The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online
Experts are evenly split on whether the coming decade will see a reduction in false and misleading narratives online. Those forecasting improvement place their hopes in technological fixes and in societal solutions. Others think the dark side of human nature is aided more than stifled by technology.
BY JANNA ANDERSON AND LEE RAINIE
In late 2016, Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as the word of the year, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
The 2016 Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the tumultuous U.S. presidential election highlighted how the digital age has affected news and cultural narratives. New information platforms feed the ancient instinct people have to find information that syncs with their perspectives: A 2016 study that analyzed 376 million Facebook users’ interactions with over 900 news outlets found that people tend to seek information that aligns with their views.
This makes many vulnerable to accepting and acting on misinformation. For instance, after fake news stories in June 2017 reported Ethereum’s founder Vitalik Buterin had died in a car crash its market value was reported to have dropped by $4 billion.
Misinformation is not like a plumbing problem you fix. It is a social condition, like crime, that you must constantly monitor and adjust to.
When BBC Future Now interviewed a panel of 50 experts in early 2017 about the “grand challenges we face in the 21st century” many named the breakdown of trusted information sources. “The major new challenge in reporting news is the new shape of truth,” said Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine. “Truth is no longer dictated by authorities, but is networked by peers. For every fact there is a counterfact and all these counterfacts and facts look identical online, which is confusing to most people.”
Americans worry about that: A Pew Research Center study conducted just after the 2016 election found 64% of adults believe fake news stories cause a great deal of confusion and 23% said they had shared fabricated political stories themselves – sometimes by mistake and sometimes intentionally.
The question arises, then: What will happen to the online information environment in the coming decade? In summer 2017, Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center conducted a large canvassing of technologists, scholars, practitioners, strategic thinkers and others, asking them to react to this framing of the issue:
The rise of “fake news” and the proliferation of doctored narratives that are spread by humans and bots online are challenging publishers and platforms. Those trying to stop the spread of false information are working to design technical and human systems that can weed it out and minimize the ways in which bots and other schemes spread lies and misinformation.
The question: In the next 10 years, will trusted methods emerge to block false narratives and allow the most accurate information to prevail in the overall information ecosystem? Or will the quality and veracity of information online deteriorate due to the spread of unreliable, sometimes even dangerous, socially destabilizing ideas?
Respondents were then asked to choose one of the following answer options:
The information environment will improve – In the next 10 years, on balance, the information environment will be IMPROVED by changes that reduce the spread of lies and other misinformation online.
The information environment will NOT improve – In the next 10 years, on balance, the information environment will NOT BE improved by changes designed to reduce the spread of lies and other misinformation online.
Some 1,116 responded to this nonscientific canvassing: 51% chose the option that the information environment will not improve, and 49% said the information environment will improve. (See “About this canvassing of experts” for details about this sample.) Participants were next asked to explain their answers. This report concentrates on these follow-up responses.
Their reasoning revealed a wide range of opinions about the nature of these threats and the most likely solutions required to resolve them. But the overarching and competing themes were clear: Those who do not think things will improve felt that humans mostly shape technology advances to their own, not-fully-noble purposes and that bad actors with bad motives will thwart the best efforts of technology innovators to remedy today’s problems.
And those who are most hopeful believed that technological fixes can be implemented to bring out the better angels guiding human nature.
More specifically, the 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.
The majority of participants in this canvassing wrote detailed elaborations on their views. Some chose to have their names connected to their answers; others opted to respond anonymously. These findings do not represent all possible points of view, but they do reveal a wide range of striking observations.
Respondents collectively articulated several major themes tied to those insights and explained in the sections below the following graphic. Several longer additional sets of responses tied to these themes follow that summary.
The following section presents an overview of the themes found among the written responses, including a small selection of representative quotes supporting each point. Some comments are lightly edited for style or length.
Theme 1: The information environment will not improve: The problem is human nature
Most respondents who expect the environment to worsen said human nature is at fault. For instance, Christian H. Huitema, former president of the Internet Architecture Board, commented, “The quality of information will not improve in the coming years, because technology can’t improve human nature all that much.”
These experts predicted that the problem of misinformation will be amplified because the worst side of human nature is magnified by bad actors using advanced online tools at internet speed on a vast scale.
The quality of information will not improve in the coming years, because technology can’t improve human nature all that much.
CHRISTIAN H. HUITEMA
Tom Rosenstiel, author, director of the American Press Institute and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, commented, “Whatever changes platform companies make, and whatever innovations fact checkers and other journalists put in place, those who want to deceive will adapt to them. Misinformation is not like a plumbing problem you fix. It is a social condition, like crime, that you must constantly monitor and adjust to. Since as far back as the era of radio and before, as Winston Churchill said, ‘A lie can go around the world before the truth gets its pants on.’”
Michael J. Oghia, an author, editor and journalist based in Europe, said he expects a worsening of the information environment due to five things: “1) The spread of misinformation and hate; 2) Inflammation, sociocultural conflict and violence; 3) The breakdown of socially accepted/agreed-upon knowledge and what constitutes ‘fact.’ 4) A new digital divide of those subscribed (and ultimately controlled) by misinformation and those who are ‘enlightened’ by information based on reason, logic, scientific inquiry and critical thinking. 5) Further divides between communities, so that as we are more connected we are farther apart. And many others.”
Leah Lievrouw, professor in the department of information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, observed, “So many players and interests see online information as a uniquely powerful shaper of individual action and public opinion in ways that serve their economic or political interests (marketing, politics, education, scientific controversies, community identity and solidarity, behavioral ‘nudging,’ etc.). These very diverse players would likely oppose (or try to subvert) technological or policy interventions or other attempts to insure the quality, and especially the disinterestedness, of information.”
Subtheme: More people = more problems. The internet’s continuous growth and accelerating innovation allow more people and artificial intelligence (AI) to create and instantly spread manipulative narratives
While propaganda and the manipulation of the public via falsehoods is a tactic as old as the human race, many of these experts predicted that the speed, reach and low cost of online communication plus continuously emerging innovations will magnify the threat level significantly. A professor at a Washington, D.C.-area university said, “It is nearly impossible to implement solutions at scale – the attack surface is too large to be defended successfully.”
Jerry Michalski, futurist and founder of REX, replied, “The trustworthiness of our information environment will decrease over the next decade because: 1) It is inexpensive and easy for bad actors to act badly; 2) Potential technical solutions based on strong ID and public voting (for example) won’t quite solve the problem; and 3) real solutions based on actual trusted relationships will take time to evolve – likely more than a decade.”
It is nearly impossible to implement solutions at scale – the attack surface is too large to be defended successfully.
An institute director and university professor said, “The internet is the 21st century’s threat of a ‘nuclear winter,’ and there’s no equivalent international framework for nonproliferation or disarmament. The public can grasp the destructive power of nuclear weapons in a way they will never understand the utterly corrosive power of the internet to civilized society, when there is no reliable mechanism for sorting out what people can believe to be true or false.”
Bob Frankston, internet pioneer and software innovator, said, “I always thought that ‘Mein Kampf’ could be countered with enough information. Now I feel that people will tend to look for confirmation of their biases and the radical transparency will not shine a cleansing light.”
David Harries, associate executive director for Foresight Canada, replied, “More and more, history is being written, rewritten and corrected, because more and more people have the ways and means to do so. Therefore there is ever more information that competes for attention, for credibility and for influence. The competition will complicate and intensify the search for veracity. Of course, many are less interested in veracity than in winning the competition.”
Glenn Edens, CTO for technology reserve at PARC, a Xerox company, commented, “Misinformation is a two-way street. Producers have an easy publishing platform to reach wide audiences and those audiences are flocking to the sources. The audiences typically are looking for information that fits their belief systems, so it is a really tough problem.”
