Kinzen’s Mark Little believes that Facebook and Twitter will never truly be able to tackle disinformation on their platforms as long as the underlying incentive is advertising.
At Inspirefest 2019, former editor of Siliconrepublic.com, John Kennedy, led a panel on the topic of disinformation in online media.
Kennedy was joined by Kinzen co-founders Áine Kerr and Mark Little, and Dr Jane Suiter, director of Dublin City University’s (DCU) Institute for Future Media and Journalism, who shared their expertise on the subject of disinformation.
Little kicked off the discussion by noting how in the age of disinformation, the existing model of journalism, which relies on advertising for funding, has a lot to answer for.
However, Little’s outlook on the future isn’t completely pessimistic. He believes that while the physical newspapers could cease to exist within his lifetime, public service journalism never will.
In fact, he sees online journalism as having a very healthy future, but only if we move away from the traditional models that rely solely on advertising.
“I think it’s a good move to move toward reader revenue … With Netflix and Spotify, we have a whole generation of young people conditioned to pay for quality content, so that’s a good thing,” he said.
Suiter then explained a project she’s working on in DCU, called Provenance, which will assist people in discerning truth from lies.
“We’re trying to build resilience among citizens. So, we know that the social media algorithms – we know that [with] Facebook in particular – the affordances of those algorithms push stories to people that are going to trigger strong emotions, particularly anger and fear and so on,” she said.
“People then often unthinkingly share and ‘like’ content that they haven’t even looked at, they don’t know whether it’s based on fact or not … You see that with anti-vaxxers, you see it with health stories and all sorts of things.”
The aim of Provenance is to make the individuals seeing these stories stop and think for a split second before they ‘like’ or share something without verifying its basis in reality.
Suiter said that she believes there are great benefits to teaching these critical-thinking skills to children who are in school. Provenance is currently working with a Portuguese company that’s building games for kids that will test if they can recognise disinformation when they see it.
However, Suiter also noted that there is a fine line between educating children and developing a sense of cynicism that is, perhaps, too strong. “Because the likes of Trump, for example, [people] say, ‘Well, all media is fake news!’ The idea of that is to get people to trust nothing.”
Kerr added that research suggests teaching these skills to children from the age of 12. She said that it can build confidence in adolescents: “They have pride in that, that they can then go to their social circles and say, ‘Don’t trust that – and here’s why’, and, ‘Here’s why you should read this or share this instead’.”
Social climate change
At present, Little views the abundance of disinformation on the internet as a global health crisis. Referencing former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, Little said that we’re experiencing “social climate change”.
“The world has been wired over the past 10 years to essentially be manipulated.” He compared the situation to the period in the 1960s and 1970s when scientists discovered that cigarettes were bad for our health.
“It’s not enough to tell people, ‘You know, smoking’s bad for you and broccoli is good for you’, because we know that. We need now to start building new systems that allow people to make conscious choices so that every day their information intake is about their best intentions,” he said.
According to Little, it would be a big mistake to hand the power to make these changes over to politicians or governments.
“We need something far more global,” he said, suggesting something akin to the World Health Organization, but for regulation of the internet.
“Waiting for Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey to suddenly have an awakening is bullshit. They will not change as long as the underlying incentive is advertising.
“Now, they may reform at some point, but right now … waiting for Facebook to do something about this, I think, is naive. Secondly, putting power in the hands of individual nation state politicians is also a real mistake.”
Little recalled interviewing an Irish politician a few years back, who kept referring to Twitter as “The Twitter”, to illustrate that many politicians have a serious and fundamental misunderstanding of technology.
There was a consensus among the experts on the panel that existing tech companies have far too much power at this point.
“It’s going to actually need to be an American or European regulator who’s actually going to say, ‘OK, Facebook can no longer own WhatsApp, that’s going to have to be broken up’,” Suiter said.
Little agreed: “We need to break up the dominance that particularly Facebook has. I can leave Facebook, I can leave Instagram. I can’t really leave WhatsApp and that’s a fundamentally dangerous state of affairs.”
Despite concerns over Big Tech dominance, the spread of disinformation and the future state of journalism, Little still believes there are plenty of positive opportunities that can come from this “social climate change”.
“I hope we don’t end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The internet is a fantastic tool – it makes us smarter, better, it achieves progress. The democratic revolution of the open web was hijacked by platforms that didn’t have our interests at heart.
“Let’s remember this time as the time in which we took back the democratic potential of the internet, and we built new systems, [so that we can] look back in 10 or 15 years and go, ‘Wow, that was a dangerous detour but thank God we all realised that social media is not evil, the internet is great and we found the ways to actually live out that reality’. That’s what I want for my kids.”