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.