Subtheme: Humans are by nature selfish, tribal, gullible convenience seekers who put the most trust in that which seems familiar
The respondents who supported this view noted that people’s actions – from consciously malevolent and power-seeking behaviors to seemingly more benign acts undertaken for comfort or convenience – will work to undermine a healthy information environment.
People on systems like Facebook are increasingly forming into ‘echo chambers’ of those who think alike. They will keep unfriending those who don’t, and passing on rumors and fake news that agrees with their point of view.
STARR ROXANNE HILTZ
An executive consultant based in North America wrote, “It comes down to motivation: There is no market for the truth. The public isn’t motivated to seek out verified, vetted information. They are happy hearing what confirms their views. And people can gain more creating fake information (both monetary and in notoriety) than they can keeping it from occurring.”
Serge Marelli, an IT professional who works on and with the Net, wrote, “As a group, humans are ‘stupid.’ It is ‘group mind’ or a ‘group phenomenon’ or, as George Carlin said, ‘Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.’ Then, you have Kierkegaard, who said, ‘People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.’ And finally, Euripides said, ‘Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish.’”
Starr Roxanne Hiltz, distinguished professor of information systems and co-author of the visionary 1970s book “The Network Nation,” replied, “People on systems like Facebook are increasingly forming into ‘echo chambers’ of those who think alike. They will keep unfriending those who don’t, and passing on rumors and fake news that agrees with their point of view. When the president of the U.S. frequently attacks the traditional media and anybody who does not agree with his ‘alternative facts,’ it is not good news for an uptick in reliable and trustworthy facts circulating in social media.”
Nigel Cameron, a technology and futures editor and president of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, said, “Human nature is not EVER going to change (though it may, of course, be manipulated). And the political environment is bad.”
Ian O’Byrne, assistant professor at the College of Charleston, replied, “Human nature will take over as the salacious is often sexier than facts. There are multiple information streams, public and private, that spread this information online. We can also not trust the businesses and industries that develop and facilitate these digital texts and tools to make changes that will significantly improve the situation.”
Greg Swanson, media consultant with ITZonTarget, noted, “The sorting of reliable versus fake news requires a trusted referee. It seems unlikely that government can play a meaningful role as this referee. We are too polarized. And we have come to see the television news teams as representing divergent points of view, and, depending on your politics, the network that does not represent your views is guilty of ‘fake news.’ It is hard to imagine a fair referee that would be universally trusted.”
Richard Lachmann, professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Albany, replied, “Even though systems [that] flag unreliable information can and will be developed, internet users have to be willing to take advantage of those warnings. Too many Americans will live in political and social subcultures that will champion false information and encourage use of sites that present such false information.”
There were also those among these expert respondents who said inequities, perceived and real, are at the root of much of the misinformation being produced.
A professor at MIT observed, “I see this as problem with a socioeconomic cure: Greater equity and justice will achieve much more than a bot war over facts. Controlling ‘noise’ is less a technological problem than a human problem, a problem of belief, of ideology. Profound levels of ungrounded beliefs about things both sacred and profane existed before the branding of ‘fake news.’ Belief systems – not ‘truths’ – help to cement identities, forge relationships, explain the unexplainable.”
Julian Sefton-Green, professor of new media education at Deakin University in Australia, said, “The information environment is an extension of social and political tensions. It is impossible to make the information environment a rational, disinterested space; it will always be susceptible to pressure.”
A respondent affiliated with Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society wrote, “The democratization of publication and consumption that the networked sphere represents is too expansive for there to be any meaningful improvement possible in terms of controlling or labeling information. People will continue to cosset their own cognitive biases.”
Subtheme: In existing economic, political and social systems, the powerful corporate and government leaders most able to improve the information environment profit most when it is in turmoil
A large number of respondents said the interests of the most highly motivated actors, including those in the worlds of business and politics, are generally not motivated to “fix” the proliferation of misinformation. Those players will be a key driver in the worsening of the information environment in the coming years and/or the lack of any serious attempts to effectively mitigate the problem.
Scott Shamp, a dean at Florida State University, commented, “Too many groups gain power through the proliferation of inaccurate or misleading information. When there is value in misinformation, it will rule.”
Big political players have just learned how to play this game. I don’t think they will put much effort into eliminating it.
Alex “Sandy” Pentland, member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and the World Economic Forum, commented, “We know how to dramatically improve the situation, based on studies of political and similar predictions. What we don’t know is how to make it a thriving business. The current [information] models are driven by clickbait, and that is not the foundation of a sustainable economic model.”
Stephen Downes, researcher with the National Research Council of Canada, wrote, “Things will not improve. There is too much incentive to spread disinformation, fake news, malware and the rest. Governments and organizations are major actors in this space.”
An anonymous respondent said, “Actors can benefit socially, economically, politically by manipulating the information environment. As long as these incentives exist, actors will find a way to exploit them. These benefits are not amenable to technological resolution as they are social, political and cultural in nature. Solving this problem will require larger changes in society.”
A number of respondents mentioned market capitalism as a primary obstacle to improving the information environment. A professor based in North America said, “[This] is a capitalist system. The information that will be disseminated will be biased, based on monetary interests.”
Seth Finkelstein, consulting programmer and winner of the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s Pioneer Award, commented, “Virtually all the structural incentives to spread misinformation seem to be getting worse.”
A data scientist based in Europe wrote, “The information environment is built on the top of telecommunication infrastructures and services developed following the free-market ideology, where ‘truth’ or ‘fact’ are only useful as long as they can be commodified as market products.”
Zbigniew Łukasiak, a business leader based in Europe, wrote, “Big political players have just learned how to play this game. I don’t think they will put much effort into eliminating it.”
A vice president for public policy at one of the world’s foremost entertainment and media companies commented, “The small number of dominant online platforms do not have the skills or ethical center in place to build responsible systems, technical or procedural. They eschew accountability for the impact of their inventions on society and have not developed any of the principles or practices that can deal with the complex issues. They are like biomedical or nuclear technology firms absent any ethics rules or ethics training or philosophy. Worse, their active philosophy is that assessing and responding to likely or potential negative impacts of their inventions is both not theirs to do and even shouldn’t be done.”
Patricia Aufderheide, professor of communications and founder of the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University, said, “Major interests are not invested enough in reliability to create new business models and political and regulatory standards needed for the shift. … Overall there are powerful forces, including corporate investment in surveillance-based business models, that create many incentives for unreliability, ‘invisible handshake’ agreements with governments that militate against changing surveillance models, international espionage at a governmental and corporate level in conjunction with mediocre cryptography and poor use of white hat hackers, poor educational standards in major industrial countries such as the U.S., and fundamental weaknesses in the U.S. political/electoral system that encourage exploitation of unreliability. It would be wonderful to believe otherwise, and I hope that other commentators will be able to convince me otherwise.”
James Schlaffer, an assistant professor of economics, commented, “Information is curated by people who have taken a step away from the objectivity that was the watchword of journalism. Conflict sells, especially to the opposition party, therefore the opposition news agency will be incentivized to push a narrative and agenda. Any safeguards will appear as a way to further control narrative and propagandize the population.”
Subtheme: Human tendencies and infoglut drive people apart and make it harder for them to agree on “common knowledge.” That makes healthy debate difficult and destabilizes trust. The fading of news media contributes to the problem
Many respondents expressed concerns about how people’s struggles to find and apply accurate information contribute to a larger social and political problem: There is a growing deficit in commonly accepted facts or some sort of cultural “common ground.” Why has this happened? They cited several reasons:
Online echo chambers or silos divide people into separate camps, at times even inciting them to express anger and hatred at a volume not seen in previous communications forms.
Information overload crushes people’s attention spans. Their coping mechanism is to turn to entertainment or other lighter fare.
High-quality journalism has been decimated due to changes in the attention economy.
They said these factors and others make it difficult for many people in the digital age to create and come to share the type of “common knowledge” that undergirds better and more-responsive public policy. A share of respondents said a lack of commonly shared knowledge leads many in society to doubt the reliability of everything, causing them to simply drop out of civic participation, depleting the number of active and informed citizens.
Jamais Cascio, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, noted, “The power and diversity of very low-cost technologies allowing unsophisticated users to create believable ‘alternative facts’ is increasing rapidly. It’s important to note that the goal of these tools is not necessarily to create consistent and believable alternative facts, but to create plausible levels of doubt in actual facts. The crisis we face about ‘truth’ and reliable facts is predicated less on the ability to get people to believe the *wrong* thing as it is on the ability to get people to *doubt* the right thing. The success of Donald Trump will be a flaming signal that this strategy works, alongside the variety of technologies now in development (and early deployment) that can exacerbate this problem. In short, it’s a successful strategy, made simpler by more powerful information technologies.”
Philip J. Nickel, lecturer at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, said, “The decline of traditional news media and the persistence of closed social networks will not change in the next 10 years. These are the main causes of the deterioration of a public domain of shared facts as the basis for discourse and political debate.”
Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, City University of New York, predicted, “Disseminating false rumors and reports will become easier. The proliferation of sources will increase the number of people who don’t know who or what they trust. These people will drop out of the normal flow of information. Participation will decline as more and more citizens become unwilling/unable to figure out which information sources are reliable.”
The crisis we face about ‘truth’ and reliable facts is predicated less on the ability to get people to believe the *wrong* thing as it is on the ability to get people to *doubt* the right thing.
What is truth? What is a fact? Who gets to decide? And can most people agree to trust anything as “common knowledge”? A number of respondents challenged the idea that any individuals, groups or technology systems could or should “rate” information as credible, factual, true or not.
An anonymous respondent observed, “Whatever is devised will not be seen as impartial; some things are not black and white; for other situations, facts brought up to come to a conclusion are different that other facts used by others in a situation. Each can have real facts, but it is the facts that are gathered that matter in coming to a conclusion; who will determine what facts will be considered or what is even considered a fact.”
A research assistant at MIT noted, “‘Fake’ and ‘true’ are not as binary as we would like, and – combined with an increasingly connected and complex digital society – it’s a challenge to manage the complexity of social media without prescribing a narrative as ‘truth.’”
An internet pioneer and longtime leader at ICANN said, “There is little prospect of a forcing factor that will emerge that will improve the ‘truthfulness’ of information in the internet.”
A vice president for stakeholder engagement said, “Trust networks are best established with physical and unstructured interaction, discussion and observation. Technology is reducing opportunities for such interactions and disrupting human discourse, while giving the ‘feeling’ that we are communicating more than ever.”
Subtheme: A small segment of society will find, use and perhaps pay a premium for information from reliable sources. Outside of this group “chaos will reign” and a worsening digital divide will develop
Some respondents predicted that a larger digital divide will form. Those who pursue more-accurate information and rely on better-informed sources will separate from those who are not selective enough or who do not invest either the time or the money in doing so.
There will be a sort of ‘gold standard’ set of sources, and there will be the fringe.
Alejandro Pisanty, a professor at UNAM, the National University of Mexico, and longtime internet policy leader, observed, “Overall, at least a part of society will value trusted information and find ways to keep a set of curated, quality information resources. This will use a combination of organizational and technological tools but above all, will require a sharpened sense of good judgment and access to diverse, including rivalrous, sources. Outside this, chaos will reign.”
Alexander Halavais, associate professor of social technologies at Arizona State University, said, “As there is value in accurate information, the availability of such information will continue to grow. However, when consumers are not directly paying for such accuracy, it will certainly mean a greater degree of misinformation in the public sphere. That means the continuing bifurcation of haves and have-nots, when it comes to trusted news and information.”
An anonymous editor and publisher commented, “Sadly, many Americans will not pay attention to ANY content from existing or evolving sources. It’ll be the continuing dumbing down of the masses, although the ‘upper’ cadres (educated/thoughtful) will read/see/know, and continue to battle.”
An anonymous respondent said, “There will be a sort of ‘gold standard’ set of sources, and there will be the fringe.”
Theme 2: The information environment will not improve because technology will create new challenges that can’t or won’t be countered effectively and at scale
Many who see little hope for improvement of the information environment said technology will not save society from distortions, half-truths, lies and weaponized narratives. An anonymous business leader argued, “It is too easy to create fake facts, too labor-intensive to check and too easy to fool checking algorithms.’’ And this response of an anonymous research scientist based in North America echoed the view of many participants in this canvassing: “We will develop technologies to help identify false and distorted information, BUT they won’t be good enough.”
In the arms race between those who want to falsify information and those who want to produce accurate information, the former will always have an advantage.
Paul N. Edwards, Perry Fellow in International Security at Stanford University, commented, “Many excellent methods will be developed to improve the information environment, but the history of online systems shows that bad actors can and will always find ways around them.”
Vian Bakir, professor in political communication and journalism at Bangor University in Wales, commented, “It won’t improve because of 1) the evolving nature of technology – emergent media always catches out those who wish to control it, at least in the initial phase of emergence; 2) online social media and search engine business models favour misinformation spreading; 3) well-resourced propagandists exploit this mix.”
Many who expect things will not improve in the next decade said that “white hat” efforts will never keep up with “black hat” advances in information wars. A user-experience and interaction designer said, “As existing channels become more regulated, new unregulated channels will continue to emerge.”
Subtheme: Those generally acting for themselves and not the public good have the advantage, and they are likely to stay ahead in the information wars
Many of those who expect no improvement of the information environment said those who wish to spread misinformation are highly motivated to use innovative tricks to stay ahead of the methods meant to stop them. They said certain actors in government, business and other individuals with propaganda agendas are highly driven to make technology work in their favor in the spread of misinformation, and there will continue to be more of them.
There are a lot of rich and unethical people, politicians, non-state actors and state actors who are strongly incentivized to get fake information out there to serve their selfish purposes.
A number of respondents referred to this as an “arms race.” David Sarokin of Sarokin Consulting and author of “Missed Information,” said, “There will be an arms race between reliable and unreliable information.” And David Conrad, a chief technology officer, replied, “In the arms race between those who want to falsify information and those who want to produce accurate information, the former will always have an advantage.”
Jim Hendler, professor of computing sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, commented, “The information environment will continue to change but the pressures of politics, advertising and stock-return-based capitalism rewards those who find ways to manipulate the system, so it will be a constant battle between those aiming for ‘objectiveness’ and those trying to manipulate the system.”
John Markoff, retired journalist and former technology reporter for The New York Times, said, “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.”
Scott Spangler, principal data scientist at IBM Watson Health, said technologies now exist that make fake information almost impossible to discern and flag, filter or block. He wrote, “Machine learning and sophisticated statistical techniques will be used to accurately simulate real information content and make fake information almost indistinguishable from the real thing.”
Jason Hong, associate professor at the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, said, “Some fake information will be detectable and blockable, but the vast majority won’t. The problem is that it’s *still* very hard for computer systems to analyze text, find assertions made in the text and crosscheck them. There’s also the issue of subtle nuances or differences of opinion or interpretation. Lastly, the incentives are all wrong. There are a lot of rich and unethical people, politicians, non-state actors and state actors who are strongly incentivized to get fake information out there to serve their selfish purposes.”
A research professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University observed, “Defensive innovation is always behind offensive innovation. Those wanting to spread misinformation will always be able to find ways to circumvent whatever controls are put in place.”
