The fight against fake news, now seen as a strategic issue by companies like Google and Facebook, continues with recent announcements such as the elimination of more than 200 publications from its advertising system by the former, and changes in its trending topics algorithm by the latter.
While Google is struggling to detect publications that routinely create false news or hoaxes and cut the sources of their funding, a job which both companies have been immersed since last November; Facebook, in the eye of the hurricane for its supposedly decisive role in the US presidential elections, is also trying to redefine its trending topics by adding the source, improving the system of trend determination, and homogenizing them by region rather than customizing them as it has done up to now. The measures are part of a battery of ideas that the company is considering after giving expert access to its data to develop control systems — some already patented — and receive ideas from students in hackathons at universities.
The problem is undoubtedly serious: according to a recent study by Stanford, the vast majority of students do not know how to discern when a story is false or sponsored: the absurd idea that anybody born within the last two decades is a digital native and somehow had the internet within their DNA has led many parents and educators to fail to meet their educational responsibilities, turning them into a generation that lacks valid references and any critical capacity.
Facebook’s delay in tackling this problem, mainly due to the fear of accusations of bias against right-wing material, led now-President Donald Trump to set up a veritable industry of fabrication and dispersal of fake news led by men who have since been rewarded with posts in his cabinet, in a maneuver that many observers said could greatly condition the outcome of the election and which, if not tackled, could worsen now that we have one of the most naive generations ever seen.
The confectioners of fake news use technology to improve their product: an application based on artificial intelligence is able to impose gestures and vocalizations on a video of somebody talking, generating fakes capable of putting anything in the mouth of anybody, with results that can be frighteningly good or simply mediocre, but either way are undoubtedly capable of deceiving many people. While companies like Apple or Snapchat claim they have no problem with fake news because of much greater control over the publications they support on their network, more open ecosystems like Google or Facebook are forced to work with a wide range of signals ranging from popularization of a news item to reports from users themselves, in an effort to isolate this type of news and punish their authors while trying jeopardizing plurality or close the door to those who question majority thinking.
This is a complex problem. Following Barack Obama’s first campaign we saw any number of alleged social media experts claiming they could help any politician improve their results. Now, after the campaign of Trump we will be seeing how apprentices of Steve Bannon, editor of the ultra-right-wing rag Breitbart News, aspiring to strategic consulting positions for politicians all over the world. Less than ever, this should not be taken lightly. We are undoubtedly facing one of the most troubling and complex problems of our time, and much remains to be done.
(En español, aquí)