Can Fake News Be Stopped in the Next 10 Years?

A survey of more than 1,100 internet and technology experts by Pew Research Center was nearly split right down the middle.

51 percent of 1,100 experts surveyed believed the information environment will not improve, while 49 percent foresaw improvement charles taylor/iStock
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Will fake news be thwarted in the next 10 years? A survey of more than 1,100 internet and technology experts by Pew Research Center was nearly split right down the middle.

The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online, released Thursday by Pew and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, revealed that when the 1,100-plus experts were asked, “Will trusted methods emerge over the next 10 years to block false narratives and allow the most accurate information to prevail in the overall information ecosystem?,” 51 percent believed the information environment will not improve, while 49 percent foresaw improvement.

Naturally, social networks came up quite a bit in those experts’ comments.

Willie Currie, a longtime expert in global communications diffusion, said, “The apparent success of fake news on platforms like Facebook will have to be dealt with on a regulatory basis, as it is clear that technically minded people will only look for technical fixes and may have incentives not to look very hard, so self-regulation is unlikely to succeed. The excuse that the scale of posts on social media platforms makes human intervention impossible will not be a defense. Regulatory options may include unbundling social networks like Facebook into smaller entities. Legal options include reversing the notion that providers of content services over the internet are mere conduits without responsibility for the content. These regulatory and legal options may not be politically possible to affect within the U.S., but they are certainly possible in Europe and elsewhere, especially if fake news is shown to have an impact on European elections.”

Starr Roxanne Hiltz, professor of information systems and co-author of 1970s book The Network Nation, said, “People on systems like Facebook are increasingly forming into ‘echo chambers’ of those who think alike. They will keep unfriending those who don’t, and passing on rumors and fake news that agrees with their point of view. When the president of the U.S. frequently attacks the traditional media and anybody who does not agree with his ‘alternative facts,’ it is not good news for an uptick in reliable and trustworthy facts circulating in social media.”

Georgetown University adjunct professor of communications, culture and technology Irene Wu said, “Information will improve because people will learn better how to deal with masses of digital information. Right now, many people naively believe what they read on social media. When the television became popular, people also believed everything on TV was true. It’s how people choose to react and access to information and news that’s important, not the mechanisms that distribute them.”

Bangor University in Wales professor in political communication and journalism Vian Bakir said, “It won’t improve because of the evolving nature of technology—emergent media always catches out those who wish to control it, at least in the initial phase of emergence; online social media and search engine business models favor misinformation spreading; and well-resourced propagandists exploit this mix.”

A project leader for a science institute said, “We live in an era where most people get their ‘news’ via social media and it is very easy to spread fake news. The existence of clickbait sites makes it easy for conspiracy theories to be rapidly spread by people who do not bother to read entire articles, nor look for trusted sources. Given that there is freedom of speech, I wonder how the situation can ever improve. Most users just read the headline, comment and share without digesting the entire article or thinking critically about its content (if they read it at all).”

Other respondents pointed to different issues:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology assistant professor of comparative media studies Justin Reich said, “Strategies to label fake news will require algorithmic or crowd-sourced approaches. Purveyors of fake news are quite savvy at reverse engineering and gaming algorithms and equally adept at mobilizing crowds to apply ‘fake’ labels to their positions and ‘trusted’ labels to their opponents.”

University of California Los Angeles professor Peter Lunenfeld said, “For the foreseeable future, the economics of networks and the networks of economics are going to privilege the dissemination of unvetted, unverified and often weaponized information. Where there is a capitalistic incentive to provide content to consumers, and those networks of distribution originate in a huge variety of transnational and even extra-national economies and political systems, the ability to ‘control’ veracity will be far outstripped by the capability and willingness to supply any kind of content to any kind of user.”

Retired journalist and former New York Times technology reporter John Markoff said, “I am extremely skeptical about improvements related to verification without a solution to the challenge of anonymity on the internet. I also don’t believe there will be a solution to the anonymity problem in the near future.”

Pew Research Center director of internet and technology research Lee Rainie said in a release introducing the report, “Both camps of experts share the view that the current environment allows ‘fake news’ and weaponized narratives to flourish, but there is nothing resembling consensus about whether this problem can be successfully addressed in the coming decade. They disagree about which side comes out on top in the escalating arms race: those who exploit human vulnerabilities with internet-speed manipulation tactics, or those who create accurate information and reliable delivery systems for it.”

Co-author Janna Anderson, director of Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, added: “Many of these experts said that while the digital age has created countless information sources and magnified their potential influence globally, it has simultaneously reduced the influence of traditional news organizations that deliver objective, verified information. They said the information environment can’t be improved without more well-staffed, financially stable, independent news organizations whose signals are able to rise above the noise of misinformation to create a base of ‘common knowledge’ for the public. They also urged far more literacy efforts to help people differentiate fact from falsehood.” David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.