A research scientist for the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT said, “Problems will get worse faster than solutions can address, but that only means solutions are more needed than ever.”
Subtheme: Weaponized narratives and other false content will be magnified by social media, online filter bubbles and AI
Some respondents expect a dramatic rise in the manipulation of the information environment by nation-states, by individual political actors and by groups wishing to spread propaganda. Their purpose is to raise fears that serve their agendas, create or deepen silos and echo chambers, divide people and set them upon each other, and paralyze or confuse public understanding of the political, social and economic landscape.
We live in an era where most people get their ‘news’ via social media and it is very easy to spread fake news. … Given that there is freedom of speech, I wonder how the situation can ever improve.
ANONYMOUS PROJECT LEADER FOR A SCIENCE INSTITUTE
This has been referred to as the weaponization of public narratives. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Reddit and Twitter appear to be prime battlegrounds. Bots are often employed, and AI is expected to be implemented heavily in the information wars to magnify the speed and impact of messaging.
A leading internet pioneer who has worked with the FCC, the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the General Electric Co. (GE) and other major technology organizations commented, “The ‘internet-as-weapon’ paradigm has emerged.”
Dean Willis, consultant for Softarmor Systems, commented, “Governments and political groups have now discovered the power of targeted misinformation coupled to personalized understanding of the targets. Messages can now be tailored with devastating accuracy. We’re doomed to living in targeted information bubbles.”
An anonymous survey participant noted, “Misinformation will play a major role in conflicts between nations and within competing parties within nation states.”
danah boyd, principal researcher at Microsoft Research and founder of Data & Society, wrote, “What’s at stake right now around information is epistemological in nature. Furthermore, information is a source of power and thus a source of contemporary warfare.”
Peter Lunenfeld, a professor at UCLA, commented, “For the foreseeable future, the economics of networks and the networks of economics are going to privilege the dissemination of unvetted, unverified and often weaponized information. Where there is a capitalistic incentive to provide content to consumers, and those networks of distribution originate in a huge variety of transnational and even extra-national economies and political systems, the ability to ‘control’ veracity will be far outstripped by the capability and willingness to supply any kind of content to any kind of user.”
These experts noted that the public has turned to social media – especially Facebook – to get its “news.” They said the public’s craving for quick reads and tabloid-style sensationalism is what makes social media the field of choice for manipulative narratives, which are often packaged to appear like news headlines. They note that the public’s move away from more-traditional mainstream news outlets, which had some ethical standards, to consumption of social newsfeeds has weakened mainstream media organizations, making them lower-budget operations that have been forced to compete for attention by offering up clickbait headlines of their own.
An emeritus professor of communication for a U.S. Ivy League university noted, “We have lost an important social function in the press. It is being replaced by social media, where there are few if any moral or ethical guidelines or constraints on the performance of informational roles.”
A project leader for a science institute commented, “We live in an era where most people get their ‘news’ via social media and it is very easy to spread fake news. The existence of clickbait sites make it easy for conspiracy theories to be rapidly spread by people who do not bother to read entire articles, nor look for trusted sources. Given that there is freedom of speech, I wonder how the situation can ever improve. Most users just read the headline, comment and share without digesting the entire article or thinking critically about its content (if they read it at all).”
Subtheme: The most-effective tech solutions to misinformation will endanger people’s dwindling privacy options, and they are likely to limit free speech and remove the ability for people to be anonymous online
The rise of new and highly varied voices with differing agendas and motivations might generally be considered to be a good thing. But some of these experts said the recent major successes by misinformation manipulators have created a threatening environment in which many in the public are encouraging platform providers and governments to expand surveillance. Among the technological solutions for “cleaning up” the information environment are those that work to clearly identify entities operating online and employ algorithms to detect misinformation. Some of these experts expect that such systems will act to identify perceived misbehaviors and label, block, filter or remove some online content and even ban some posters from further posting.
Increased censorship and mass surveillance will tend to create official ‘truths’ in various parts of the world.
An educator commented, “Creating ‘a reliable, trusted, unhackable verification system’ would produce a system for filtering and hence structuring of content. This will end up being a censored information reality.”
An eLearning specialist observed, “Any system deeming itself to have the ability to ‘judge’ information as valid or invalid is inherently biased.” And a professor and researcher noted, “In an open society, there is no prior determination of what information is genuine or fake.”
In fact, a share of the respondents predicted that the online information environment will not improve in the next decade because any requirement for authenticated identities would take away the public’s highly valued free-speech rights and allow major powers to control the information environment.
A distinguished professor emeritus of political science at a U.S. university wrote, “Misinformation will continue to thrive because of the long (and valuable) tradition of freedom of expression. Censorship will be rejected.” An anonymous respondent wrote, “There is always a fight between ‘truth’ and free speech. But because the internet cannot be regulated free speech will continue to dominate, meaning the information environment will not improve.”
But another share of respondents said that is precisely why authenticated identities – which are already operating in some places, including China – will become a larger part of information systems. A professor at a major U.S. university replied, “Surveillance technologies and financial incentives will generate greater surveillance.” A retired university professor predicted, “Increased censorship and mass surveillance will tend to create official ‘truths’ in various parts of the world. In the United States, corporate filtering of information will impose the views of the economic elite.”
The executive director of a major global privacy advocacy organization argued removing civil liberties in order to stop misinformation will not be effective, saying, “‘Problematic’ actors will be able to game the devised systems while others will be over-regulated.”
Several other respondents also cited this as a major flaw of this potential remedy. They argued against it for several reasons, including the fact that it enables even broader government and corporate surveillance and control over more of the public.
Emmanuel Edet, head of legal services at the National Information Technology Development Agency of Nigeria, observed, “The information environment will improve but at a cost to privacy.”
Bill Woodcock, executive director of the Packet Clearing House, wrote, “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.”
James LaRue, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, commented, “Information systems incentivize getting attention. Lying is a powerful way to do that. To stop that requires high surveillance – which means government oversight which has its own incentives not to tell the truth.”
Tom Valovic, contributor to The Technoskeptic magazine and author of “Digital Mythologies,” said encouraging platforms to exercise algorithmic controls is not optimal. He wrote: “Artificial intelligence that will supplant human judgment is being pursued aggressively by entities in the Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Algorithmic solutions to replacing human judgment are subject to hidden bias and will ultimately fail to accomplish this goal. They will only continue the centralization of power in a small number of companies that control the flow of information.”
Theme 3: The information environment will improve because technology will help label, filter or ban misinformation and thus upgrade the public’s ability to judge the quality and veracity of content
Most of the respondents who gave hopeful answers about the future of truth online said they believe technology will be implemented to improve the information environment. They noted their faith was grounded in history, arguing that humans have always found ways to innovate to overcome problems. Most of these experts do not expect there will be a perfect system – but they expect advances. A number said information platform corporations such as Google and Facebook will begin to efficiently police the environment to embed moral and ethical thinking in the structure of their platforms. They hope this will simultaneously enable the screening of content while still protecting rights such as free speech.
If there is a great amount of pressure from the industry to solve this problem (which there is), then methodologies will be developed and progress will be made … In other words, if there’s a will, there’s way.
Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) at Stanford University, said, “I am hopeful that the principal digital information platforms will take creative initiatives to privilege more authoritative and credible sources and to call out and demote information sources that appear to be propaganda and manipulation engines, whether human or robotic. In fact, the companies are already beginning to take steps in this direction.”
An associate professor at a U.S. university wrote, “I do not see us giving up on seeking truth.” And a researcher based in Europe said, “Technologies will appear that solve the trust issues and reward logic.”
Adam Lella, senior analyst for marketing insights at comScore Inc., replied, “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. If there is a great amount of pressure from the industry to solve this problem (which there is), then methodologies will be developed and progress will be made to help mitigate this issue in the long run. In other words, if there’s a will, there’s way.”
Subtheme: Likely tech-based solutions include adjustments to algorithmic filters, browsers, apps and plug-ins and the implementation of “trust ratings”
Many respondents who hope for improvement in the information environment mentioned ways in which new technological solutions might be implemented.
Bart Knijnenburg, researcher on decision-making and recommender systems and assistant professor of computer science at Clemson University, said, “Two developments will help improve the information environment: 1) News will move to a subscription model (like music, movies, etc.) and subscription providers will have a vested interest in culling down false narratives; 2) Algorithms that filter news will learn to discern the quality of a news item and not just tailor to ‘virality’ or political leaning.”
In order to reduce the spread of fake news, we must deincentivize it financially.
Laurel Felt, lecturer at the University of Southern California, “There will be mechanisms for flagging suspicious content and providers and then apps and plugins for people to see the ‘trust rating’ for a piece of content, an outlet or even an IP address. Perhaps people can even install filters so that, when they’re doing searches, hits that don’t meet a certain trust threshold will not appear on the list.”
A longtime U.S. government researcher and administrator in communications and technology sciences said, “The intelligence, defense and related U.S. agencies are very actively working on this problem and results are promising.”
Amber Case, research fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, suggested withholding ad revenue until veracity has been established. She wrote, “Right now, there is an incentive to spread fake news. It is profitable to do so, profit made by creating an article that causes enough outrage that advertising money will follow. … In order to reduce the spread of fake news, we must deincentivize it financially. If an article bursts into collective consciousness and is later proven to be fake, the sites that control or host that content could refuse to distribute advertising revenue to the entity that created or published it. This would require a system of delayed advertising revenue distribution where ad funds are held until the article is proven as accurate or not. A lot of fake news is created by a few people, and removing their incentive could stop much of the news postings.”
Andrea Matwyshyn, a professor of law at Northeastern University who researches innovation and law, particularly information security, observed, “Software liability law will finally begin to evolve. Market makers will increasingly incorporate security quality as a factor relevant to corporate valuation. The legal climate for security research will continue to improve, as its connection to national security becomes increasingly obvious. These changes will drive significant corporate and public sector improvements in security during the next decade.”
Larry Keeley, founder of innovation consultancy Doblin, predicted technology will be improved but people will remain the same, writing, “Capabilities adapted from both bibliometric analytics and good auditing practices will make this a solvable problem. However, non-certified, compelling-but-untrue information will also proliferate. So the new divide will be between the people who want their information to be real vs. those who simply want it to feel important. Remember that quote from Roger Ailes: ‘People don’t want to BE informed, they want to FEEL informed.’ Sigh.”
Anonymous survey participants also responded:
“Filters and algorithms will improve to both verify raw data, separate ‘overlays’ and to correct for a feedback loop.”
“Semantic technologies will be able to cross-verify statements, much like meta-analysis.”
“The credibility history of each individual will be used to filter incoming information.”
“The veracity of information will be linked to how much the source is perceived as trustworthy – we may, for instance, develop a trust index and trust will become more easily verified using artificial-intelligence-driven technologies.”
“The work being done on things like verifiable identity and information sharing through loose federation will improve things somewhat (but not completely). That is to say, things will become better but not necessarily good.”
“AI, blockchain, crowdsourcing and other technologies will further enhance our ability to filter and qualify the veracity of information.”
“There will be new visual cues developed to help news consumers distinguish between trusted news sources and others.”
Subtheme: Regulatory remedies could include software liability law, required identities, unbundling of social networks like Facebook
A number of respondents believe there will be policy remedies that move beyond whatever technical innovations emerge in the next decade. They offered a range of suggestions, from regulatory reforms applied to the platforms that aid misinformation merchants to legal penalties applied to wrongdoers. Some think the threat of regulatory reform via government agencies may force the issue of required identities and the abolition of anonymity protections for platform users.
Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, replied, “The ‘wild west’ state of the internet will not be permitted to continue by those with power, as we are already seeing with increased national pressure on providers/companies by a range of means from law and regulation to moral and consumer pressures.”
Willie Currie, a longtime expert in global communications diffusion, wrote, “The apparent success of fake news on platforms like Facebook will have to be dealt with on a regulatory basis as it is clear that technically minded people will only look for technical fixes and may have incentives not to look very hard, so self-regulation is unlikely to succeed. The excuse that the scale of posts on social media platforms makes human intervention impossible will not be a defense. Regulatory options may include unbundling social networks like Facebook into smaller entities. Legal options include reversing the notion that providers of content services over the internet are mere conduits without responsibility for the content. These regulatory and legal options may not be politically possible to affect within the U.S., but they are certainly possible in Europe and elsewhere, especially if fake news is shown to have an impact on European elections.”
Sally Wentworth, vice president of global policy development at the Internet Society, warned against too much dependence upon information platform providers in shaping solutions to improve the information environment. She wrote: “It’s encouraging to see some of the big platforms beginning to deploy internet solutions to some of the issues around online extremism, violence and fake news. And yet, it feels like as a society, we are outsourcing this function to private entities that exist, ultimately, to make a profit and not necessarily for a social good. How much power are we turning over to them to govern our social discourse? Do we know where that might eventually lead? On the one hand, it’s good that the big players are finally stepping up and taking responsibility. But governments, users and society are being too quick to turn all of the responsibility over to internet platforms. Who holds them accountable for the decisions they make on behalf of all of us? Do we even know what those decisions are?”
A professor and chair in a department of educational theory, policy and administration commented, “Some of this work can be done in private markets. Being banned from social media is one obvious one. In terms of criminal law, I think the important thing is to have penalties/regulations be domain-specific. Speech can be regulated in certain venues, but obviously not in all. Federal (and perhaps even international) guidelines would be useful. Without a framework for regulation, I can’t imagine penalties.”
Theme 4: The information environment will improve, because people will adjust and make things better
Many of those who expect the information environment to improve anticipate that information literacy training and other forms of assistance will help people become more sophisticated consumers. They expect that users will gravitate toward more reliable information – and that knowledge providers will respond in kind.
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.
Frank Kaufmann, founder and director of several international projects for peace activism and media and information, commented, “The quality of news will improve, because things always improve.” And Barry Wellman, virtual communities expert and co-director of the NetLab Network, said, “Software and people are becoming more sophisticated.”
One hopeful respondent said a change in economic incentives can bring about desired change. Tom Wolzien, chairman of The Video Call Center and Wolzien LLC, said, “The market will not clean up the bad material, but will shift focus and economic rewards toward the reliable. Information consumers, fed up with false narratives, will increasingly shift toward more-trusted sources, resulting in revenue flowing toward those more trusted sources and away from the junk. This does not mean that all people will subscribe to either scientific or journalistic method (or both), but they will gravitate toward material the sources and institutions they find trustworthy, and those institutions will, themselves, demand methods of verification beyond those they use today.”
A retired public official and internet pioneer predicted, “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, adjunct professor of communications, culture and technology at Georgetown University, said, “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.”
Charlie Firestone, executive director at the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, commented, “In the future, tagging, labeling, peer recommendations, new literacies (media, digital) and similar methods will enable people to sift through information better to find and rely on factual information. In addition, there will be a reaction to the prevalence of false information so that people are more willing to act to assure their information will be accurate.”
Howard Rheingold, pioneer researcher of virtual communities, longtime professor and author of “Net Smart: How to Thrive Online,” noted, “As I wrote in ‘Net Smart’ in 2012, some combination of education, algorithmic and social systems can help improve the signal-to-noise ratio online – with the caveat that misinformation/disinformation versus verified information is likely to be a continuing arms race. In 2012, Facebook, Google and others had no incentive to pay attention to the problem. After the 2016 election, the issue of fake information has been spotlighted.”
