While we need to do something about ‘fake news’ the devil will be in the details

I have to confess to an embarrassing secret: I used to read the National Enquirer. Not today’s National Enquirer which seems to be all about Hillary Clinton and dying (or cheating) movie stars. No, I am referring to the older versions which had truly preposterous stories that no one could ever believe were true – and which were not nasty in the ways today’s are. I still think my favourite one was “Survivor of Titanic found on iceberg 87 years after ship went down: ‘I really hate eating fish’ says rescued man”.

What the National Enquirer offered its readers was quintessential ‘fake news’. But this fake news was fun. No one got hurt. It was patently ridiculous and we all knew it. No one took any of it seriously. Those days are gone in large part. Back then, in response to ‘fake news’ no one drove a thousand km to a pizza parlour in Washington locked and loaded to rescue kids being held in a child sex ring by the Clintons. Today’s fake news is increasingly dangerous and people will die, if they have not already done so. And if all this is not dire enough have a look at the very scary potential of ‘deep fakes’.

In light of this turn for the worse, governments. social media platforms and societies in general are really struggling what to do about it. And it is not just fake news that is the problem. We have to throw into the mix hate, intolerance and terrorist propaganda. The online world we have come to rely on for just about everything has been infected by all sorts of information that makes us collectively less safe – and stupider I would argue. So what do we do?

Well, I guess governments could step in and announce plans to make laws prohibiting the posting of fake news, as Canada and Singapore just have. This option is less than optimal, of course, for reasons ranging from a lack of trust in elected officials (driven in part by fake news and online hate?) to the very real possibility that unscrupulous governments could use their powers to take down anything they don’t like (I listened to a caller on a radio show I was on this week make that very claim about the Trudeau government).

Then there is the extreme difficulty in deciding not just who gets the authority to flag and remove objectionable and fake material – state authorities, social media platforms, corporations…? – but who gets to decide what constitutes what should be removed in the first place. While there is much that we all (?) agree must be taken down – say, beheading videos and the livestreaming of terrorist attacks – there is an awful lot that exists in a grey zone and would be subject to much debate. Are we destined to rely on the ‘Judge Potter Stewart pornography rubric’ (“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description… But I know it when I see it.”)? In addition, the sheer volume of stuff and the speed with which garbage is shared across multiple platforms has transformed this into a giant whack-a-mole game.

Does this all imply that the situation is hopeless? I would like to think that we can solve this challenge as we humans have been doing for similar posers for millennia. And while I don’t happen to have any answers today I am sure that there are those out there that do. Maybe we can all agree to some kind of ‘reasonable person’ standard or something along those lines.

Look, this is getting serious. It is one thing to laugh at The Onion or The Beaverton. It is quite another to allow truly heinous, slanderous and dangerous material to remain available. The last time I checked, no one walked into a pizza parlour to kill over an article in the National Enquirer.

We are better than this folks. We need not only to teach our kids digital literacy and source collaboration (hell, as an ex intelligence analyst source reliability is EVERYTHING), but we need to denounce the Alex Jones’ and other conspiracy theorists of our world.

Before more people get killed.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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