Archive for Friday, November 24, 2017

Opinion: How to protect against fake ‘facts’

November 24, 2017


— Amid the slithering mess of problems that emerged in 2017, the one that bothers me most is that people don’t seem to know what’s true anymore. “Facts” this year got put in quotation marks.

All the other political difficulties of the Donald Trump era are subsumed in this one. If we aren’t sure what’s true, how can we act to make things better? If we don’t know where we are on the map, how do we know which way to move? Democracy assumes a well-informed citizenry that argues about solutions — not about facts.

We can all choose our favorite examples of America’s increasing difficulty in agreeing about evidence: the disdain for science among climate-change skeptics; the refusal to believe allegations about people we like, and the overeagerness to denounce those we don’t like; the way in which political polarization has spread into every area of our common life — including sports.

What should thoughtful people do about this overarching problem? Part of the answer lies with my profession, the news business. We need to work harder to make sure that we’re unbiased truth-tellers, not a series of echo chambers. When every story in a newspaper or on a website or cable channel seems to be going in the same direction, that’s a sign that something’s wrong. That’s one reason I’d like to see a return of ombudsmen, to hold news organizations more accountable.

But journalists need new tools. We can’t always vet every fact. We rely on certain trusted sources, news services such as The Associated Press or Reuters. But even those superbly professional fact-gatherers sometimes have trouble verifying information. Social media can help — people can upload video from their cellphones of events as they happen. But we’re learning that social media can be tools of deception as well as truth.

So here’s an offbeat proposal: Just as the provenance of a work of art is established by art historians and auction houses, we need technological tools that will help confirm the provenance of facts.

The idea is simple: An art buyer should want to know that the painting attributed to, say, Leonardo da Vinci was actually created by him. So specialists seek to reconstruct the chain of ownership, documenting how a work passed among collectors and galleries over the centuries. Scholars can’t always establish direct links back to the artist (and such uncertainty appears to cloud the recent purchase of Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi” for $450 million). But the exercise is essential for the proper functioning of art markets.

There’s even a new approach known as “digital provenance.” This topic was explored at a conference this month at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. One set of panels explored “visualizing object histories,” including the study of “movements of objects and people through time and space.”

The internet giants, like Google and Facebook, should be tuning their systems to establish the provenance of fact. I’d like to see them using “machine learning” to interrogate supposed facts to establish where they’ve been — how they first surfaced, and how they were passed from user to user. If there are gaps in provenance — an unexplained missing link in the chain of evidence, or signs of misattribution — then those anomalies should be flagged automatically.

In this fact-provenance scheme, we’d hopefully be able to trace information back to the source and detect evidence of manipulation. News organizations whose track record is shown to be reliable would get weighted positively by the digital system. Such measurement of source reliability would be a tricky test, but it doesn’t strike me as impossible. Google does something similar every time you type a phrase into the search box.

People could still base their decisions on dubious, unverified facts, just as a collector can still buy a painting whose provenance is suspect. But there would at least be fair warning.

We speak often of the “marketplace of ideas,” in the expectation that markets operate rationally and efficiently. But consumers assume that most markets aren’t rigged, and that tainted or unsafe products have been screened. That’s obviously a complicated problem when the commodity is information — the First Amendment lets us promote ideas without rating their safety. But the First Amendment doesn’t protect fraud, libel or deceit.

We live in an information ecosystem, to choose another analogy. If it becomes polluted, all the creatures that depend on that ecosystem are at risk. We say that sunlight is the best disinfectant. But that’s true only when the sun shines brightly.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Steve Hicks 6 months ago

Mr. Ignatius addresses what is exactly the greatest danger in a democratic system: the truthfulness of the information on which voters make their decisions.

He offers a thoughtful analysis of the problem (and I hope the screamers against "lying liberal media" will pay special attention to how honest criticism of real-world news-organizations is people who know what they're talking about).

He makes excellent, easily-workable suggestions.

Thanks, JW, for bringing us Mr. Ignatius' writings.

P Allen Macfarlane 6 months ago

The "marketplace of ideas" not only assumes an informed citizenry, but also one of good will where no one is demonized or disrespected.

Ken Lassman 6 months ago

I think what Mr. Ignatius is proposing is a kind service that the Health Department Inspector provides for restaurants, which does not count on good assumptions to produce a healthy product. We have such "marketplace safeguards" in place not only for our restaurants but also for our food producers, our consumer products including appliances, automobiles, our housing stock, our banking and finance industry and on and on.

Considering that the "information age" financially rewards numbers of eyeballs looking at a product, and that a scandalous piece of information sells well indeed, it seems perfectly legitimate to attempt to provide as much safeguard about a piece of information as we do for ensuring the electrical integrity of a washing machine.

Steve Hicks 6 months ago

I would agree, in a general sense.

But don't we all tend to personally identify with the ideas that we espouse ?

Not saying it's right we do so: but don't we also tend to believe reprehensible ideas reflect the character of the people who hold them ?

I'd agree with you in wishing for civil and respectful discussion: but there are some other things going on here, aren't there ?