Subtheme: Misinformation has always been with us and people have found ways to lessen its impact. The problems will become more manageable as people become more adept at sorting through material
Many respondents agree that misinformation will persist as the online realm expands and more people are connected in more ways. Still, the more hopeful among these experts argue that progress is inevitable as people and organizations find coping mechanisms. They say history validates this. Furthermore, they said technologists will play an important role in helping filter out misinformation and modeling new digital literacy practices for users.
We were in this position before, when printing presses broke the existing system of information management. A new system emerged and I believe we have the motivation and capability to do it again.
Mark Bunting, visiting academic at Oxford Internet Institute, a senior digital strategy and public policy advisor with 16 years of experience at the BBC and as a digital consultant, wrote, “Our information environment has been immeasurably improved by the democratisation of the means of publication since the creation of the web nearly 25 years ago. We are now seeing the downsides of that transformation, with bad actors manipulating the new freedoms for antisocial purposes, but techniques for managing and mitigating those harms will improve, creating potential for freer, but well-governed, information environments in the 2020s.”
Jonathan Grudin, principal design researcher at Microsoft, said, “We were in this position before, when printing presses broke the existing system of information management. A new system emerged and I believe we have the motivation and capability to do it again. It will again involve information channeling more than misinformation suppression; contradictory claims have always existed in print, but have been manageable and often healthy.”
Judith Donath, fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and founder of the Sociable Media Group at the MIT Media Lab, wrote, “‘Fake news’ is not new. The Weekly World News had a circulation of over a million for its mostly fictional news stories that are printed and sold in a format closely resembling a newspaper. Many readers recognized it as entertainment, but not all. More subtly, its presence on the newsstand reminded everyone that anything can be printed.”
Joshua Hatch, president of the Online News Association, noted, “I’m slightly optimistic because there are more people who care about doing the right thing than there are people who are trying to ruin the system. Things will improve because people – individually and collectively – will make it so.”
Many of these respondents said the leaders and engineers of the major information platform companies will play a significant role. Some said they expect some other systematic and social changes will alter things.
John Wilbanks, chief commons officer at Sage Bionetworks, replied, “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.”
Danny Rogers, founder and CEO of Terbium Labs, replied, “Things always improve. Not monotonically, and not without effort, but fundamentally, I still believe that the efforts to improve the information environment will ultimately outweigh efforts to devolve it.”
Bryan Alexander, futurist and president of Bryan Alexander Consulting, replied, “Growing digital literacy and the use of automated systems will tip the balance towards a better information environment.”
A number of these respondents said information platform corporations such as Google and Facebook will begin to efficiently police the environment through various technological enhancements. They expressed faith in the inventiveness of these organizations and suggested the people of these companies will implement technology to embed moral and ethical thinking in the structure and business practices of their platforms, enabling the screening of content while still protecting rights such as free speech.
Patrick Lambe, principal consultant at Straits Knowledge, commented, “All largescale human systems are adaptive. When faced with novel predatory phenomena, counter-forces emerge to balance or defeat them. We are at the beginning of a largescale negative impact from the undermining of a social sense of reliable fact. Counter-forces are already emerging. The presence of largescale ‘landlords’ controlling significant sections of the ecosystem (e.g., Google, Facebook) aids in this counter-response.”
A professor in technology law at a West-Coast-based U.S. university said, “Intermediaries such as Facebook and Google will develop more-robust systems to reward legitimate producers and punish purveyors of fake news.”
A longtime director for Google commented, “Companies like Google and Facebook are investing heavily in coming up with usable solutions. Like email spam, this problem can never entirely be eliminated, but it can be managed.”
Sandro Hawke, technical staff at the World Wide Web Consortium, predicted, “Things are going to get worse before they get better, but humans have the basic tools to solve this problem, so chances are good that we will. The biggest risk, as with many things, is that narrow self-interest stops people from effectively collaborating.”
Anonymous respondents shared these remarks:
“Accurate facts are essential, particularly within a democracy, so this will be a high, shared value worthy of investment and government support, as well as private-sector initiatives.”
“We are only at the beginning of drastic technological and societal changes. We will learn and develop strategies to deal with problems like fake news.”
“There is a long record of innovation taking place to solve problems. Yes, sometimes innovation leads to abuses, but further innovation tends to solve those problems.”
Consumers have risen up in the past to block the bullshit, fake ads, fake investment scams, etc., and they will again with regard to fake news.”
“As we understand more about digital misinformation we will design better tools, policies and opportunities for collective action.”
“Now that it is on the agenda, smart researchers and technologists will develop solutions.”
“The increased awareness of the issue will lead to/force new solutions and regulation that will improve the situation in the long-term even if there are bound to be missteps such as flawed regulation and solutions along the way.”
Subtheme: Crowdsourcing will work to highlight verified facts and block those who propagate lies and propaganda. Some also have hopes for distributed ledgers (blockchain)
A number of these experts said solutions such as tagging, flagging or other labeling of questionable content will continue to expand and be of further use in the future in tackling the propagation of misinformation
The future will attach credibility to the source of any information. The more a given source is attributed to ‘fake news,’ the lower it will sit in the credibility tree.
J. Nathan Matias, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University and previously a visiting scholar at MIT’s Center for Civic Media, wrote, “Through ethnography and largescale social experiments, I have been encouraged to see volunteer communities with tens of millions of people work together to successfully manage the risks from inaccurate news.”
A researcher of online harassment working for a major internet information platform commented, “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. We also need to move away from clickbaity-like articles, and not algorithmically rely on popularity but on information.”
An engineer based in North America replied, “The future will attach credibility to the source of any information. The more a given source is attributed to ‘fake news,’ the lower it will sit in the credibility tree.”
Micah Altman, director of research for the Program on Information Science at MIT, commented, “Technological advances are creating forces pulling in two directions: It is increasingly easy to create real-looking fake information; and it is increasingly easy to crowdsource the collection and verification of information. In the longer term, I’m optimistic that the second force will dominate – as transaction cost-reduction appears to be relatively in favor of crowds versus concentrated institutions.”
A past chairman of a major U.S. scientific think tank and former CEO replied, “[The information environment] should improve because there are many techniques that can be brought to bear both human-mediated – such as collective intelligence via user voting and rating – and technological responses that are either very early in their evolution or not or not deployed at all. See spam as an analog.”
Some predicted that digital distributed ledger technologies, known as blockchain, may provide some answers. A longtime technology editor and columnist based in Europe, commented, “The blockchain approach used for Bitcoin, etc., could be used to distribute content. DECENT is an early example.” And an anonymous respondent from Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society said, “They will be cryptographically verified, with concepts.”
But others were less confident that blockchain will work. A leading researcher studying the spread of misinformation observed, “I know systems like blockchain are a start, but in some ways analog systems (e.g., scanned voting ballots) can be more resilient to outside influence than digital solutions such as increased encryption. There are always potential compromises when our communication networks are based on human-coded technology and hardware; this [is] less the case with analog-first, digital-second systems.”
A professor of media and communication based in Europe said, “Right now, reliable and trusted verification systems are not yet available; they may become technically available in the future but the arms race between corporations and hackers is never ending. Blockchain technology may be an option, but every technological system needs to be built on trust, and as long as there is no globally governed trust system that is open and transparent, there will be no reliable verification systems.”
Theme 5: Tech can’t win the battle. The public must fund and support the production of objective, accurate information. It must also elevate information literacy to be a primary goal of education
There was common agreement among many respondents – whether they said they expect to see improvements in the information environment in the next decade or not – that the problem of misinformation requires significant attention. A share of these respondents urged action in two areas: A bolstering of the public-serving press and an expansive, comprehensive, ongoing information literacy education effort for people of all ages.
