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Oct. 19, 2017, 7 a.m.
Audience & Social

It can be nice to hear from experts (even the so-called experts) how things are going to shake out. But in the case of fake news and misinformation online, unfortunately, all we have is more uncertainty: 51 percent of “internet and technology experts” surveyed by the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center think that things are not going to get better, according to a study released Thursday. Forty-nine percent, meanwhile, think that the information environment will improve.

“Both camps of experts share the view that the current environment allows ‘fake news’ and weaponized narratives to flourish, but there is nothing resembling consensus about whether this problem can be successfully addressed in the coming decade,” Lee Rainie, Pew Research Center’s director of internet and technology research, said in a statement.

The side that you fall on seems to depend on two main things: How much you believe in the goodness of human nature, and whether you think technology is a force for good or evil. That may sound a little obvious — are you an optimist or a pessimist? — but it’s muddied by the fact that some believe that even if most people are good at heart, systemic forces may collide to make it harder to stop the flow of misinformation.

Here’s how Pew describes the two sides:

51% of these experts who expect things will not improve generally cited two reasons:

The fake news ecosystem preys on some of our deepest human instincts: Respondents said humans’ primal quest for success and power — their “survival” instinct — will continue to degrade the online information environment in the next decade. They predicted that manipulative actors will use new digital tools to take advantage of humans’ inbred preference for comfort and convenience and their craving for the answers they find in reinforcing echo chambers.

Our brains are not wired to contend with the pace of technological change: These respondents said the rising speed, reach and efficiencies of the internet and emerging online applications will magnify these human tendencies and that technology-based solutions will not be able to overcome them. They predicted a future information landscape in which fake information crowds out reliable information. Some even foresaw a world in which widespread information scams and mass manipulation cause broad swathes of public to simply give up on being informed participants in civic life.

The 49% of these experts who expect things to improve generally inverted that reasoning:

Technology can help fix these problems: These more hopeful experts said the rising speed, reach and efficiencies of the internet, apps and platforms can be harnessed to rein in fake news and misinformation campaigns. Some predicted better methods will arise to create and promote trusted, fact-based news sources.

It is also human nature to come together and fix problems: The hopeful experts in this canvassing took the view that people have always adapted to change and that this current wave of challenges will also be overcome. They noted that misinformation and bad actors have always existed but have eventually been marginalized by smart people and processes. They expect well-meaning actors will work together to find ways to enhance the information environment. They also believe better information literacy among citizens will enable people to judge the veracity of material content and eventually raise the tone of discourse.

Pew surveyed 1,116 “technologists, scholars, practitioners, strategic thinkers and others” over the summer. Here are some of the responses I found to be the most thought-provoking, and you’re sure to find plenty to agree with and disagree with here.

The glass is half empty

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the American Press Institute and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution: “…Misinformation is not like a plumbing problem you fix. It is a social condition, like crime, that you must constantly monitor and adjust to…”

— “Institute director and university professor”: “The internet is the 21st century’s threat of a ‘nuclear winter,’ and there’s no equivalent international framework for nonproliferation or disarmament….”

— An “executive consultant based in North America”: “There is no market for the truth. The public isn’t motivated to seek out verified, vetted information.”

Seth Finkelstein, consulting programmer and winner of the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s Pioneer Award: “Virtually all the structural incentives to spread misinformation seem to be getting worse.”

— An “internet pioneer and longtime leader at ICANN”: “There is little prospect of a forcing factor that will emerge that will improve the ‘truthfulness’ of information in the internet.”

John Markoff, retired journalist, former technology reporter for The New York Times: “I am extremely skeptical about improvements related to verification without a solution to the challenge of anonymity on the Internet. I also don’t believe there will be a solution to the anonymity problem in the near future.”

Bill Woodcock, executive director of the Packet Clearing House: “There’s a fundamental conflict between anonymity and control of public speech, and the countries that don’t value anonymous speech domestically are still free to weaponize it internationally, whereas the countries that do value anonymous speech must make it available to all, [or] else fail to uphold their own principle.”

The glass is half full

Adam Lella, senior analyst at comScore: “There have been numerous other industry-related issues in the past (e.g., viewability, invalid traffic detection, cross-platform measurement) that were seemingly impossible to solve, and yet major progress was made in the past few years…”

Larry Keeley, founder of innovation consultancy Doblin: “The new divide will be between the people who want their information to be real vs. those who simply want it to feel important.” (Putting this one in the “optimist” column since he also thinks it’s “a solvable problem”)

Frank Kaufmann, “founder and director of several international peace activism and media and information”: “The quality of news will improve, because things always improve.”

— “A retired public official and internet pioneer”: “1) Education for veracity will become an indispensable element of secondary school. 2) Information providers will become legally responsible for their content. 3) A few trusted sources will continue to dominate the internet.”

Irene Wu, professor at Georgetown: “Information will improve because people will learn better how to deal with masses of digital information. Right now, many people naively believe what they read on social media. When the television became popular, people also believed everything on TV was true. It’s how people choose to react and access to information and news that’s important, not the mechanisms that distribute them.”

— A “researcher of online harassment working for a major internet information platform”: “If there are nonprofits keeping technology in line, such as an ACLU-esque initiative, to monitor misinformation and then partner with spaces like Facebook to deal with this kind of news spam, then yes, the information environment will improve.”

John Wilbanks, chief commons officer at Sage Bionetworks: “I’m an optimist, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think as people born into the internet age move into positions of authority they’ll be better able to distill and discern fake news than those of us who remember an age of trusted gatekeepers. They’ll be part of the immune system. It’s not that the environment will get better, it’s that those younger will be better fitted to survive it.”

— Google director: “Like email spam, this problem can never entirely be eliminated, but it can be managed.”

The full report is here.

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