Ken Lassman 6 months ago

Steve, I believe that what Mr. Ignatius is trying to address is the deliberate seeding of news that is fabricated and disseminated as real, such as those inflammatory posts deliberately released to spread doubt and distrust and increase polarization and hatred, as has been documented to have happened throughout the world's electoral processes among many other examples. If the sources were more easily trackable and documented for their authenticity, then folks could more easily separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

Not that the major media hasn't distorted or overlooked in the past and will continue to do so at times in the future. The beauty of the internet is that the opportunity to get the news directly from the source, such as in real-time developing stories. The unfortunate truth is that that direct access creates the opportunity for deliberate distortions and manipulation by those with an agenda, which is lent more credibility by past sins of the mainstream media when they didn't do a good enough job themselves and were caught in the act.

There will always be a need for high standards and professionalism in the journalism profession, and there will always be a need for real-time media from the trenches. The checks and balances in such a rapidly changing, technologically driven situation are going to be fairly loose, unfortunately, providing the ability to manipulate despite any safeguards we can impose. But any tools such as what Mr. Ignatius is proposing has the potential to help the informed citizen sort it all out.

Steve Hicks 6 months ago

Sorry, Ken: I meant my "reprehensible ideas" caveat as response to Allen's post. (Maybe there should be an "accidental-misdirection-by-technological-klutziness" category for corrupting the news-stream.)

Dorothy Hoyt-Reed 6 months ago

Here are some of the fake stories that have come across recently: Malia Obama arrested with Black Lives Matter riot Bananas in WalMart have HIV Sweden has a civil war Starbucks refuse free products to Marines Photograph shows Antifa beating a cop Keanu Reeves says elites use baby blood to get high. Colorado Infant dies of Pot Overdose.

Now most of us would look at these and laugh. Then probably do the fact check and post the link to the truth, but people still share these. Once or twice I reposted a story that turned out to be fake. First, I apologized, then I deleted the post. But there are people who don't do that. Just like they used to believe everything in tabloid magazines, they believe anything on the internet. There are some great sites who research anything. And despite some radical conspiracy theorists claims, they are non partisan. They just look at the claim and give you evidence of why it's false. They can see a picture and tell if it was manipulated. Don't post or tweet stories, unless you fact check them first. If you do, you are lying as much as the person who created fake news. And if it's from the Onion, just read it and laugh. It's not real.

Richard Heckler 6 months ago

It seems to me after investigating the sources calling others "Fake News" are in fact dependable sources of fake news. Where I find these reliable sources of fake news is on very conservative sites which are basically making up stories that which cannot be documented. Why do other conservatives spread these lies without first documenting the information?

Finding Koch Oil with a larger budget than EXXON-Mobil denying any such thing as Climate Change was quite interesting. Yet other conservative sources and sheep regurgitate such nonsense.

Bob Summers 6 months ago

Ignatius, like other Liberals, cannot accept the fact that Trump is President.

So it must be he is president because of lies.

Why don't you create another fantastical dossier out of thin air Ignatius, like your fellow Liberals have.

Maybe that will work.

Steve Hicks 6 months ago

Thanks, Allen, Dorothy, Richard and Ken for your thoughtful responses. It seems we all agree with Mr. Ignatius that (as with art-works) "people should want to know" the provenance of ideas in the marketplace.

It's right we expect our fellow-citizens desire the truth. As all your comments point out, it's a realistic expectation: anyone who wants to can "sort out" what's true.

But we all know there are people who don't want the truth, and people who want to deceive.

I'll disagree with Allen on one point: disrespect is the right response to people who choose lies over truth.

Bob Summers 6 months ago

The fantasies the Liberal creates and calls "truth" is mind boggling.

Firm behind dubious Trump-Russia dossier paid multiple journalists for work

Fusion GPS, the liberal research firm that funded and distributed the anti-Trump dossier, has paid three journalists for work related to Congress’ Russia probe, according to court filings. Lawyers representing the House Intelligence Committee made the assertion in a bid to force Fusion to turn over additional bank transactions involving reporters, law firms and a media company.

Liberals own Hollywood because of their abilities to create fantasies.

It is scary how they believe and compliment one another for their fantasy work.

Dorothy Hoyt-Reed 6 months ago

Seriously, Bob. You can have your opinions about factual things that happen.

Example: Fact: The tax plan as written at the moment will eliminate the deduction for teachers who buy school supplies for the their classroom.

Opinion: You would say this is a good thing for whatever reason. I would say that is a bad thing, because corporations can deduct all their business expenses, so why shouldn't teachers?

But you cannot say that there is child trafficking happening at a pizza place, because their is no evidence. You can't say that bananas in WalMart are infected with HIV, because they aren't and no one has ever gotten HIV by eating a banana. The world is not flat, because all evidence says otherwise.

And if you truly believe that there aren't people making up lies and spreading them, then why are some of them bragging about it?

Bob Summers 6 months ago

Thanks for pointing out more examples of people with the Liberal genetic condition creating fantasies as fact.

Good job

Chris Golledge 5 months, 4 weeks ago

The Washington Free Beacon, who started the dossier, is not generally considered a liberal source, and Paul Singer is a strong backer of the Republican party. So, conservative Republicans are liberals if they tell you something you don't want to hear, got it.

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