This Week in Tech
Last year I repeatedly wrote about fake news - largely quoting articles that revealed the latest bit of fake news - or which provided tips on how to avoid becoming a victim of fake news. Towards the end of the year I reduced the mentions of fake news in the blog. This was more to avoid ‘ranting’ than because the amount of fake news decreased in any way.
In the meanwhile I have spent quite some time thinking about why the problem of fake news exists. There are, of course, multiple factors that contribute to the phenomenon of fake news. Some of my conclusions are explained a little further into this post.
As teachers you don’t really have time for long, philosophical arguments and discussions of the topic. It is, however covered in the syllabus under the section relating to validating information / web sites. When teaching about fake news the core of the matter boils down to:
All the aspects of fake news are covered in detail in the Data Communications section of my Grd 10 IT Theory textbook (find it at learningopportunities.co.za - a year’s subscription is only R100).
What I really want to do in this blog is explore the WHY of fake news.
NB: The usual list of links and news comes after this longer than normal piece. Just scroll down to get to them if you want to skip this.
ALSO: This is my personal take on the issue. I am sharing it and inviting comment, not trying to be arrogant (assuming I have all the answers) or trying to teach you something that you may already know. If you don't like it or feel I am patronising you, then just jump to the end - it's not worth raising your blood pressure over!
Fake news is nothing new. It has been around in many forms throughout the milleni. Its sudden elevation to a problem that should be of grave concern to any thinking person is due to its scale, the quickness and ease with which it spreads through electronic media - and the inclination for large numbers of people to accept it as true without question (and even to defend it when it is questioned).
Unquestioning acceptance of (and belief in) fake news are core issues.
Let's go back in time to before the internet...
‘Cost of entry’ not only made it difficult for anyone to publish their version of the news, it also limited the number of publications available. News was available, but not in the form of the information deluge that we have to deal with today.
Though news sources were never entirely impartial, it was often much easier in the past to detect the bias and editorial commitment to truth of a publication - and evaluate the likelihood of it publishing untrue, fake or unverified content. Publications had clear reputations. Some were respected. Some not. In apartheid South Africa you were far more likely to find accurate news in ‘The Weekly Mail and Guardian’ than in the government controlled (at the time) ‘Citizen’. The ‘New York Times’ was clearly much more reliable than ‘The National Enquirer’.
Just the source of the news helped give you an idea of whether it was likey to be fake or not.
On top of that, publications checked the veracity of their content to satisfy the requirements of the armies of editors and lawyers that vetted any controversial content for fear of legal consequences or censure from professional bodies.
The publishing revolution.
Then along came the internet. And with it came blogs and social networks and video sharing sites and micro-blogging and photo sharing and instant messaging - and so on. Publishing your message suddenly has no cost. Reaching an audience of millions has no cost. Suddenly publishing is available to anyone with a computer and the skills to put up a web site. Media is democratised. We have a brave new world where information is 'free' and no rich media moguls or governments can block uncomfortable truths from coming out.
On top of this there is money to be made - especially if your message is new and short and controversial enough to get millions of eyeballs to look at it. Millions of eyeballs = $$$ in advertising. And anyone can do it. Even those for whom the truth is unimportant as long as they make $$$. Even those who don't care about truth or money but have some other goal to achieve (such as discrediting a person or making sure someone gets elected).
Now we have news that anyone can publish whether they researched it or made it up. They can publish it and reach audiences of millions around the world. So the door to fake news opens up.
What happened to fact checking?
Most of those eyeballs that earn the advertising dollars will only look at something once.
The first with the news gets the advertising bucks.
Suddenly speed to publication is more important than accuracy. So checking facts before publishing goes out the window (too slow: your post won't be first, the eyeballs and advertising dollars will go to the first one to publish). It's easier to apologise and retract afterwards - even though people will only remember the original, sensational, incorrect content.
So we have news that is not checked before it is published. The door to fake news is opened even wider.
The insulation of the Filter Bubble.
The burgeoning of sites gives us too many choices, too many sources of information.
So we tend to settle on one source - preferably a source that gives us our news the way we like it. And we like it all in one place, served up on a platter. Lots of people should use this news source - because after all, lots of people can't be wrong / fooled...
