Categories
society

How to Fight Fake News

First, a proper definition of the problem. The problem of democracy is always about the electorate choosing the people who will best-advance government, given the difficulty of figuring who that is, the complex tradeoffs at hand, and limited information.

The Russian Federation Fake News and any other rogue propaganda from any nation state agent are therefore just a subset of the problem of a dirty information stream flowing to the electorate. Trying to solve the de-Putinification of social platforms and the larger web, even if that were possible by itself, would not solve the larger problem.

So, we look to traditional noise problems for inspiration.


From Wikipedia: “Signal-to-noise ratio”: Improving SNR in practice:

It is often possible to reduce the noise by controlling the environment. Otherwise, when the characteristics of the noise are known and are different from the signals, it is possible to filter it or to process the signal.

From Wikipedia: “Combined sewer”:

This type of gravity sewer design is no longer used in building new communities (because current design separates sanitary sewers from runoff), but many older cities continue to operate combined sewers.

From Wikipedia: “Ad blocking”: Methods:

The more advanced ad blocking filter software allow fine-grained control of advertisements through features such as blacklists, whitelists, and regular expression filters.

From Wikipedia: “Bug bounty program”:

These programs allow the developers to discover and resolve bugs before the general public is aware of them, preventing incidents of widespread abuse.


Unless you can eliminate the source of contamination, you must rely on some sort of filter. It can be a complete sequestration of the contaminant (in the case of separating wastewater from runoff) or it can be a processing filter as with ad blocks or some radio noise removal systems.

The platforms that act as inlets of pollution may have their own cases against adopting of appropriate filters here, which makes it a harder problem.

But some combination should work to reduce the noise.

Separate the streams

In the vein of sewerage, social sites can make a hard break between reputable periodicals and up-and-comers. This should not present a barrier to entry, but should be based upon independently-verifiable indicators such as readership, credential-issuance by major organizations, and other factors. They should likely separate opinion and commentary from reporting for similar reasons.

This is in line with what companies often do. Newspapers separate opinion from reporting, and Valve Software, maker of the Steam game platform, separates humorous reviews from serious reviews for similar reasons. It’s something social sites should do, too.

Strength-in-numbers

Google and other search engines have long sought to fight against those gaming their rankings. Many of those techniques can be employed to de-rank noise, including looking for multiple, independent submissions that give credence to a source before spreading it. This is also similar to Wikipedia‘s notability requirement for article creation.

While this technique will not eliminate much, it does raise the bar for cranks to inject their swill, as it will be easier to identify when a group is colluding to post noise unless they expend considerable effort to make their fake accounts seem credible.

Check for divergence

Most credibly-sourced news content contains a chunk of background that isn’t new, with a small supplement that is new. Fake news tends not to follow that rule, and looking for that can be useful. Again, the enemies of signal may work to change their formats to avoid this detection, but it raises their costs considerably.

Make ads public

Finally, micro-targeted advertising creates the problem that it is not readily subjected to many eyeballs who can debunk it or call it out. If advertising platforms were required to maintain records of all the ads they serve, allowing for independent review, it would help guard against abuse.

Alternatively, if regulators and advertisers are opposed, browser extensions that automatically upload copies of ads to a non-profit service could enable this practice.

A brand opportunity

Apple has tried to brand themselves privacy-conscious. Google attempts to tout speed and security. Mozilla, openness. Microsoft… has a marketing problem, because I’m not sure what their salespitch even is now.

But the point is that all these browser and OS vendors can work on the problem of fake news and try to brand themselves the one that gives you the tool to quash the invasion.


These are just some ideas of how to combat propaganda in our news feeds. The problem is worth working on. It’s not impossible, as we have had noise problems in other areas and have done a lot to minimize them.

Categories
unAmerican

2⁵ (2⁶ – 1)

Tomorrow marks the beginning of 2017. So, final headlines of 2016.

Netanyahu’s on First?

President Obama continues to turn heads with foreign policy moves, but an inside source from the Trump transition team has admitted that these actions were taken to benefit the next president. It seems that the president-elect does not know “shit about dick,” according to a self-described “bigly official” of the transition.

In order to force the president-elect to learn the conflicts, Obama has undertaken several international shake-ups, so that Trump can see all the moving parts in real time. Among Trump’s questions were, “I thought Reagan killed the Soviets back in the 1980s, but they just changed their name?” and “If it means ‘City of Peace’ then why are they fighting over it?”

