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Politicians, tech giants fail to take fake news seriously
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Politicians, tech giants fail to take fake news seriously

Written by
Robin V. Sears
Published by
Toronto Star
June 9th, 2019

As we enter campaign season in Canada "none of the privacy changes promised by Ottawa are likely to be in place, the tech giants will continue to claim they are trying really, really hard, and the flow of written, verbal and video trash will be unchecked."

“Falsehood flies, while the truth comes limping after it,” said English satirist Jonathan Swift. While that may have been an exaggeration two centuries ago, it sure isn’t today. A fake news story, a doctored video, or a quote torqued to reverse its meaning, are a keystroke away from being put in front of a billion pairs of eyeballs.

Someone leaked an email allegedly from a People’s Party of Canada organizer suggesting that non-white Canadians who join their nascent organization should be put on display in front of the camera, but never consulted about policy, “…as they are all liberals anyway.” It strains credulity, however, that any racialized Canadian would find the anti-immigrant, Islamophobic message of the Bernier blowhards attractive.

So the message may have been fake, as the party instantly declared, but it got a lot of attention and probably did some damage, whether fake or real.

More troubling was the reaction of YouTube and Facebook to a doctored video, now viewed millions of times, that showed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as drunk. Facebook refused for days to take it down. No matter how improbable the source or the claim, some of smear will stick with some people – even after it has been amply disproven. Islamaphobes and Pelosi haters will continue to believe and circulate nonsense.

Lyndon Johnson understood this well. When he could not point to a real failing in an opponent, he would shrug and say to staff and colleagues, “Well, then we’ll just call him a pig(lover) and watch him deny it!”

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This is a new problem for politicians and campaign managers on two levels. First, the insult or fabrication lives forever on the net. You can reduce its visibility but you can never erase the potential for someone to re-post it later. The Christchurch murderer’s live-streaming of his slaughter was posted, taken down, and reposted many times in the days that followed. The second problem is that falsehoods really do fly today, to be viewed in Bangalore or Barcelona milliseconds apart.

The social media titans claim that by hiring thousands of human screeners to look out for filth and fibs they are fixing the problem. They are certainly doing more than in the worst years in the social media swamp. But they have two problems: scale and standards. YouTube’s 1.3 billion users upload three hundred hours of video every minute. It is simply not possible to screen that volume in realtime even if you had ironclad rules governing what was permissible – which, of course, we don’t.

Many third parties attempt to play watchdog. In the United States the “Political Ad Archive” attempts to record and make available every political ad aired on any medium. Facebook and Twitter now say they will record to “the best of their ability” the true purchaser of ad time, their contact details, and history. Good Luck.

This asks the question: why this mess is not better governed by statute, regulations and clear penalties, just as govern television broadcasters and newspapers are? Why would we cede to Facebook the right to be the judge of what is acceptable? Especially as a tough enforcement policy against defamatory material might risk pushing the purveyors — and their millions of dollars — to another platform.

“The International Grand Committee on Disinformation And ‘Fake News,’” the rather pompously named gathering of privacy and social media experts from countries as varied as Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Ireland, Latvia, and Singapore, met in Ottawa recently making the case that an international governmental response was essential to “draining the swamp,” as it were.

However, as we enter campaign season in Canada none of the privacy changes promised by Ottawa are likely to be in place, the tech giants will continue to claim they are trying really, really hard, and the flow of written, verbal and video trash will be unchecked.

All that candidates and campaigns can do to defend themselves is to assemble armies of volunteer monitors to flag rubbish when they see it, denounce it on their own platforms and then demand that the social media barons take it down immediately.

It seems inevitable though that there will be outrageous attacks and angry battles over them before we reach election day.

© Toronto Star

A journalism crisis is threatening Canadian democracy.