Fake News and Tricknology

My top ‘must watch’ documentary this weekend is ‘Ian Hislop’s Fake News: A True History’ available on BBC iPlayer.

Taking the long view on this contentious issue, Ian discovers that fake news has been wreaking havoc for quite some time. He mines history to identify what motivates fake news – from profit, power and politics to prejudice, paranoia and propaganda. Ian also meets some of the victims of fake news stories and he also gets a taste of what it is liked to be ‘deep faked’.

Ian meets James Alefantis, owner of the Washington DC pizzeria who fell victim to the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy. He also quizzes ex-construction worker Christopher Blair, a controversial figure sometimes dubbed ‘the godfather of fake news’. He discusses how frightened we should be about fake news, and what can be done about it, with Damian Collins MP who chaired the British parliamentary inquiry into fake news. 

Collins argues that today’s tech giants – Facebook in particular – should be taking even more active steps to take down disinformation. But that path also has its perils, as Ian finds out when he resurrects the extraordinary story of Victoria Woodhull, a woman who sued the British Museum for libel in the 1890s. This pioneering American feminist – the first woman who ran to be president – was an early victim of ‘shaming’. But does combating lies give anyone the right to censor the historical record and limit free speech?

Technology and Ethics

During the documentary, Ian says that journalists are spending more and more time today verifying source information so they can continue to produce news people can trust. And, there lies the heart of the issue for me – trust. Do we trust those who develop, sell and apply smart technologies to do so responsibly? I’m not so sure that we do. Driven by things like data misuse and fake news, there appears to be an undercurrent of growing mistrust in how we perceive the purveyors of both big and small smart tech.

But we love our gadgets. They’ve become status symbols. Even wearing the wrong smart watch these days can be considered de rigueur. But in our blind heady rush to buy and trust these devices, are we making a huge error? For example, I read recently how a cheap smartphone could be opened using anyone’s fingerprint and how some facial recognition systems aren’t as robust and as safe as the manufacturers claim. In addition to this, we see AI being used to interview job candidates and school sports teams having to submit DNA swabs to ‘improve their performance’ etc. It’s all a bit worrying. I’m not against the use of smart technologies. They bring many advantages. The difficulty is that, even if they are developed with the right intentions, it’s when they are mass produced and misused by others that the problems start.

We need greater control. At the very least, I think people should become more aware of how this technology is being used. This includes how news and information is easily faked and how information can be stolen and manipulated.

Several information awareness campaigns already exist – this is Cybersecurity Month. But do these campaigns go far enough? Why not have a “Turn Your Smartphone Off for a Week” campaign or declare certain places ‘Tech Free’? I can already see the shock and horror on some people’s faces. But let’s face it, we have become addicts. Smart devices are the ‘crack cocaine’ of the new century. One of the saddest things I witnessed recently was a family sitting in a restaurant. They were all using their smartphones. No one was talking. The youngest child didn’t have a smartphone and was trying to attract the attention of the others but was being ignored. After a few minutes of this, rather than talk and engage with the child, one of the parents simply handed their phone over to the child. Now every head was bowed.

Technology and its ethical use have never become so important. That’s why it should be taught in every school and college. Students should not only become more aware of privacy risks but learn how today’s technology can be used to distort information, create fake news and even influence who and what they may become. Social media and technology companies, including all organisations that deploy smart technologies, should also take more ethical and social responsibility for the information, products and services they use, sell and promote.

Technological and scientific ‘progress’ always brings unintended and unforeseen outcomes. Of course we can’t see into the future nor can we predict the unpredictable but we are intelligent beings. We can ‘read the signs’ – if we want to. And, we can all see the seeds of a darker more distorted version of the bright new utopian future some tech corporations would have us believe.

According to the American writer, futurist and businessman, Alvin Toffler, knowledge (information/data) is power. The idea is that the more information and knowledge you have, the better your decisions and control over destiny. But who’s destiny are we talking about here? Yours, mine, Silicon Valley’s? We are at a crossroads. Never before has science and technology been used to influence and shape the lives of so many in such a short time. Yes, technology and science are here to stay but how are we preparing the new generation to use these advanced tools ethically and well.

Philip Adams SVP