We can’t machine-learn our way out of this disaster, which is actually a perfect storm of poor civics knowledge and poor information literacy.
A sociologist doing research on technology and civic engagement at MIT said, “Though likely to get worse before it gets better, the 2016-2017 information ecosystem problems represent a watershed moment and call to action for citizens, policymakers, journalists, designers and philanthropists who must work together to address the issues at the heart of misinformation.”
Michael Zimmer, associate professor and privacy and information ethics scholar at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee commented, “This is a social problem that cannot be solved via technology.”
Subtheme: Funding and support must be directed to the restoration of a well-fortified, ethical and trusted public press
Many respondents noted that while the digital age has amplified countless information sources it has hurt the reach and influence of the traditional news organizations. These are the bedrock institutions much of the public has relied upon for objective, verified, reliable information – information undergirded by ethical standards and a general goal of serving the common good. These respondents said the information environment can’t be improved without more, well-staffed, financially stable, independent news organizations. They believe that material can rise above misinformation and create a base of “common knowledge” the public can share and act on.
This is a wake-up call to the news industry, policy makers and journalists to refine the system of news production.
Susan Hares, a pioneer with the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET) and longtime internet engineering strategist, now a consultant, said, “Society simply needs to decide that the ‘press’ no longer provides unbiased information, and it must pay for unbiased and verified information.”
Christopher Jencks, a professor emeritus at Harvard University, said, “Reducing ‘fake news’ requires a profession whose members share a commitment to getting it right. That, in turn, requires a source of money to pay such professional journalists. Advertising used to provide newspapers with money to pay such people. That money is drying up, and it seems unlikely to be replaced within the next decade.”
Rich Ling, professor of media technology at the School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University, said, “We have seen the consequences of fake news in the U.S. presidential election and Brexit. This is a wake-up call to the news industry, policy makers and journalists to refine the system of news production.”
Maja Vujovic, senior copywriter for the Comtrade Group, predicted, “The information environment will be increasingly perceived as a public good, making its reliability a universal need. Technological advancements and civil-awareness efforts will yield varied ways to continuously purge misinformation from it, to keep it reasonably reliable.”
An author and journalist based in North America said, “I believe this era could spawn a new one – a flight to quality in which time-starved citizens place high value on verified news sources.”
A professor of law at a major U.S. state university commented, “Things won’t get better until we realize that accurate news and information are a public good that require not-for-profit leadership and public subsidy.”
Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, wrote, “The problem with online news is structural: There are too few gatekeepers, and the internet business model does not sustain quality journalism. The reason is simply that advertising revenue has been untethered from news production.”
With precarious funding and shrinking audiences, healthy journalism that serves the common good is losing its voice. Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies and director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia, wrote, “There are no technological solutions that correct for the dominance of Facebook and Google in our lives. These incumbents are locked into monopoly power over our information ecosystem and as they drain advertising money from all other low-cost commercial media they impoverish the public sphere.”
Subtheme: Elevate information literacy: It must become a primary goal at all levels of education
Many of these experts said the flaws in human nature and still-undeveloped norms in the digital age are the key problems that make users susceptible to false, misleading and manipulative online narratives. One potential remedy these respondents suggested is a massive compulsory crusade to educate all in digital-age information literacy. Such an effort, some said, might prepare more people to be wise in what they view/read/believe and possibly even serve to upgrade the overall social norms of information sharing.
Information is only as reliable as the people who are receiving it.
Karen Mossberger, professor and director of the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University, wrote, “The spread of fake news is not merely a problem of bots, but part of a larger problem of whether or not people exercise critical thinking and information-literacy skills. Perhaps the surge of fake news in the recent past will serve as a wake-up call to address these aspects of online skills in the media and to address these as fundamental educational competencies in our education system. Online information more generally has an almost limitless diversity of sources, with varied credibility. Technology is driving this issue, but the fix isn’t a technical one alone.”
Mike DeVito, graduate researcher at Northwestern University, wrote, “These are not technical problems; they are human problems that technology has simply helped scale, yet we keep attempting purely technological solutions. We can’t machine-learn our way out of this disaster, which is actually a perfect storm of poor civics knowledge and poor information literacy.”
Miguel Alcaine, International Telecommunication Union area representative for Central America, commented, “The boundaries between online and offline will continue to blur. We understand online and offline are different modalities of real life. There is and will be a market (public and private providers) for trusted information. There is and will be space for misinformation. The most important action societies can take to protect people is education, information and training.”
An early internet developer and security consultant commented, “Fake news is not a product of a flaw in the communications channel and cannot be fixed by a fix to the channel. It is due to a flaw in the human consumers of information and can be repaired only by education of those consumers.”
An anonymous respondent from the Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society noted, “False information – intentionally or inadvertently so – is neither new nor the result of new technologies. It may now be easier to spread to more people more quickly, but the responsibility for sifting facts from fiction has always sat with the person receiving that information and always will.”
An internet pioneer and rights activist based in the Asia/Pacific region said, “We as a society are not investing enough in education worldwide. The environment will only improve if both sides of the communication channel are responsible. The reader and the producer of content, both have responsibilities.”
Deirdre Williams, retired internet activist, replied, “Human beings are losing their capability to question and to refuse. Young people are growing into a world where those skills are not being taught.”
Julia Koller, a learning solutions lead developer, replied, “Information is only as reliable as the people who are receiving it. If readers do not change or improve their ability to seek out and identify reliable information sources, the information environment will not improve.”
Ella Taylor-Smith, senior research fellow at the School of Computing at Edinburgh Napier University, noted, “As more people become more educated, especially as digital literacy becomes a popular and respected skill, people will favour (and even produce) better quality information.”
Constance Kampf, a researcher in computer science and mathematics, said, “The answer depends on socio-technical design – these trends of misinformation versus verifiable information were already present before the internet, and they are currently being amplified. The state and trends in education and place of critical thinking in curricula across the world will be the place to look to see whether or not the information environment will improve – cyberliteracy relies on basic information literacy, social literacy and technological literacy. For the environment to improve, we need substantial improvements in education systems across the world in relation to critical thinking, social literacy, information literacy, and cyberliteracy (see Laura Gurak’s book ‘Cyberliteracy’).”
Su Sonia Herring, an editor and translator, commented, “Misinformation and fake news will exist as long as humans do; they have existed ever since language was invented. Relying on algorithms and automated measures will result in various unwanted consequences. Unless we equip people with media literacy and critical-thinking skills, the spread of misinformation will prevail.”
Responses from additional key experts regarding the future of the information environment
This section features responses by several of the top analysts who participated in this canvassing. Following this wide-ranging set of comments is a much more expansive set of quotations directly tied to the five primary themes identified in this report.
