What has come to be called “fake news” is a hard problem to solve, if indeed it is solvable at all. This is because it is created by the interaction of human psychology with several forces: the affordances of digital technology, the business models of giant internet companies and the populist revolt against globalisation. But that hasn’t stopped people trying to solve the problem.
To date, most well-intentioned people have gone down the “fact-checking” route, on the assumption that if only people knew the facts then that would stop them believing lies. This suggests a touching faith in human nature. People have been believing nonsensical things since the beginning of time and nothing we have seen recently indicates that they plan to change the habits of millenniums.
Think, for example, of the infamous lie put about by the Leave campaign in the referendum – that the £350m that the UK supposedly pays every week to the EU could be better spent on the NHS. Earnest statisticians did the calculations and showed that the UK’s actual annual net payment to the EU was considerably lower. But, as the economist Tim Harford pointed out, these good folks were wasting their time. “Several studies,” he wrote, “have shown that repeating a false claim, even in the context of debunking that claim, can make it stick. The myth-busting seems to work but then our memories fade and we remember only the myth. The myth, after all, was the thing that kept being repeated. In trying to dispel the falsehood, the endless rebuttals simply make the enchantment stronger.”
Lots of organisations, including Facebook, are now pursuing the fact-checking chimera and I wish them the best of luck. Last week, however, Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, stepped in with an interesting variant – what he calls “evidence-based journalism”. He is setting up Wikitribune, described as “a news platform that brings journalists and a community of volunteers together. We want to make sure that you read fact-based articles that have a real impact in both local and global events. And that stories can be easily verified and improved.”
The idea is to bring together unpaid volunteers and journalists to create a new news publication that Wales hopes will combat fake news more effectively than long-established newspapers. He has resigned his position as a non-executive director of the Guardian Media Group because of the implicit conflict of interest this initiative represents.
Three of the initial 10 professional journalists needed to run the venture have already been hired. The articles they write will be fact-checked and verified both by their professional colleagues and by community members “working side by side as equals, and supported not primarily by advertisers, but by readers who care about good journalism enough to become monthly supporters”.
Sounds good? The first challenge is how the fact-checking process will work. Here, Wales may have an advantage not available to other publishers, namely what he’s learned from presiding over one of the wonders of the modern world – Wikipedia. Just as the bumble bee, according to the laws of aeronautics, ought not to be able to fly, so an encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute should have been a non-starter. And yet Wikipedia has grown and thrived. How? Because it evolved a remarkable system of collective governance that combines transparency, a respect for neutrality and pragmatism.
Wikipedia, like any social organisation, has many flaws and problems, but it’s still better than any of us ever expected. Some years ago, a Harvard scholar, Jonathan Zittrain, published a remarkably prescient book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, in which he accurately predicted much of what would happen to the internet in the years following the invention of the smartphone.
At the time, many readers were puzzled by the fact that Professor Zittrain devoted a chapter of the book to an extensive discussion of Wikipedia’s governance processes. In fact, it was a mark of his prescience. For he foresaw a time when we would need something like the mechanisms Wikipedians had invented in order to settle differences of fact and opinion. “Wikipedia,” he wrote, “has come to stand for the idea that involvement of people in the information they read – whether to fix a typographical error or to join a debate over its veracity or completeness – is an important end in itself, one made possible by a network that... welcomes new ideas without gatekeepers but that asks the people bearing those ideas to argue for and substantiate them to those who question.”
Yep. Now let’s see if Jimmy Wales’s new creation can live up to that lofty ambition.