In 2016 we saw the first ever presidential election campaign run mostly, if not entirely, on social media. Although platforms like Twitter and Facebook can be beneficial in spreading awareness and surveying public opinion, there is also a downside which manifests in the power of propaganda. The “fake news” effect spread like wildfire and inevitably led to the victory of our current president, which has been one of the most controversial administrations to date.
Kevin Roose of the New York Times highlights a report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee, providing data on the Russian influence of the 2016 election. It was discovered that the “campaign of 2016 was a freak occurrence enabled by a perfect storm of vulnerabilities: growth‑obsessed social media companies, unsuspecting intelligence agencies and an election featuring two hyper‑polarizing candidates” says Roose. To be clear, I am not implicating any bias toward this event, but rather outlining the deleterious influence bad actors can have in a democratic landscape if the intention and the sources of posts are not transparent.
What Factors Make Room for Fake News to Thrive?
The internet holds power to capitalize on the vulnerabilities of humans due to one key factor: validation (or rather, the need for it). The online ecosystem has become a marketplace wherein advertisers are the consumers and users are the products. Advertisers, publishers, and users measure success based on metrics of quantity rather than quality.
We ask such questions as:
- How many likes?
- How many shares?
- How many views?
- How many clicks?
- How many visitors?
The answers to these questions determine how “successful” a given campaign is deemed to be and how much is owed to all the intermediaries responsible for ensuring brands’ ads are served to the intended audience. This focus on quantity over quality allows bad actors to profit from “working the system” by using bots, device farms, or click-spamming to generate non-human impressions.
By shifting to a system based on quality rather than quantity, we could significantly lessen the degree to which malicious actors can influence us online. Of course, this is easier said than done, but a combination of Big Data, AI, blockchain, and the expertise of real human beings could be leveraged to transform the ecosystem for the better.
Leveraging Technology as a Solution
To truly avert a deconstruction of our democratic systems by foreign powers and bad actors using the internet to exploit user data to influence actions, points of view, and emotional vulnerabilities, we should be asking such questions as:
- How accurate is this content?
- How reliable is the source?
- Is it labeled correctly (advertising/sponsored)
A combination of cutting-edge technology and human expertise can be leveraged to foster the dissemination of reputable information on the internet while facilitating engagement based on accuracy. Already, platforms such as Facebook use AI algorithms to recognize and identify content that doesn’t meet its community standards. According to Business of Apps “AI can detect suspicious behavior, filter IP addresses, and generally monitor traffic.” As vital as AI is in sifting through millions of data points, algorithms cannot understand all the nuances of human behavior, and therefore, it is also essential to involve human professionals who can confirm or deny findings by algorithms that fall into grey areas, such as whether a post is inaccurate or merely sarcastic.
Though Facebook and other social media platforms have promised to do a better job of identifying problematic content and blocking offending users, platforms and publishers shouldn’t necessarily be tasked with policing the internet (nor should we, as users, want that). It is therefore just as important for users to have a say in the type of content allowed and promoted on the web. Such user empowerment may require an entire restructuring of the internet from one powered by centralized platforms and sites to a decentralized network of participants with users playing the biggest role.
Blockchain technology can be harnessed to enact the next phase in internet transparency to address issues of election fraud, ad fraud, and fake news. Falk Hedemann, a writer for Dmexco, explains that specifically in the advertising sector, blockchain allows “each participant [to] follow the complete journey of each individual advertising booking and examine it for ad fraud.” Although Hedemann concludes that all parties involved will have to be fully participating on the blockchain (which could be in the distant future) it is still an important step towards constructing a novel ecosystem truly built on transparency. When lights are shown in the dark corners of the web, it will be a lot more difficult for bad actors to get away with stealing ad dollars and wrongly influencing users to enhance their own interests.