The debate opened with quotes by Thomas Jefferson and George Orwell. But perhaps the title of a Norman Rockwell painting captured the essence of the discussion: is the steady, deliberate dissemination of false information a problem we all live with now? Must we simply endure it, or can we fix it?
Those were the questions posed at Wednesday evening’s event, held by the NYC Media Lab and the Daily News Innovation Lab at the Microsoft Technology Center in Times Square.
The debate centered upon a very 2017 proposition: “We can solve the fake news problem.”
Arguing for the proposition were Jane Elizabeth, senior manager at the American Press Institute; Sally Kohn, political commentator and columnist at CNN and The Daily Beast and Dean Pomerleau, co-director of the Fake News Challenge. Opposing the proposition were John Borthwick, the CEO of Betaworks; David Carroll, associate professor of media design at the Parsons School of Design and Melissa Ryan, politics and technology strategist. Justin Hendrix, the director of the NYC Media Lab, moderated the debate.
We are in a cultural war of information, and fake news is a weapon in that fight.
Just before the debate kicked off, Hendrix took a quick survey of the audience on where its members stood. The room, composed mostly of journalists and media-tech entrepreneurs, was on balance slightly pessimistic on the “fake news” issue, with more voting against the proposition than for it.
The debate opened with statements for and against the resolution given by each member of both teams. Hendrix followed up with a series of questions posed to each team. Audience members then had the chance to ask questions of one team — either for or against, but not both — before a representative from each team delivered a closing argument. The structure of the event allowed for a wealth of different perspectives, ranging from the political to the technological. (You can check out some of the highlights in the New York Daily News‘s video of the event.)
— Sonah Lee-Lassiter (@SonahLee) February 9, 2017
On the team affirming the proposition, Elizabeth appealed to the public’s ability to improve its media literacy skills with the proper education. Pomerleau likened “fake news” to spam as a problem that could be effectively contained with technology, such as the tools being designed by Fake News Challenge participants. And Kohn argued for a moral imperative to combat “fake news” — it’s a problem that must be solved, she said, because our society depends on it.
Conversely, the opposing team argued that “fake news” is a long-standing problem that will never go away.
Ryan spoke to the history of “fake news” in its various forms, from yellow journalism to propaganda. Carroll argued that the media industry’s business model, which is driven by impressions and clicks, provides an incentive for “fake news” to flourish. Borthwick addressed the effect of news spreading through social networks rather than a top-down institutional model, as in the past: it makes it more difficult to predict and control.
Both teams agreed, however, that the proliferation of “fake news” could have dire consequences. The opposing team, in particular, presented a quite grim picture of the effect of “fake news” on society. At several points in the debate, its members likened the struggle against “fake news” to war. Carroll cited a quote from media theorist Marshall McLuhan, from his 1970 book Culture is Our Business: “World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation.” In that sense, Carroll argued, World War III has already arrived, and “fake news” is the manifestation of it. Ryan later echoed this point, noting movements to disseminate “fake news” in Italy and Germany.
“We are in a cultural war of information, and fake news is a weapon in that fight,” she said.
— Media Adept (@media_adept) February 9, 2017
The question of whether technology could assist in combating “fake news” loomed throughout the debate.
Pomerleau made the case for a fact-checking approach, noting that the Fake News Challenge has shifted its focus to developing tools that help people assess information on both sides of a particular issue. And Carroll, in a teasing moment, asked if anyone in the audience was developing “blockchain-based media authentication” — paging ConsenSys! — which could enable consumers to trace the origins of particular stories.
(On a related note, at the event, Technical.ly met John Harper, the founder of Grapple, a just-launched Greenpoint startup that is developing software to analyze articles for the possibility of bogus information.)
However, technology isn’t necessarily a cure-all.
Ryan noted that fact-checking sites such as Snopes and PolitiFact haven’t been able to keep “fake news” from skewing people’s perspectives. And Borthwick mentioned the development of new technologies that potentially could further blur the distinctions between reality and fiction. For instance, he said, Adobe is developing an audio tool that would allow users to create speech in the voice of a particular person by sampling recordings of that person’s speech — or, in other words, put words in someone’s mouth. That’s a disturbing possibility in an age where someone’s career can be derailed by an unflattering recording.
Still, in the closing argument for the affirmative team, Kohn argued for an optimistic outlook, noting that the U.S. has tackled its fair share of thorny societal issues, such as slavery, in the past.
“America has overcome worse,” she said. “These are design problems, and we can solve them.”
Her argument proved persuasive. When Hendrix called upon the audience for a final vote, the ayes won out.
Knowledge is power!
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