us to accept news and information shared via social media over news and information broadcast by traditional media outlets. Indeed, a Pew Research report showed that over 60% of Americans get their news from social media.
While this helps information spread fast it also opens up the possibility of news and information that have not been vetted to spread just as fast as the real thing. Journalism and large media has not done itself any favors here. The focus on clickbait, sensationalized titles and over-the-top reporting has eroded a lot of the steadfastness of traditional journalism and opened the door for the rise of blogging and independent news sites. When the size of your operation and the organization behind it no longer matters The New York Times is perceived to be as valid as a blogger. Refreshing as this may seem it is also dangerous. Indeed, we want to democratize access to news and break free from the Gatekeeping activities of traditional news organizations but we also want the information we consume to be of value to us which means that we need it to be factual.
The Politics of Information
The results of the Brexit Referendum,_2016 in the UK and the 2016 US Elections polarized opinion, utilized social media, galvanized large sections of the population in each country and led to charges of untruths spread across the web. Tempting as it is to see this as the result of politics you shouldn’t. In 1846 a British journalist writing in The London Times said: “Intelligence, thus hastily gathered and transmitted, has also its drawbacks, and is not so trustworthy as the news which starts later and travels slower. Swifter than a rocket could fly the distance, like a rocket it bursts and is again carried by the diverging wires into a dozen neighbouring towns.” He was lamenting how the telegraph was bringing about the ‘death’ of factual reporting with its rigors for fact-checking.
The problem we see today is a familiar one engineered by technology and human nature. Information is important because it allows power to flow along its lines of transmission. Facts are important because they allow us to enhance our understanding of the world and make better decisions about it. By the same token, those in power and those who aspire to power do what they have always done: they misinform, they misdirect, they divide and rule.
The dynamics of the informational landscape we inhabit then have hardly changed since town criers were introduced. The risk of confirmation bias and echo chambers are as real now as they were back then. Trust is still key. It is only by creating our own trusted connections and trust resources in a digital, scaled-up equivalent of the small world setting of our past can we hope to learn to rapidly navigate the ever accelerating data-rich world we live in now.
Interestingly, for that to happen it requires that we use our technology to achieve what has always been required since we stepped out of the caves: genuine human connection.