Our news source should preferably only deal with the topics we want to read about.
What we end up with is a news source that caters to our prejudices and preferences and which keeps us in a nice, cozy filter-bubble - and so obviates the need to think and engage with anything that disturbs our world view.
Social media companies know this - and also know that conflicting content that requires some effort to resolve is off-putting for the average reader. Anything off-putting is likely to reduce the user's screen time (and so the money that the social media site makes). So they filter the content. They only let the user see what they expect and like to see (whether it is true or fake). A user that is not conflicted or unhappy will keep clicking and scrolling for longer - and earn them more money.
It's hard to think that something might be fake if it is the only version of the news that you see - and if you only see the same news repeated across multiple stories without contradicting articles. So the filter bubble that these sites create make it more difficult to detect fake news (even Google is guilty of this - it generates its own filter bubble so you are likely to see only search results that match up with the content of the news that you read).
Now people are only reading news that matches what they think they know to be right. Their ability to identify fake news decreases.
The problem of collation.
Often the simplest way out is to get our news on social media.
This way our news is all in one place and many millions share the same news source, so the news must be correct, mustn't it?
The internet floods us with information - too much information. From all types of sources. Good or bad. True or fake. Real or rumour / gossip / propaganda.
Social Media news at least seems to control this flood - but getting all the news through social media has another effect. To us, the end users, all the news comes from the same place - the social media site.
It's hard to use the tool of 'checking the quality of the source publication' when all the news seems to come from the same source (most people when asked where they get their news will answer 'Facebook' - not publication xyz through Facebook). It seems as if even recognising and acknowledging the real source of the content is too much effort for us.
The melding of all news sources into one means that media reputation (i.e. 'you can't believe that - everyone knows that publication X is junk') no longer applies. The true is published next to the fake in the same place. It's so much easier just to believe it all than to try to figure out the difference.
Fast and Furious
The tsunami of information and 'news' on social media has another consequence. We are overcome with a sense that information is a huge, daunting, unclimbable mountain that we shy away from. Our lives are too busy to 'read all that shit'... So we want our information doled out in bite sized, pre-digested, simplified chunks - which we only skim read in any case.This skimming forces headline creators to try all sorts of tricks to grab our attention - even if it means bending the truth or completely fabricating the story.
Only the sensational gets our attention.
And it is the sensational that gets shared.
We are far more likely to 'share' something short and sensational (or 'cute' or 'inspirational') than a meaty, in-depth discussion of any topic at all.
And the more sensational a news item is, the faster we are likely to share it - with as many people as possible. We also want to be 'first' with our shares. Often we share fake news without even stopping for a moment to think about whether it is true or not.
So it is that fake news spreads quicker than a measles epidemic in an anti-vaccination community.
Now we have news that spreads so fast and is shared by so many people that it becomes difficult to think that it might be fake.
Lazy / Partisan readers
Many people are too lazy to check the accuracy of news - that would mean reading multiple sources, comparing the differing facts, thinking - and then forming your own view. It's just much easier to accept what you've read as 'true' - after all it was in the news.
The last piece of the puzzle ties in with the filter bubble mentioned earlier. Partisanship means that people cling to ideas (political and otherwise) that form part of their identity. They are unwilling to question news that affirms their ideas - and quick to reject any news that conflicts with their ideas.
The issue for them is not the accuracy of the news but their own perception of themselves and their view of reality. They will accept and defend any fake news that confirms them. They will reject any true news that threatens or contradicts them. The truth does not matter. Only what they believe in.
Often these are the people creating the fake news in the first place - for consumption by people who share their world view.
For them the truth will never matter.
Weekly news summary:
The following links provided courtesy of Claire Smuts
Hardware / Software
That's it for this week.
I have been a fan of the Black Mirror series since its debut. I have wondered whether to post about it on this blog - its musings and insights into possible technologically dystopian futures are disturbing but thought and conversation provoking. I can see how watching an episode can be very useful in the classroom - for debate and follow up exercises around which current technologies will develop to make the depicted future possible. Seeing a review of Black Mirror in The Daily Maverick prompted me to include it in this post.
