Last week Google, Twitter and Facebook’s lawyers and executives faced Senate and House Hearings about the Russian Interference in our last election. Legislators put these companies through the ringer as they showed actual ads bought but Russian operatives that represented false news stories that intended to influence and sway the last presidential election. These legislators asked hard questions and wanted real answers from these social media representatives about how they will go about making sure this does not happen again in the upcoming 2018 mid-term elections.
While these company representatives said they were on top of the problem and shared how they were going to tweak their algorithms and take other measures to try and catch these false ads before they even make it to their sites, I got the impression from the hearing’s that these lawmakers were not convinced Google, Facebook and Twitter really had a handle on this and could deliver. Even worse for them, Sen Diane Feinstein scolded them for not catching this sooner and said that she does not believe that they understand the damage they have done to America’s democratic process. Also, while these companies may have felt they passed the test from these hearings, I think they will come under even greater governmental scrutiny in the next year and am not ruling out that they may all be deemed a media company and come under some regulations before the next election.
The day after the hearings, Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted out that the issues are not just the Russian Interference but also the problem of Fake News in general. More specifically, the fake news created by normal citizens to push their personal beliefs or agenda or fake news based even on something interesting that someone might want to share with their friends.
In an interview with NBC He stated “”I don’t believe that the big issue is ads from a foreign government. I believe that’s like .1 percent of the issue,” Cook told NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt in an exclusive interview that aired Wednesday night.The bigger issue is that some of these tools are used to divide people, to manipulate people, to get fake news to people in broad numbers, and so, to influence their thinking,” Cook said. “And this, to me, is the No. 1 through 10 issue.”
I myself got caught up on sharing a fake news story during California’s heavy rains earlier this year. Someone posted a picture of that massive bridge collapse near Big Sur and the picture they showed was interesting and disturbing and I thought it was newsworthy. However, a really good friend of mine saw what I posted and quickly corrected me by saying that this was a picture of a bridge closure at a different area from 3 years back. I immediacy deleted my Facebook post and then sought out the real story about what was a serious road closure but the picture was completely different and much less dramatic.
On another occasion, I posted a political story that I thought was worth discussing but quickly found out it was a fake story and pulled it down immediately. However, I was duped as I suspect many people are, especially if the story or post comes from someone they know and/or respect. What troubled me once this happened to me twice was how easy it is for someone to share a fake news story and it being spread by a person they know and trust.
Remember that parlor game Gossip? I played it often when I was young. The idea is to whisper something to a person in a circle and see if the original message would be the same when it is shared by the last person in the circle. Very seldom was the original message the same once it got around the circle and shared by the last person in the link. This is not to say that social media is necessarily a gossip machine, but it’s clear it has become more of a gossip medium than just a pure vehicle for people to share there life stories and interests with their friends.
The other issue about fake news is the fact that there are image tools that make it easy to create fake images and tie them to a story. The one most used are Adobe’s Photoshop. I once took a serious photography class and was taught how to use Photoshop to alter, in this case, my photo. I have to admit that when I was done, I looked younger and much thinner and was tempted to save that image. However it was a fake image, and although I liked what I saw, I deleted it.
More than once I have fallen for a fake picture that used photoshop and been tempted to share it with friends. But given what happened with that fake bridge photo I mentioned above, I now take extra measures to check out my stories source before ever posting anything on social media.
While I do think that Facebook, Google, and Twitter will find ways to flush out false political ads over time, I am less convinced that they will ever be able to stop fake news. This is especially difficult to do if it is created by ordinary people for whatever reason and then shared by trusted friends who get duped based on any form of personal interest or persuasions.