About That Echo Chamber: Combatting Bots, Propaganda & Fake News
One of the thorniest problems bedeviling our unraveling democracy is the distortion of reality–intentional and unintentional– provided via the Internet. That distortion is immensely aided by our tendency to live in echo chambers populated by friends who think like we do.
Most of us trust links from friends – a vulnerability exploited by phishing sites and other forms of online manipulation. An increasing number of us “unfriend” contacts who post uncongenial opinions or facts inconsistent with our political prejudices.
This is a real problem.
On the one hand, citizens who occupy different realities cannot have productive conversations or negotiate practical solutions to common problems; on the other hand, censorship of electronic media, in an effort to separate wheat from chaff, is neither wise nor possible.
Most of us, whatever our political orientation, recognize the problem. As an IU Professor of Computer Science and Informatics puts it,
If you get your news from social media, as most Americans do, you are exposed to a daily dose of hoaxes, rumors, conspiracy theories and misleading news. When it’s all mixed in with reliable information from honest sources, the truth can be very hard to discern.
Clickbait sites manufacture hoaxes to make money from ads, while so-called hyperpartisan sites publish and spread rumors and conspiracy theories to influence public opinion….
This industry is bolstered by how easy it is to create social bots, fake accounts controlled by software that look like real people and therefore can have real influence. Research in my lab uncovered many examples of fake grassroots campaigns, also called political astroturfing.
In response, we developed the BotOrNot tool to detect social bots. It’s not perfect, but accurate enough to uncover persuasion campaigns in the Brexit and antivax movements. Using BotOrNot, our colleagues found that a large portion of online chatter about the 2016 elections was generated by bots.
The real question–as the author readily concedes–is how to combat technology that spreads propaganda, or “fake news.” As he says, the first step is to analyze how these sites are operating. Then we can hope that smart people adept in use of these technologies can devise tools to combat the spread of false and misleading information.
Long-term, however, “fixing” the problem of fake news will require fixing the humans who have a need to believe whatever it is that such “news” is peddling. That fix will necessarily begin with better civic education and news literacy, but it can’t end there.
Ultimately, we have a problem of political psychology…It would seem that we humans have invented tools that have outstripped our ability to properly use them.