I would highly recommend that if you have not seen Black Mirror you take the time and effort to do so. Even if you don’t include it in your classroom it will arm you with ammunition to pull out when you need to talk about possible future trends and social implications of the technology that you are teaching...
Malware, hacks, Etc...
AR & VR
Social & privacy
That’s it for this week - really do try to watch Black Mirror (Netflix). Ciao
It seems like the days of parents and teachers telling kids to stop wasting their time playing computer games might really be at an end. If you've been reading along with previous blog entries you will have noted that e-sports tournaments have huge money prizes and are being considered for the olympics. Not only that, people are earning incomes from sponsorship as top gamers (just like top sportsmen do) - and from streaming their gameplay on services such as Twitch (where they earn money from advertising). The inevitable has finally happened. Parents are paying for their kids to get extra lessons - for Fortnite! Expect to see more of this....
Hacking, Scamming, Phishing
Programming & Resources
That's it for this week. Enjoy!
The FPB (Film and Publications Board) which so recently and unreasonably overreached itself by giving the film Inxeba: The Wound a pornographic "X" rating, is one step close to trying to censor the internet.
MyBroadband has the details here and here. This gives you a great opportunity to discuss and debate the issue of censorship in general, its dangers and, more importantly, the practical feasibility of enforcing this law.
The Human Error dept.
On 7 March all Occulus Rift VR headsets worldwide stopped working. Not because of a bug or a software problem, but because a security certificate was not renewed. MyBroadband has the details.
This Motherboard writer found himself stuck without a heater in the latest cold blitz in the USA. His solution? Fire up his cryptocurrency mining rig. His article explains how effective it was - and the upshot in terms of cost. A short but entertaining read.
Alexa's Creepy Laugh.
Just read the BuzzFeed article. If it happened to me I'd probably also be creeped out.
The Yellow Pages finally bends the knee
The Yellow Pages. Remember them? That fat book of (obviously) yellow pages containing business listings and advertising for the landline, pre-internet area. Well, it still exists and is going digital. MyBroadband has the details.
What to do when your ISP over-promises and under-delivers
Your ISP sells you a 20 mbps line. You never get to experience that speed. In fact, you are lucky when you get 10 mbps. What to do? In SA, unfortunately, not much. The UK govt has seen the light and has passed a bill which will allow users to simply tear up their contract and move on without penalties. Cool. Engadget has the details.
Deepfakes. AI generated face-transposing videos.
There has been a lot of buzz about the problem of DeepFakes - a technology which has been used to create fake pornographic videos of celebrities by putting their faces on the bodies of porn stars in porn videos. This New York Times article takes a deeper look at the tech and how it works - and foresees the fake news problem becoming worse with a looming increase of fake videos.
More on the fake people in video scene...
If you saw the original Blade Runner movie and the new sequel then you would have noticed the appearance in the new movie of a character from the old - completely unchanged. Boing Boing has an article showing how this was done.
Two articles on News, Fake News and reading from the New York Times.
Both are worth reading.
The Guardian has an article in a similar vein detailing MIT research on why fake spreads faster than true on Twitter.
DigitalTrends "What is" series
Finally: China's first space station due to crash back to Earth
This will happen somewhere around the end of this month. No one knows exactly where or when. Engadget has the details.
That's it for this week. Ciao.
In case you missed the viral post: Richard Appiah Acute (a Ghanaian teacher) does it on the blackboard. The learners must pass a tech exam and he has no computers. You think you have it rough....
Since the post on Facebook Mr Akoto has received many offers of help, computers, software and projectors.
Wired has an interesting article that shows how even at the recruiting level the prevailing atmosphere and attitudes discourage women from entering tech.
MyBroadband details how SA retailers are dealing with the shortage of GPUs - because cryptocurrency miners bought more than 3 million GPUs globally last year!
Htxt.co.za has a link to a game that can teach your kids how fake news is created and spread.
Top 500 Supercomputers details how AI beats lawyers at contract reviewing.
Using Black Panther as a springboard Engadget looks at how the proliferation of CG is resulting in overwork, lower salaries and poor quality scenes.
Finally, the NASA video below shows how the older, thicker artic ice has been vanishing over the years...
That's it for this week. Ciao.
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