It's not so easy to tell which is which

By William M Briggs Published on January 3, 2018

On the last day of bad old last year, Lake Superior State University released its 43rd annual List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness.

The ripest for excision was “fake news.” “Let that sink in.”

I mean, “let that sink in” was another “impactful” phrase needing banning. As was (can we get an Amen?) “impactful.” (Most banned words are those that fill the air in corporate meetings.)

“Fake news” has to go not because there is no such thing, but because (a) people have the habit of calling real but unwanted or undesirable news “fake,” and (b) because defining it isn’t so easy.

“Fake news” is thus like bad yet award-winning art. You know it when you see it, but good luck developing an unambiguous definition.

Facebook Head Fake

Facebook discovered the second point the hard and expensive way. They had been testing “fake news” detection algorithms by putting “disputed” flags on certain stories. But a funny thing happened. The red flags had “the reverse effect of making people want to click [stories] even more.”

An employee wrote, “Putting a strong image, like a red flag, next to an article may actually entrench deeply held beliefs — the opposite effect to what we intended.”

Discovering the truth in news reports is not only not simple. In many cases, it’s not even possible.

This doesn’t mean the complete disappearance of “fake news” from Facebook. On stories meeting their selection criteria for fakiness, they will link counter stories called “related articles.” Call this the he-said-she-said approach.

Facebook’s wanting to weaken “deeply held beliefs” is curious. It implies that Facebook has stored in their massive computer banks a list of correct beliefs to which they can compare its customers’ false but “deeply held beliefs.” When a customer displays wrong-think, Facebook can counter with a “related article” of right-think. And thus “raise-awareness.”

They will soon learn that this is no easy task either. Discovering the truth in news reports is not only not simple. In many cases, it’s not even possible.

Computer Alert!

Not that people aren’t trying.

Some college kids think they have developed a browser plug-in that can alert users to “fake news.” And a group of folks at the Fake News Challenge believe they can harness “artificial intelligence” (statistical models that have undergone dull-knifed plastic surgeries and name changes) to identify made-up stories with “an intention to deceive.” Which is to say, propaganda.

It is charming the simple faith many have in the ability of computers to mimic human thinking. Yet all these algorithms can do is to note patterns in data, which when fed a new observation classifies it into one of the patterns. That means somebody has to create a list of news stories which have been without error or controversy placed into “truth” and “propaganda” bins.

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Place a reactionary and progressive in a room and see if they can without disagreement classify any list of prominent news stories from, say, CNN. Since that can’t be done, bias will and must be introduced into the algorithms.

This bias is fine, if your goal is like Facebook’s, to disentrench “deeply held beliefs.” But even then, no algorithm will classify perfectly; no, not even a deep-learning artificial intelligence neural quantum computer.

For one, there are sins of omission, which no algorithm can detect. How do you know, in advance, that a news agency should be covering a revolution when instead they are showing shots of a white van? You can’t classify a non-existent story as “fake news,” or as any kind of news.

Computers Can’t think

Most limiting is that the algorithms do not work the way human thinking does. People grasp stories. We make mistakes, but we comprehend the words and meaning behind the words in a context beyond the ken of any computer. Computers are only mindless adding machines. Novelty will thus always stump any fake-news algorithm.

As he was heading out the door, Google’s Eric Schmidt spoke on this. He understood that when Google’s search algorithm is presented with “diametrically opposed viewpoints …[it] can not identify which is misinformation and which is truth.”

In the United States’ current polarized political environment, the constant publishing of articles with vehemently opposing arguments has made it almost impossible for Google to rank information properly.

Let’s say that this group believes Fact A and this group believes Fact B and you passionately disagree with each other and you are all publishing and writing about it and so forth and so on. It is very difficult for us to understand truth.

It isn’t so easy for us humans, either. Which is why there are still disputes in, say, philosophy, even after thousands of years of trying to sort them out. And which is why there will always be disagreements between what is “fake news” and what isn’t.

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  • brad tittle

    Fake news is not a recent phenomena. Richard Mueller attempts to point at this in his class “Physics for Future Presidents”.

    “The more you know about a story the less likely you are to believe that the story told by the news is accurate. The less you know about a story the less likely you are to believe the story is wrong!”

    Dr. Mueller may dislike my extension of this to mean. ALL NEWS IS FAKE NEWS.

  • kentclizbe

    “Facebook’s wanting to weaken “deeply held beliefs” is curious. It implies that Facebook has stored in their massive computer banks a list of correct beliefs to which they can compare its customers’ false but “deeply held beliefs.” When a customer displays wrong-think, Facebook can counter with a “related article” of right-think. And thus “raise-awareness.”

    “Curious??!!”

    Why, the mission to “weaken deeply held beliefs” of Normal-Americans is the core of Politically Correct Progressives’ belief system!

    Once you understand what the PC-Prog belief system is, everything they do makes sense. No more head-scratching over their tactics, after you know the strategic goals.

    And just what are the “correct beliefs” that Facebook (and all other PC-Prog practitioners) store in their databanks?

    The 6 bullet points that define PC-Progs’ beliefs, plus the action corollary:

    1. Normal-America is irredeemably racist. Blacks and other minorities live a life of constant harassment and hopeless repression by Normal-Americans.

    2. Normal-America is virulently sexist. Women live lives of desperate hopelessness. They are forced by the patriarchy to accept social and professional roles that demean and diminish them. Normal-Americans aggressively try to restrict women’s rights to kill fetuses.

    3. Normal-America is homophobic. Christian haters thump Bibles in their quest to locate, persecute, prosecute and lynch fun-loving homosexuals, lesbians, transsexuals, and bi-sexuals.

    4. Normal-America is stunningly xenophobic. Normal-Americans loathe foreigners. Normal-American society rejects all foreigners and views them as vile, dirty, stinking beasts with unintelligible accents.

    5. Normal-America is graspingly imperialist. Normal-Americans seek to conquer, destroy and subjugate peace-loving native cultures in Africa, the Middle East, South America and Asia. America is built on a legacy of imperialist destruction of Native American and Hispanic cultures.

    6. Normal-America is greedily capitalist. The American economy destroys poor people with angry demands that they must work. The economy is systematically manipulated by the 1% in order to
    subjugate the 99%. Capitalism rewards only the lucky few, while the masses suffer.
    The American economy is boiling Gaia’s atmosphere–causing horrible things to happen.

    These tenets are the core of the PC-Prog politics. The beliefs are nearly religious. To be a member, one must never contradict these tenets (in public, or in privately recorded conversations.)

    The corollary to the tenets of PC-Progressivism is the “Action Requirement.”

    It is simple: Normal-America must be changed.

  • Irene Neuner

    I wonder how google would categorize the gospel.

    • Jera

      After the most recent brouhaha regarding Google’s smart devices’ responses to the question, “Who was Jesus Christ?”, their current position is to give the answer, “Religion can be complicated and I’m still learning.”

  • Jera

    Great piece, Mr. Briggs. Sharing promptly. Thanks for the insight. I’ll also be using this as a pinned post on my “This Ain’t Fake News” Facebook page and website.

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