Saturday, December 17, 2016

Why Facebook Can't Kill Fake News

Can Facebook Kill Fake News?

Facebook has made news recently in announcing efforts to kill fake news from its website. However noble its intentions are, they will not only fail to kill off fake news, but will make the problem worse.
Facebook proposes adding a new feature whereby users can mark or tag postings as containing fake news. The postings will not be deleted, but will be annotated as containing fake news.

Unfortunately, all this will do is to reinforce the notion of the paranoid conspiracy theorists that the mainstream media or "MSM", as they call it, is out to get them and out to suppress the real truth. Instead of attenuating the spread of fake news, a label or tag that an article or posting is fake news will only serve to certify it to the faithful that it is in fact bona fide truth in their way of thinking.

As I noted in a previous posting, the only way to really get rid of fake news is to cut off the blood supply to this tumor in our society. And cutting off the blood supply means cutting off the money supply. While many fake news purveyors are politically motivated and continue to spread fake news stories even if they are not paid, most of the people involved in this industry - and it is an industry - are doing it for money. Journalists have interviewed fake news purveyors from California to Macedonia and all of them have said the same thing - it just an easy way to make a lot of money in a short period of time.

As I noted in a previous posting, when I decided to monetize this blog as an experiment, it was interesting to see how my motivations changed in response to monetization. Google had promised me an average of $85 a month income for my blog. The first month blew this away at $140. The second month looks to double even that.

This hardly makes me a major player on the internet, however it illustrates that it is not too hard to make money by putting up a blog or YouTube channel or some other online presence with advertising. And once you do this, the temptation will be to create content which will generate more and more clicks so you will generate more revenue.   You become slave to the machine.

When I started this blog, I did so with no intention that anyone would actually read it other than myself, or perhaps a few interested individuals. The idea that would have any kind of readership or that it would make money were far from my mind. I decided not to monetize the blog as it really wasn't worthwhile and moreover I felt it would compromise what I was trying to say - having sidebar ads for payday loans while at the same time decrying them in a posting.   Or worse yet - saying payday loans "aren't so bad after all" once you get a taste of their advertising dollars.

Once you put even a dollar on the table, everything changes. Suddenly it seems like a good idea to publish controversial content, as that will generate hits which in turn generates income. For example I did a posting on fibromyalgia which generated some controversy. As I noted in that posting it wasn't my intention to hurt people's feelings but to explore whether or not fibromyalgia was a real disease or merely just a form of depression as some doctors allege.

For a non-monetized blog, there is no point in antagonizing people and generating hate mail. However for a monetized blog, it makes more sense to antagonize people as much as possible and generate controversy so you generate clicks. It doesn't matter whether people are reading your article because they agree with you or whether they are outraged with what you say - the net result is the same, you get paid.

I can see very clearly now how this all works, having participated in it for the first time.   I am motivated, at lease subliminally, to change what I say, now that I am getting paid for it, even if the amount I am getting paid is pretty paltry (but hey, it will likely pay for my golf cart upgrades!).

Thus, the line between fake news and real news and fake opinion and real opinion is a very thin one. Even legitimate newspapers, magazines, and television shows will choose which stories to lead with, based on what viewers want to hear, and what will generate more ratings or more sales for their organization. News organizations don't stay in business by publishing unpopular news, even if it is what people really need to hear.

So the Nightly News program will show a squirrel water skiing, but won't delve into the intricacies of the economics of Obamacare, unless they could have some compelling person accompanying the story with their tale of woe.

In other words, all news is fake news. Once you put money on the table and make your profits based on how many people watch or read, you change the entire dynamic of news reporting or indeed any kind or type of writing.

A diarist isn't concerned about their audience, but rather is writing down their own thoughts for their own needs. And this is how I started off with his blog - as a form of diary. An author who sells pot-boiling mysteries is more interested in making the next sale then with writing great literature.  Once you start writing to an audience with a profit motive in mind, it all changes - even though you may claim it doesn't.

This is not to say that profit motive is always bad, but it is always suspect.

But once again, I digress...

Getting back to Facebook, they have proposed a technique for limiting links to commercial websites which promulgate fake news.  And maybe this feature may do some good. Again, money is the blood supply to the tumor of fake news, and Facebook ends up being the conduit which steers people toward fake news websites which generate revenue from online advertising. If Facebook can sever these links, it can cut off the blood supply to the fake news tumor.

But don't get your hopes up. Fake news, like so many other things on the internet, has literally taken on a life of its own. These internet phenomena are almost like life forms, morphing and adopting to conditions in order to survive. And survival is the name of the game. The fake news purveyors will not go quietly into the night, but rather will try to find ways around these new rules on Facebook or any other attempts to squelch their profitable enterprise.

Sadly, I believe that the very nature of social media is indeed the problem. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit use a social media algorithm to determine which stories or postings are popular and which are unpopular. On some sites, such as Reddit, users vote up or down stories and what is voted popular floats to the top of the Reddit septic tank.

Facebook and Twitter use similar algorithms, although they have been tweaked in recent months due to attempts by outside parties to influence how these websites work. For example so-called "bots" can be used to upvote or "like" or comment on different stories or postings or tweets and those raises the level of awareness of the original article, posting, or tweet.

The companies running these sites have tried to tweak the algorithms to prevent bots from doing this, although it is a daunting task. To me, the problem is not tweaking the algorithm, but eliminating the algorithm altogether. The idea that people should view things based on popularity is flawed inherently. What is popular versus what is true are usually diametrically opposed things.

As I've noted time and time again in this blog, people like to hear things that are favorable to them. People want to indulge in weak thinking. People want to believe in perpetual motion, money for nothing, free energ,y or anything else that cuts in their favor and does require any work on their part.

Thus, in any kind of social media system, people will constantly upvote nonsense and downvote reality. It is inherent in the system and it cannot be fixed. The only solution is to completely walk away from social media entirely.

But then again, even traditional forms of media such as newspapers, magazines, and television are, in effect, social media. Writers write to their audience, as we have been taught in school. Know your audience and then write to that audience. Those magazine writers will write articles they think will be popular with their audience. Newspaper columnists write columns they feel their audience will be receptive to. TV news producers produce TV shows that will generate high ratings. This is no different than how Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit ranks their stories and tweets and postings.

Perhaps the only real solution, is to get people to believe in reality even if it is not favorable to their own personal situation. I think this is possible, and does occur with regularity in our society, but only after things have gone severely wrong. After a major economic upheaval or war, people suddenly sober up and realize they've been lied to, or more importantly they have lied to themselves. People are less likely to believe happy-talk or other nonsense after they have lost their life savings or lost loved ones to battle.

Sadly this only seems to last for a few years. Then the siren song of easy answers and weak thinking appeals to them and they go right back to believing in fantasy and not reality. This progresses over time until reality has to be reckoned with yet again.

As I've noted time and again, you can believe in fantasies all you want, but it's like pulling back on a rubber band. The more you believe in fantastical thinking, the further back you are pulling this rubber band. And when it snaps back it'll hurt that much more.

I think that the phenomenon of fake news is part of a new era of disbelief, and irrational thinking will continue for some time until some catastrophic event forces us to reckon with reality once again. We saw this in 2008 when the economy collapsed. However even then, people did not want to confront the reality of basic economics, and continued to call for easy answers to complex questions.

I guess this is just the Human Condition.