Sunday, December 4, 2016

An Easy-To-Use Weapon Against Fake News

People of a certain 'vintage' will well remember the above commercial, in which a family appears to take great delight in fooling dad about the spread he is using. All in all, a humorous and harmless deception, one with no lasting consequences. Today, however, we face challenges to truth that the people of that commercial's era could never have imagined, challenges that are not the least bit amusing: the proliferation of fake news, aided and abetted by the ubiquitous Internet.

What defences do we have against such manipulations? Actually, there are many, only one of which I shall address in today's post.

We live in a very rushed world, one in which people often do not take the time to properly assess the information they access. Now, thanks to an exciting software innovation, that task has been made easier. Daniel Sieradski has created a browser plug-in that, with an extensive data base, flashes a warning at the top of one's screen alerting users to the questionable provenance of any given site. Interviewed on CBC's As It Happens, he explained why he created it:
It was in response to Mark Zuckerberg's statement that Facebook couldn't really handle the problem of fake news without a massive effort requiring the development of an algorithm and all these other things. I was able to work out a solution in just about an hour that showed that that was nonsense and that this issue could be easily addressed, if they really wanted to invest their energy in it.
Its principle seems elegantly simple:
Basically, it scans a given web page for the presence of links and then checks the links against a database that has been compiled of fake news sites, satire sites, conspiracy theory sites and so on and then it inserts a warning label adjacent to the link letting the user know that it is not exactly a reliable source of information.
The beauty of this approach is that it censors nothing; it simply issues a warning of unreliable content, and it is then up to the readers as to what they do with that information.

I strongly recommend that readers give it a try. Compatible with the majority of web browsers, I installed it on Chrome, and then tested it by consulting a list of fake news sites. It worked flawlessly on the ones I went to.

If you are interested, here is the link to the software. A further explanation as to its operating basis is supplied there as well:
The list of domains powering the B.S. Detector was somewhat indiscriminately compiled from various sources around the web. We are actively reviewing this dataset, categorizing entries, and removing misidentified domains. We thus cannot guarantee complete accuracy of our data at the moment. You can view the complete list here.

Domain classifications include:

Fake News: Sources that fabricate stories out of whole cloth with the intent of pranking the public.
Satire: Sources that provide humorous commentary on current events in the form of fake news.
Extreme Bias: Sources that traffic in political propaganda and gross distortions of fact.
Conspiracy Theory: Sources that are well-known promoters of kooky conspiracy theories.
Rumor Mill: Sources that traffic in rumors, innuendo, and unverified claims.
State News: Sources in repressive states operating under government sanction.
Junk Science: Sources that promote scientifically dubious claims.
Hate Group: Sources that actively promote racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination.
Incorporating the plug-in is one defence against the increasingly strong assaults on truth and accuracy being mounted by those who seek to impose their distorted and indefensible views on the world. In a future post, I shall discuss the hard work that is also required if this battle is ever to be won.

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