March 27, 2017

Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, “fake news” has become a hotly debated topic. While there is no general consensus on the meaning of the term, it is undeniable that technology aids its proliferation. At a March 20 panel discussion at SIPA, experts Jonathan Albright, David Carroll, and Robert Y. Shapiro explored the technological underpinnings of the fake news phenomenon.

After opening remarks by Dean Merit E. Janow, Albright described his findings from using networking mapping techniques to unveil the digital architecture of fake news.

“Middlemen like Reddit are major players in the digital ecosystem,” he said. “For example, information from WikiLeaks is being moderated though Reddit and then showing up in Wikipedia. I also found that the leftwing media is cut off from the news ecosystem.”

Carroll blamed the spread of fake news on the greed of technological giants.

“Fake news is a symptom of the inherently fraudulent nature of Silicon Valley,” he said. “It is profiting from surveillance capitalism. Hundreds of companies are bidding on your browser history.

“In this way,” he continued, “Facebook makes money off of selling the future behavior of its users.

“Clickbait is the business model of many publications, and it is degrading public trust in the journalistic enterprise,” Carroll added. “Unfortunately, we can’t get rid of this because it makes too much money.”

Shapiro argued that countersurveillance and making sources of corroborating information available could serve to mitigate the effect of fake news. But he also maintained that the influence of fake news may be overestimated.

“A lot is being assumed in regards to the effect of fake news,” Shapiro said. “But it actually may be a lot of smoke and not necessary a fire.”

The event moderator, SIPA Fellow Hugo Zylberberg, closed the event by challenging the panel to offer some non-data solutions to the problem of fake news. In response, Albright called for the introduction of media literacy classes in elementary schools that would enable young people to identify fake news.

“Media literacy needs to be brought into schools at an earlier age,” said Albright. “People need to be able to discern what is clearly being misrepresented as the truth.”

— Serina Bellamy MIA ’17