Sunday, December 18, 2016

Filters used to detect fake news could be used to censor news

There is more and more concern about "fake news" as being responsible for events such as the election of Donald Trump, and Brexit. The Russians have been accused of using fake news to influence the US election.

An article in the Guardian by Jonathan Albright has an interesting analysis of the topic of "fake news". What he finds most interesting about the topic is not what many other stress, factual errors, misinformation, propaganda, or its relation to the election of Donald Trump. Albright claims:
What’s scary about fake news is how it is becoming a catch-all phrase for anything people happen to disagree with. In this regard, fake news is sort of the stepbrother of “post-fact” and “post-truth”  –  though not directly related, they’re all part of the same dysfunctional family.
Albirght notes that Facebook and Twitter have been accused of being responsible for the presidential election results in the US and events such as Pizzagate, described in a recent Digital Journal article. This implausible sex scandal conspiracy narrative resulted in many threats against a pizza shop owner. It led Hillary Clinton to declare that fake news is a danger that must be addressed.
Albright points out that fake news has been a fact of life since humans used language to communicate. What has changed Albright claims is the rise of the Internet. This has taken fake news to another level altogether. Yet it is not clear exactly what is fake news. When Google Maps does not give us the fastest route to our destination is that fake news? Is a deceptive review of a product the leads us to buy an inferior product "fake news"? The problem with ensuring that we are protected against fake news is this according to Albright: "As global technology companies move forward with solutions to protect us  –  and their advertising revenue – from the scourge that is fake news, they must ensure that the smaller, less visible, alternative news outlets are not caught in their operational cleansing." The filtering responses attempting to weed out fake news "could signal the end of legitimate news outlets that make an effort to draw attention to issues they feel are underrepresented or intentionally suppressed by the mainstream media."
A recent article in the Washington Post makes reference to a website that talks about websites that spread Russian propaganda during the election campaign. The article makes reference to a website PropOrNot that lists 200 websites that spread Russian propaganda. The article has been subjected to scathing criticism including an article in the Daily Beast, the Intercept and Digital Journal. The websites include virtually any site that produces content critical of Western governments and their policies. Ironically, one of the prime producers of fake news are governments themselves as discussed in a recent Digital Journal article.
Albright points out problems in filtering out what are regarded as pornographic images by Facebook. Facebook removed a Pulizer prizewinning Vietnam war photograph of a running, naked child. It was eventually restored. Albright remarks: "If a combination of human and machine detection has difficulty differentiating between child pornography and Vietnam war images, wait until we start pre-filtering (ie, preferentially censoring) news based on issue-based framing and community self-reporting."
Albright does not know if there is a practical solution to the problem of fake news but as articles such as that in the Washington Post indicate, there may be attempts to label any news out that is anti-government or is trying to influence people against the government as "fake news". Powerful corporations will also use similar tactics to suppress criticism. Albright concludes:The filters in the future won’t be programmed to ban pornographic content, or prevent user harassment and abuse. The next era of the infowars is likely to result in the most pervasive filter yet: it’s likely to normalise the weeding out of viewpoints that are in conflict with established interests.No doubt governments and other powerful interests such as large corporations have always attempted to control the flow of information so as to ensure that mainly positive information reaches the public about them, their policies and operations. The problem of filtering out fake news is simply another opportunity for control of information by pre-filtering it so that the public does not itself get to decide what is fake news and what is not. Big Brother will already have done this for the public.

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