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Real talk about fake news: How the Information Age became the Disinformation Age

(L to R) Vinny Green of Snopes, Jevin West of the University of Washington, and Ina Fried of Axios discuss misinformation and technology during Day 2 of the GeekWire Summit 2017 at Sheraton Seattle on Wednesday, October 11, 2017. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

Technology has changed just about everything it has touched, and that is especially true when it comes to the distribution of news and information around the planet. Early hopes that technology could be a democratic force for journalism probably hit rock bottom in 2016, as the most contentious presidential election of the modern age was fueled by a sea of polarizing misinformation, some of it spread by foreign powers.

So what can be done about this problem, which is going to get much worse before it gets better? Three panelists at the GeekWire Summit Wednesday offered some hope that a combination of dogged fact checking, media literacy, and technological innovation could improve incentives to produce quality, trustworthy content in an era in which “profitgandists,” as Snopes co-owner and Vice President of Operations Vinny Green put it, can make real money distributing fake news.

The deliberate spread of misinformation has been around a long time, as Jevin West, associate professor at the University of Washington, pointed out, citing the era of yellow journalism around the turn of the last century as a prime example. The difference now is that modern technology gives fraudsters the reach to instantly access millions of people and be rewarded for those minimal efforts, Green said.

“Business models for journalism are challenged and challenging. Business models for things that are misleading are solid and well established,” said Ina Fried, chief technology correspondent for Axios. (In the interest of full transparency in media, Ina and I worked together at CNET/CBS Interactive for several years.)

That gives rise to the so-called profitgandists, who are just in it for turning clicks into cash, Green said. But, of course, traditional propaganda efforts can make a huge, sudden impact in the digital age, as federal investigators are discovering as they look into the impact of misinformation allegedly spread by Russia in an attempt to spread discord among the American public.

(L to R) Vinny Green of Snopes, Jevin West of University of Washington, and Ina Fried of Axios discuss fake news during Day 2 of the GeekWire Summit 2017 at Sheraton Seattle on Wednesday, October 11, 2017. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

Snopes has been trying to combat the spread of rumors and urban legends since well before the rise of social media, but their efforts have grown exponentially harder as Twitter and Facebook have become huge forces in our lives, Green said. Snopes has 16 people trying to sift truth and fact from the muck of internet communication, and serves 20 million people a month in that effort, but people have to actually take the steps to investigate claims flying through their feeds for those efforts to make a difference.

So what can we do about this?

West currently teaches a class at UW called “Calling Bullshit,” hoping to impart media literacy lessons to college students before they enter the real world. This semester, the 160-seat class filled up in a matter of minutes, and over 60 other universities are adopting a version of the class, he said.

“We want them to have that enthusiasm for thinking critically,” West said.

Green thinks there has to be a “redistrbution of revenue and reach to credible content,” an effort that can start with tech companies like Facebook and Google. “That’s something that needs ot be baked into the mindset of those that are trying to build these systems and products,” he said.

But that’s not enough. Fried pointed out that companies like Adobe are making versions of Photoshop — the original fake news tool — for voice, and several other companies are also working on technology that lets you introduce new words and even clips into previously recorded video.

And as long as a sizable number of business and news consumers conflate tech platform reach with credibility — as in whoever has the most followers wins — charlatans like Donald Trump will be able to exploit that reach to impart credibility to even the most obvious lies.

“We’re not going to win if you have to teach every person (media literacy) and debunk every fact,” Fried said. “Either (the solution is) going to come from the (tech) industry discussing it, or regulators are going to get involved.”

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