‘Regulation has to go a lot further than regulation on Mark Zuckerberg’s terms’

26 Apr 2019

Dr Jane Suiter, director, DCU Institute for Future Media and Journalism. Image: DCU

Ahead of her appearance at Inspirefest 2019, Dr Jane Suiter discusses disinformation, social media and whether we can trust Mark Zuckerberg.

When it comes to digital research, there are few grounds as fertile and complex as that of the media we experience today. Aside from questioning content as so-called ‘fake news’, there is a technological war ongoing between those trying to provide accurate information, and those looking to distort it for whatever gains.

There is no doubt in this war on information that we have reached the nuclear age. So, what efforts are being made to prevent the very notion of online media as being untrustworthy?

Future Human

Dr Jane Suiter, associate professor at Dublin City University and director of the Institute for Future Media and Journalism (FuJo), is leading one such cause – an EU project named ‘Provenance – and is set to speak at this year’s Inspirefest.

The Provenance initiative launched towards the end of last year wants to put the power of determining what is and isn’t disinformation back in the hands of the general public. Irish collaborators include the Science Foundation Ireland Adapt research centre for digital content technology at Trinity College Dublin and the content intelligence company NewsWhip.

“We’re going to work with NewsWhip to look at the stories that are beginning to move viral – for example, within the politics sphere and the medical information sphere,” Suiter said to Siliconrepublic.com.

“We get as close as possible to point zero where those stories first broke so … we can tell then the extent to which things have been manipulated.”

An information arms race?

To do this, Suiter and Provenance are turning to blockchain technology to create a means of tracing a trail of breadcrumbs back to the original source. The resulting watermark could tell a viewer or reader the actual origin of a piece of content and what has been changed.

Suiter explained how this would work: “We know all the change that has happened to [a piece of content], we can track it across the web and then show a little logo that can sit on top of your social feed.

“If you click into that logo, you’ll be able to see the extent to which it’s been manipulated and where it first came from.”

I asked whether she thinks her work and that of her colleagues can be framed as an information ‘arms race’ between those trying to create disinformation and those trying to fight back.

While admitting there is an arms race to some degree in this space, she said that what she does in her research somewhat avoids this battle.

“Rather than just being about the content – in which case you’re getting into an arms race – what we’re trying to do is increase the critical capacity of citizens.”

Working with the social media giants

With social media companies under constant fire from governments and advocates over their handling of the spread of disinformation on their platforms, you would think they would be crying out for solutions such as the one put forward by Suiter and Provenance. However, in its early stages, it is limited to a browser plugin with no sign that Facebook, Twitter et al want to adopt it.

So, does she want to see Provenance work with the tech giants or work outside the system?

“[These companies] talk the talk of wanting a balance between a good information ecosphere and freedom of expression. The reason why people are getting such poor content is because it is trying to trigger their emotions because, of course, that’s going to increase shares and likes, which makes the platforms more money.

“[Adopting this technology] will be a little bit against their business case, but all we can do is develop it and have it as it is.”

‘Zuckerberg wants regulation on Zuckerberg’s terms’

One giant of Silicon Valley that has cautiously toyed with the idea of accepting some outside help – and particularly regulation – is Facebook. Since the news broke about Cambridge Analytica and how users’ data is traded back and forth like currency, Facebook has faced relentless pressure to be much more proactive to protect the vast amounts of data, and also protect users from harm.

Zuckerberg recently wrote an op-ed in a number of newspapers saying that the social network – and the internet at large – needed help from governments and regulators.

“Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree,” he said at the time. “I’ve come to believe that we shouldn’t make so many important decisions about speech on our own.”

Suiter, however, sees his efforts as being far from what should be expected of someone who has the keys to one of the internet’s biggest platforms.

“He comes out and says some nice platitudes and then he disappears; Mark Zuckerberg wants regulation on Mark Zuckerberg’s terms,” she said.

With no clear sign of Facebook et al totally throwing open the doors to regulators, then what solutions to keeping a lid on disinformation do we have?

As one of the influential starters of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly in 2011, Suiter, unsurprisingly, sees education of younger generations as being instrumental in showing them how to think with a critical mind about what is presented to them through whatever media they see.

“It’s a complex problem with multifaceted solutions,” she said. I have colleagues who are working on digital literacy initiatives and games that go into primary schools. The kids actually start designing their own disinformation to see how easy it is, and other kids play a game to try and spot [their disinformation]. This kind of thing really brings home to them the prevalence of it.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic