Sunday, 1 April 2018

Thoughts on Fake News: One Step Forward One Step Back

Wikipedia should be considered as an eighth wonder of the world. A totally open source encyclopaedia covering almost every topic imaginable that, despite the prejudices of some, is remarkably accurate. It is proof that democracy works; that allowing everyone to participate, even in something with as little margin for error as the construction of an encyclopaedia, can be as effective as entrusting this task to an exclusive team of experts. You can now receive a reasonably authoritative information dump on almost any subject you can think of, with an accompanying bibliography, within seconds. What's more through the use of 'talk pages', you can read through archived debates between editors so that you have context for why one article was written or edited one way or another. News can similarly also be acquired now through the internet and social media, spread through shared articles and first-hand reports rather than received from a handful of broadcasting corporations who decide in private which stories are worth spreading.

Stories of ‘Fake News’ perpetuated by trolls that tell more badly thought out lies with every passing minute and insular social groups curated by benign but ghettoising algorithms are the other side of this new digital levelling. Furthermore, this open source world is already being exploited by disinformation campaigns run by organised intelligence agencies. Wikipedia has so far proved fairly resilient to low level trolling and casual human error but attacks launched by state-sponsored groups have only just started to ramp up. Open source technology has so far sustained itself on the good will of the internet. There have been malicious attempts to subvert the format in the past but they have generally been easy to spot and correct. Now we are faced with well-funded groups working hard to find exploits that could give their masters control of this new digital space.

Some people are alarmed by this modern predicament of having more information and confusion at the same time. But fake news is not a new phenomenon; propaganda and misinformation have always been a part of media. When searching for information we now have a lot more junk to sift through but we also have more options when cross-referencing or gathering alternative views. The distribution of news through social media may be more open to abuse but has also allowed for a more independent culture of media consumption, and I can’t help but wonder if those decrying the rise of digital fake news, primarily those still invested in ‘old media’, aren’t just mourning the loss of their cultural capital. The public are undeniably growing less dependent on newspaper editors and it must be uncomfortable for them to watch their status as the cultural arbiters of truth slowly slip away.

There is reason to be worried about the future of online democracy; malicious disinformation, the rise of hyperbolic click-bait and the formation of online political ghettos are problems that could cause a lot of trouble in the future. In saying that I'm not sure a return to traditional media structures is really much of an improvement. 

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