As internet-watchers will be aware, fake news is the rough beast stalking mainstream media organisations, post-enlightenment democracy, and perhaps even popular notions of truth itself.
Democracy and truth have responded with a small but booming sector of fact-checking organisations, an evolving movement that has now spawned a new body, Defending Digital Democracy (DDD), launched last week from the offices of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
If fact-checking was version 1.0 of the fightback, the DDD’s stated aim of acting as a resource to defend democratic culture and processes from political manipulation looks more like the version 2.0 upgrade.
The list of tech luminaries involved is impressive, including executives from Google, CrowdStrike, a former under-secretary for the Department of Homeland Security and a former NSA director too. At the top of its letterhead sit the names Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney.
By the time we learned this week that Facebook has signed up as a launch sponsor to get the DDD off the ground (for an undisclosed sum), it’s clear that something is up. But what?
You couldn’t accuse the DDD of aiming low. Explains project director Eric Rosenbach:
Americans across the political spectrum agree that political contests should be decided by the power of ideas, not the skill of foreign hackers.
This project brings together key partners in politics, national security, and technology to generate innovative ideas to safeguard our key democratic institutions.”
Specifically, the DDD’s job will be to come up with “playbooks” election administrators can use to understand vulnerabilities, as well as acting as a pressure group to help improve election technology.
Facebook’s backing is intriguing, although some will cast it as virtue-signalling. The company already uses third-party fact-checking organisations to tag stories suspected of playing fast and loose with what used, quaintly, to be called “facts”. Not everyone has been convinced by these efforts.
But as a platform beloved of the fakers, Facebook should have insight into what is going on its pages, the better to feed this back to democratic institutions. If it’s the platform of fakery, it can just as easily become a platform for disassembling such campaigns.
Facebook’s chief security officer Alex Stamos has even come up with some jargon to describe this function, describing the DDD as the start of a “standalone ISAO” – that stands for “Information Sharing and Analysis Organization”, by the way.
If the DDD sticks to technical assistance and intelligence it might be a useful tool for the institutions it seeks to advise. But it can’t on its own tackle a fake news challenge morphing from one of truth v falsehood to one of post-truth.
In this pessimistic scenario, voters stop worrying about truth because they no longer care either way. When the world of facts has been levelled by a shifting and uncertain hyper-reality, beliefs become about choice and emotion, not veracity.
The danger of fakery and manipulation, then, is not that people believe lies but that they stop believing anything. In the unlikely event that humans end up on this high road to despotism, it would be a problem for Facebook (which depends on economic and individual freedoms) as much as democracy.
Despite what critics say, the company could turn out to have an important stake in the future of truth after all.
11 comments on “Facebook joins heavy hitters to fund group standing up to post-truth”
If I was tasked with putting together a corrupt, manipulative, and self serving propaganda department, on the top of my list would be: “executives from Google, CrowdStrike, a former under-secretary for the Department of Homeland Security and a former NSA director too. At the top of its letterhead sit the names Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney.”.
I would also give it a ridiculous pornographic name, like Triple D.
I fully agree. In order for veracity to matter you must ensure the purveyors themselves can be verified. Fear. Uncertainty. And . Doubt. Have been around too long to simply go away . And the list of contributors is not high on my list of those who place a of importance on the concept of integrity or veracity. They are more focused on winning at any cost. Including truth.
Yep, these organizations all have their overt biases, Facebook and Google especially. They hail from the coastal elite demographics, and have virtually no understanding of “flyover country”. On overtly political topics they promote their side of the argument only, whether it be AGW to gun control to the winner of an election. No matter how much outside culture groups point out their fallacies no one else can get their arguments heard, even if those arguments prove correct time and time again. I would trust them to be fairly accurate with politically neutral topics, but the moment the topic veers into the political realm I would not trust them to keep their own biases at bay in favor of promoting their own side.
Well said. This is going to be a disaster.
I agree as well. Sounds like a case of the fox guarding the hen house.
The problem with fake news is that both ends of the political spectrum maintain the same standard: “Our news is real news, but our opponents’ news is heavily faked.”
In order for such a thing to work, there needs to be at least two such organizations. One should be openly conservative and the other openly liberal. ALL media organizations should consult BOTH entities, and if EITHER of them says the story is “fake”, then the media should dig deeper before publishing.
There CAN be “neutral” fact-checking organizations as well. But, there MUST be at least one on each end of the spectrum that media organizations should check. Most importantly, they need to check the other end of the political spectrum from their own. Unfortunately, most media organizations tend to think of their own bias as “neutral”; it’s only “the other guys” who use fake news.
The problem with fake news is not that it’s fake, but that people are mind numbingly stupid. That’s the problem with democracy in general, actually. The only solution I see would be to castrate government to the point that it didn’t really matter who the mouth breathing masses voted for anymore.
I’m right with you Jim. Ideal world, and it seems they’re only getting worse. “Real” news is nearly always boring, so reporting it won’t earn the viewer ratings content providers crave.
The scoop paradox will fight many of the remaining outlets; the longer they take to rely on an external verification, the more likely they’ll miss the adulation when a big story breaks–and once the story is shown to be false or exaggerated, the web traffic has already justified the advertisers’ investment and reinforced the “report now, ask questions later” methodology.
And as you said, the “us against those other guys” mentality fights progress in both directions, so checking with “the opposing team’s cheater tank” sadly is unlikely to happen.
Burying my head in the sand won’t help anything, but at times it sure is tempting. 🙁
fifth paragraph typo: of -> off
“When the world of facts has been levelled by a shifting and uncertain hyper-reality, beliefs become about choice and emotion, not veracity.”
I’m hesitant to still believe (har) we’re not already there. :-/
Fixed the typo, thanks.
Are they going to shut CNN down?