Oprah Winfrey doesn’t have three hands nor does Reese Witherspoon have three legs. Step out of the botched photoshopped virtual reality of a Vanity Fair fashion shoot into the real world and things look different. And are different. The possibility of miscommunication is reduced; the opportunity increased for engaging in a meaningful discussion hopefully leading to a mutual understanding or, if not, exposure to an alternative point of view. Even, dare we hope, to tolerance of a different belief system, opinion or world view.
Fake news – 2017’s word of the year. Credit where credit is due. The acknowledged birthplace of modern – internet friendly – fake news is Veles, Macedonia. Its origins were in the realisation that there was money to be made via Facebook advertising; that if you wrote what people wanted to see, the social media could a gold mine. And that in the hyper-partisan US election year of 2016 what people wanted to see were stories that fed their prejudices. Money for old rope or rather for completely made-up fiction that spread like wildfire on social media. “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president”; “Ireland is now officially accepting Trump refugees from America”; and the “FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apartment murder-suicide” click bait viewed 567 thousand times.
The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee sees fake news as one of the three most significant new disturbing trends preventing the internet from truly “serving humanity.” The other two, the recent surge in the use of the Internet by governments for citizen-surveillance and for cyber-warfare.
In response to Berners-Lee’s concerns the leading tweeter of the free world, President Donald J Trump nominated his 2017 Fake News Awards, all of them American of course consistent with his “America First” promise (CNN took four of the eleven “awards”). The master of the 140 character tweet recused himself.
Trump aside this is a serious issue. At the heart of the solution to the problem identified by Berners-Lee and the internet as a servant of humanity is the thorny issue of platforms and publishers. And responsibility for content, for identifying and deleting the posts of racists, conspiracy theorists or propagandists set on destroying the free world. Or as some would have it, limiting free speech.
Platforms facilitate the distribution of content. Algorithms analyzing consumer behavior and feedback what is relevant and important. Publishers on the other hand control access and are responsible for all content decisions: there is clear demarcation between content and consumer. This was pretty much the case until a few years ago. Numbered among the pure platform players were YouTube, Facebook, Twitter. The pure publishers included the New York Times, Bloomberg and ESPN. Today? Spot the difference.
Facebook walks a fine line. “We built Facebook to help people stay connected and bring us closer together with the people that matter to us” says Mark Zuckerberg. That’s the platform bit serving humanity.
But Facebook also offers Newsfeed. “(W)e will also prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people. To do this, we will predict which posts you might want to interact with your friends about “. That’s the publisher bit. No sifting the wheat from the chaff as with traditional media. But the responsibility is on me, on my internet profile as determined by Facebook’s algorithm to decide what public posts I receive. “These are posts that inspire back-and-forth discussion in the comments and posts that you might want to share and react to”.
I don’t want artificial intelligence deciding to what I should and should not be exposed. What meaningful interactions I should have. How meaningful can they be when the parameters of our interaction are limited by Facebook?
What I do want – and I believe I am not alone in this – is a discussion in the real world directed towards exploration of a particular subject or resolution of a problem. With real people. Face-to-face. What the Oxford Dictionary describes as “a formal meeting of people with a shared interest, typically one that takes place over several days”. The ambition of the PROPR conferences since 2003 has been to provide this in South East Europe. That it has succeeded is beyond doubt.