Putin’s Mама Wore Combat Boots, and Now You Can, Too

In a bid to match the gaudy inelegance of Trump’s own family businesses, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s will put out a line of smart, fashionable combat dress uniforms and equipment inspired by his dear мама’s own personal style. It should hit stores by early next winter.

Russian fashion critics are expected to rave over the new line, which they will all be forced to wear.

Republicans Unveil Sanctions… Against Themselves!

The House Republicans are moving ahead with a package of sanctions they say will restrain not just Vladimir Putin, but also American lawmakers who will be unable to help themselves from joining a Trump administration’s support for the brutal man.

One nameless Republican said: “When another country screws with us, we just do this. It’s tradition. So we felt it only appropriate to put the screws on ourselves to prevent the United States from being usurped.” Sanctions include the confiscation of their dog whistles, at least one bill that would force all churches to teach the controversy of God, and a requirement that all members do at least one fundraiser while dressed as clowns.

Building a Wall

The Trump transition revealed they will pay for the wall they will seek to build by moving all American business to Mexico and issuing a new tariff on imports. The move, while controversial among economists, will “probably raise enough money,” said Trump’s personal trainer (who is expected to play a key role in the new administration).

In related news, oil prices jumped to $10K BBL when it was revealed that everybody would have to make the commute to their new offices in Mexico. Commute times will range from minutes for those living near the border to more than a few days for those coming from Alaska and Maine. Oil prices sank back to $50 BBL after traders realized the logical contradiction of building a wall and then trying to drive through it. One trader is quoted as saying, “Good golly, I thought I was rich and then there’s that wall, I mean, we need to tear that sucker down as soon as it’s built so that it doesn’t affect us economically when we can’t get to our jobs in Mexico.”


Have a nice new year.

Categories
society

The Uncertain Presidency

Is Donald Trump really the President-Elect, or is it fake news, or is it a bald-faced lie from a serial maker-upper, or is it the Russians?

As 2016 starts to close, there is massive uncertainty ahead on all fronts. Will the US continue to ignore climate change? Will millions lose their access to healthcare? Millions of others face deportation? Is the presidency headed toward autocracy? Kleptocracy?

And why isn’t Donald Trump doing anything to reassure the public? Why is he doing the opposite, spreading lies and increasing the uncertainty? Is he dumb? Mean? Uncaring? Insulated?

ProPublica is currently running a story about Agent Orange (rumored to be Trump’s Secret Service name) (ProPublica: 16 December 2016: “The Children of Agent Orange”). The piece reports, with the caveat that the finding is based on self-reporting data to the Department of Veterans Affairs, that higher levels of birth defects occurred in children of soldiers who were in contact with the carcinogenic herbicide.

One wonders what the effects of informational Agent Orange (i.e., the destruction of news credibility at the hands of fake news and other sources of informational mutilation) will have on the ability for democracy to function. To be sure, weaponized information is not as potent in its current form as Agent Orange was. Given the broad levels of propaganda, the amount of direct harm remains relatively low.

But is there a sort of informational equivalent of bioaccumulation? Does bad information build up in the minds of the gullible, leading to broader dysfunction over time? And what do we make of the fact that the President-Elect himself seems to be a victim and vector of the hoax news trend?

Early lessons seem to be:

  1. The bully pulpit just got a lot less useful. An oversized bloc of people will not be taking cues from a President Trump.
  2. In that vacuum, one assumes that a combination of civic leaders outside government and legislators will take his place.
  3. If such weakness continues throughout his term, there will be a primary challenge to Trump (something not seen since 1980 when Ted Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter).
  4. If such weakness continues, the best-positioned state legislators will try more than usual to move up in 2018 to spring-board for 2020, even if it means a primary challenge to the party’s incumbent.

(The latter two depend on a number of factors, and it’s too early to say anything definitively, but 2018 and 2020 look to be every bit as bad as 2016 has been.)

When (and where) the legislature is weak, the presidency grows stronger. And vice versa. Power is not monolithic, so Trump will probably have some strength, somewhere. But one expects the Republicans to try to show their strength in Congress wherever they can. If they can manage to forestall infighting among their ranks, it will be despite Trump, who seems to sow dissension without even trying.