Ignorance breeds frustration and ‘a growing fraction of the population has neither the skills nor the native intelligence to master growing complexity’
Mike Roberts, pioneer leader at ICANN and Internet Hall of Fame member, replied, “There are complex forces working both to improve the quality of information on the net, and to corrupt it. I believe the outrage resulting from recent events will, on balance, lead to a net improvement, but viewed with hindsight, the improvement may be viewed as inadequate. The other side of the complexity coin is ignorance. The average man or woman in America today has less knowledge of the underpinnings of his or her daily life than they did 50 or a hundred years ago. There has been a tremendous insertion of complex systems into many aspects of how we live in the decades since World War II, fueled by a tremendous growth in knowledge in general. Even among highly intelligent people, there is a significant growth in personal specialization in order to trim the boundaries of expected expertise to manageable levels. Among educated people, we have learned mechanisms for coping with complexity. We use what we know of statistics and probability to compartment uncertainty. We adopt ‘most likely’ scenarios for events of which we do not have detailed knowledge, and so on. A growing fraction of the population has neither the skills nor the native intelligence to master growing complexity, and in a competitive social environment, obligations to help our fellow humans go unmet. Educated or not, no one wants to be a dummy – all the wrong connotations. So ignorance breeds frustration, which breeds acting out, which breeds antisocial and pathological behavior, such as the disinformation, which was the subject of the survey, and many other undesirable second order effects. Issues of trustable information are certainly important, especially since the technological intelligentsia command a number of tools to combat untrustable info. But the underlying pathology won’t be tamed through technology alone. We need to replace ignorance and frustration with better life opportunities that restore confidence – a tall order and a tough agenda. Is there an immediate nexus between widespread ignorance and corrupted information sources? Yes, of course. In fact, there is a virtuous circle where acquisition of trustable information reduces ignorance, which leads to better use of better information, etc.”
The truth of news is murky and multifaceted
Judith Donath, fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and founder of the Sociable Media Group at the MIT Media Lab, wrote, “Yes, trusted methods will emerge to block false narratives and allow accurate information to prevail, and, yes, the quality and veracity of information online will deteriorate due to the spread of unreliable, sometimes even dangerous, socially destabilizing ideas. Of course, the definition of ‘true’ is sometimes murky. Experimental scientists have many careful protocols in place to assure the veracity of their work, and the questions they ask have well-defined answers – and still there can be controversy about what is true, what work was free from outside influence. The truth of news stories is far murkier and multi-faceted. A story can be distorted, disproportional, meant to mislead – and still, strictly speaking, factually accurate. … But a pernicious harm of fake news is the doubt it sows about the reliability of all news. Donald Trump’s repeated ‘fake news’ smears of The New York Times, Washington Post, etc., are among his most destructive non-truths.”
“Algorithms weaponize rhetoric,” influencing on a mass scale
Susan Etlinger, industry analyst at Altimeter Research, said, “There are two main dynamics at play: One is the increasing sophistication and availability of machine learning algorithms and the other is human nature. We’ve known since the ancient Greeks and Romans that people are easily persuaded by rhetoric; that hasn’t changed much in two thousand years. Algorithms weaponize rhetoric, making it easier and faster to influence people on a mass scale. There are many people working on ways to protect the integrity and reliability of information, just as there are cybersecurity experts who are in a constant arms race with cybercriminals, but to put as much emphasis on ‘information’ (a public good) as ‘data’ (a personal asset) will require a pretty big cultural shift. I suspect this will play out differently in different parts of the world.”
There’s no technical solution for the fact that ‘news’ is a social bargain
Clay Shirky, vice provost for educational technology at New York University, replied, “‘News’ is not a stable category – it is a social bargain. There’s no technical solution for designing a system that prevents people from asserting that Obama is a Muslim but allows them to assert that Jesus loves you.”
‘Strong economic forces are incentivizing the creation and spread of fake news’
Amy Webb, author and founder of the Future Today Institute, wrote, “In an era of social, democratized media, we’ve adopted a strange attitude. We’re simultaneously skeptics and true believers. If a news story reaffirms what we already believe, it’s credible – but if it rails against our beliefs, it’s fake. We apply that same logic to experts and sources quoted in stories. With our limbic systems continuously engaged, we’re more likely to pay attention to stories that make us want to fight, take flight or fill our social media accounts with links. As a result, there are strong economic forces incentivizing the creation and spread of fake news. In the digital realm, attention is currency. It’s good for democracy to stop the spread of misinformation, but it’s bad for business. Unless significant measures are taken in the present – and unless all the companies in our digital information ecosystem use strategic foresight to map out the future – I don’t see how fake news could possibly be reduced by 2027.”
Propagandists exploit whatever communications channels are available
Ian Peter, internet pioneer, historian and activist, observed, “It is not in the interests of either the media or the internet giants who propagate information, nor of governments, to create a climate in which information cannot be manipulated for political, social or economic gain. Propaganda and the desire to distort truth for political and other ends have always been with us and will adapt to any form of new media which allows open communication and information flows.”
Expanding information outlets erode opportunities for a ‘common narrative’
Kenneth R. Fleischmann, associate professor at the School of Information at the University of Texas, Austin, wrote, “Over time, the general trend is that a proliferation of information and communications technologies (ICTs) has led to a proliferation of opportunities for different viewpoints and perspectives, which has eroded the degree to which there is a common narrative – indeed, in some ways, this parallels a trend away from monarchy toward more democratic societies that welcome a diversity of perspectives – so I anticipate the range of perspectives to increase, rather than decrease, and for these perspectives to include not only opinions but also facts, which are inherently reductionist and can easily be manipulated to suit the perspective of the author, following the old aphorism about statistics Mark Twain attributed to Benjamin Disraeli [‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.’], which originally referred to experts more generally.”
‘Broken as it might be, the internet is still capable of routing around damage’
Paul Saffo, longtime Silicon-Valley-based technology forecaster, commented, “The information crisis happened in the shadows. Now that the issue is visible as a clear and urgent danger, activists and people who see a business opportunity will begin to focus on it. Broken as it might be, the internet is still capable of routing around damage.”
It will be impossible to distinguish between fake and real video, audio, photos
Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future, predicted, “It’s not going to be better or worse but very different. Already we are developing technologies that make it impossible to distinguish between fake and real video, fake and real photographs, etc. We will have to evolve new tools for authentication and verification. We will probably have to evolve both new social norms as well as regulatory mechanisms if we want to maintain online environment as a source of information that many people can rely on.”
A ‘Cambrian explosion’ of techniques will arise to monitor the web and non-web sources
Stowe Boyd, futurist, publisher and editor-in-chief of Work Futures, said, “The rapid rise of AI will lead to a Cambrian explosion of techniques to monitor the web and non-web media sources and social networks and rapidly identifying and tagging fake and misleading content.”
Well, there’s good news and bad news about the information future …
Jeff Jarvis, professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, commented, “Reasons for hope: Much attention is being directed at manipulation and disinformation; the platforms may begin to recognize and favor quality; and we are still at the early stage of negotiating norms and mores around responsible civil conversation. Reasons for pessimism: Imploding trust in institutions; institutions that do not recognize the need to radically change to regain trust; and business models that favor volume over value.”
A fear of the imposition of pervasive censorship
Jim Warren, an internet pioneer and open-government/open-records/open-meetings advocate, said, “False and misleading information has always been part of all cultures (gossip, tabloids, etc.). Teaching judgment has always been the solution, and it always will be. I (still) trust the longstanding principle of free speech: The best cure for ‘offensive’ speech is MORE speech. The only major fear I have is of massive communications conglomerates imposing pervasive censorship.”
People have to take responsibility for finding reliable sources
Steven Miller, vice provost for research at Singapore Management University, wrote, “Even now, if one wants to find reliable sources, one has no problem doing that, so we do not lack reliable sources of news today. It is that there are all these other options, and people can choose to live in worlds where they ignore so-called reliable sources, or ignore a multiplicity of sources that can be compared, and focus on what they want to believe. That type of situation will continue. Five or 10 years from now, I expect there to continue to be many reliable sources of news, and a multiplicity of sources. Those who want to seek out reliable sources will have no problems doing so. Those who want to make sure they are getting a multiplicity of sources to see the range of inputs, and to sort through various types of inputs, will be able to do so, but I also expect that those who want to be in the game of influencing perceptions of reality and changing the perceptions of reality will also have ample means to do so. So the responsibility is with the person who is seeking the news and trying to get information on what is going on. We need more individuals who take responsibility for getting reliable sources.”