Computer vision vs. the Internet vigilantes

“My own experience with this came in January, when trolls mistakenly decided that a woman attending the confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson was me (and that the woman in the Senate chambers — who was not me — was doing something nefarious).”

The biggest takeaway I have from 2017 is that it was the Year of the Internet Vigilante. My own experience with this came in January, when trolls mistakenly decided that a woman attending the confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson was me (and that the woman in the Senate chambers — who was not me — was doing something nefarious).

The problem of incorrect identity continued a few days later with a Muslim American reporter, who has the same first name as the widow of the shooter who attacked the Pulse nightclub. And in that same month, a professor from New York University was attacked online for having the same name as a Secret Service agent.

This summer, a University of Arkansas professor was doxxed when self-appointed online detectives thought he looked like a man who had participated in the white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville.

In each case, the error spread quickly — and the resulting online vitriol was disconcerting and even scary. The speed of setting the record straight was far outpaced by attacks perpetuated by bots for days or even weeks.

What’s the solution? It might lie in facial-recognition technology. You might have it in your hands already, depending on which smartphone you’re using. The smarter the tech gets, the better we’ll be at comparing images to determine matches with a high degree of certainty.

As a tool for journalists, this might allow reporters to more accurately narrow down social media accounts as a story is developing. Images other than faces could also prove useful: It was an attentive copy editor who recognized the county code for the license plate on the car that plowed into the crowd in Charlottesville — that insight allowed his paper to interview the suspect’s family first.

Social media giants have said they will try to combat false information, too. Alongside encouraging users to report fake news, Facebook and other sites could use their image-recognition software to combat misinformation. Algorithms could detect the images associated with fake news, then surface reports that directly counter and debunk the bad information.

Of course there are caveats. And they are numerous. Technology can’t substitute for thorough vetting and journalism ethics. And technology that relies on faces is notoriously poor at differentiating among races.

As journalists, we should embrace ways that emerging technology can provide tools that make our lives easier. Yet we should bear in mind the prime directive: Trust but verify.

Doris Truong is the weekend homepage editor at The Washington Post.

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