SoundByte 271: Thunder Child


“oh well, the truth?! I’m deciding on the truth” a censor says in the song “cancel” to Anton Tsjechov in the (Dutch) musical named after the writer. A few news headlines this week made this song pop-up in my mind multiple times.

Starting with the news on the impact of fake news items on Facebook. Since the US predident elections there’s growing concern on the impact of such fake news messages. Some even say that Donald Trump won the elections because of such messages. Currently we’re living in an age where the traditional newspaper is losing ground and people are obtaining their news from the Internet. Last year that Facebook introduced “instant articles”, a feature that no longer required the reader to leave the Facebook site to read the actual item. Something that seems convenient at first, but causes a blend between actual news and made-up messages in a single timeline.

The second news item that triggered me was the item on Facebook testing censor software in order to enter the Chinese market. A pretty controversial move, but apparently a market with 1.4 billion users is enough to throw principles regarding freedom of speech overboard.

The reuters institute digital news report 2016, the report following reseach on the news consumption in 26 countries teaches us that no more than 44 percent of the people actually use Facebook as their primary source for news, followed by Youtube (19%) and Twitter (10%). Looking at the frequency with which hoax messages appear on my personal timeline it looks like people are having quite a hard time in distinguishing between real and made-up messages. The amount of news we’re exposed as well as the global scope makes it nearly impossible to check the auhtenticity yourself. Although 44% is still a minority, projected on the total amount of Facebook users (1.1 billion in march 2016) we’re looking at about half a billion people that use Facebook as their primary news source.

This is a worrysome trend. Let me try to explain why. In 2012 Facebook conducted a secret experiment on 700.000 of her users in which they investigated what would be the effect of manipulating the order of messages in a timeline based on emotional status. Some were presented with mainly happy messages whereas others were presented messages with sad or negative content. Unsurprisingly this has effect on users mental state and behavior. As an experiment this is pretty interesting, but seen in the light of the current scale Facebook is operating at, and the recent news on fake-news items, it makes me think we’re looking at the top of an iceberg. An iceberg with under water lot’s of possibilities for on-line crowd manipulation. Just as brilliant as frightning is the fact that the platform functions as a magnet to its users. Since hey, a day without likes is a wasted day.

The conspiracy-theory enthusiast will probably immediately think of Facebook as a subtle means of digital warfare, but also without intentional influencing strategies there’s danger. To assemble a timeline algorithms are used. Those algorithms take your profile as input and calculate what messages are most interesting to you. It’s kind of like with webshops. Have you been looking for a washing machine for quite some time, there’s washing machine recommendations all over the place. For news however it’s debatable whether the same mechanism is desirable. Only being presented with e.g. news in my own region could be convenient. But consider me (in the light of another news item this week) being fanatically opposed to child vaccination. Applying more fine tuned recommendation algorithms to my newsfeed might result in me being presented with solely messages on the negative impact of vaccination. Although I’m not really sure how these alorithms really work at present day, there’s the danger of one-sided news exposure which leads to greater social polarisation.

So, lots of ingredients for a big conspiracy theory, but where to go from here? Back to the opening quote: “Oh well, the truth?!”. For years we’re relying on science for finding truth. In art but also with data there’s the concept of ‘provenance’. Provenance is “the chronology of the ownership, custody or location of an historical object” (Wikipedia). For art objects provenance is of great importance when determining the value of the object. Exactly this value assessment is what lacks when being presented with news on social media. Within luminis we’re working on data provance on data in our InformationGrid. Hereby I’d like argue for a mechanism for ‘news provenance’ in which news messages are being annotated with a reference to the authentic source and references to supporting scientific publications. A technology like blockchain could remove the need for central coordination and minimize the risk of manipulation. This would enable the consumer to assess the truthfulness of the news he’s presented with.

On to the SoundByte, One I did not specifically pick because of being a musical masterpiece, but rather because its striking relevance. The whole play is a bit long for a Monday morning, but in case you’ve never played it, I’d recommend you to listen to “War of the worlds” in it’s entirety. Originally a science fiction book from H.G. Wells in 1898, but mainly known for he uproar it caused when played on the radio by CBS on october 30, 1938. Millions of listeners paniced because they really believed earth was being invaded by the martians.