Ben Thompson’s daily update email today covers fake news and algorithms. It’s a great post, although a little disheartening in the way that most coverage of filter bubbles and the election tend to be. One line in the closing paragraph:
Algorithms have consequences, particularly when giving answers to those actually searching for the truth.
It mirrors something I wrote in January about algorithms and curation:
Software has consequences. How it’s designed informs what behavior it encourages. If it’s built without thought to these consequences, it will succeed only by accident.
Quick posting via retweets on Twitter and re-sharing on Facebook contributes to the spread of fake news. As the New York Times article Ben links to says, fake news is “designed to attract social shares and web traffic”. Bad news stories with dramatic headlines can spread more quickly than they would if everyone posted an original comment with their link.
It’s too easy to click a retweet button without thinking. Fake news is as much a user experience and design problem as it is an algorithmic problem.
In yesterday’s essay about Twitter, I also linked to my post on Instagram’s lack of native reposts. Jason Brennan has written a follow-up about fake news and propaganda, exploring what we can learn and apply to microblogging:
Aside from the normal reasons propaganda exists, it exists on social networks like Facebook and Twitter because it can exist on those networks. It’s profitable and useful for the parties manufacturing and disseminating it. To Facebook and Twitter, upon whose networks it propagates, it doesn’t really matter what the information is so long as it engages users. Facebook’s apathy to propaganda is regularly exploited.
Hillary Clinton also connected fake news and propaganda in a speech this week:
Let me just mention briefly one threat in particular that should concern all Americans, Democrats, Republicans and independents alike, especially those who serve in our Congress: the epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year. It’s now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences.
The internet is at a crossroads. Entrepreneurs love free speech, scale, and money, but those don’t always align in a good way. As much talk as there is of making an impact, very few leaders in Silicon Valley seem to think deeply about consequences.