The Internet Cheapened News. AI Will Do the Opposite
Tech companies will always fail to contain misinformation on social media. But news organizations can thrive in the ‘Age of Unreality’ created by the rise of artificial intelligence.
About a decade into conversations around the explosion in misinformation online, the problem doesn't seem all that closer to being solved. Maybe it's time to acknowledge tech companies will never be able to eradicate, or even stem the tide, of fake news, data and facts. But that doesn't mean there's no hope. Trusted sources of information can step up.
In the information war surrounding the Israel-Gaza conflict, fakery is taking many forms. Sometimes it's an old video, such as from the conflict in Syria, re-captioned to appear new and relevant. One that was circulated was actually a fireworks display in Algeria. Another showed footage from a video game. As footage and images go viral, the fiction far exceeds the truth, according to CBS News Chief Executive Office Wendy McMahon. Shayan Sardarizadeh, a UK-based journalist on the BBC's Verify team, told Oxford University's Reuters Institute that “the volume of misinformation on X was beyond anything I've ever seen.” He debunks false footage and images on X, formerly known as Twitter, but barely makes a dent.
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This is not a new problem, but what comes next will be all about scale. What has existed for a long time — doctored videos, manipulative editing — is set to be super-charged by artificial intelligence. Two major conflicts, and a 2024 full of elections around the world, will make the meddling that happened in the 2016 US presidential vote seem quaint.
Technological solutions are falling short. X's Community Notes — a generally well-received attempt to crowdsource the fact checking process — sometimes gets it wrong and is usually too slow. One analysis of misleading posts related to the Israel-Hamas war suggested the average time between a post and a Community Note being attached was almost 11 hours. And even then, Community Notes was likely only covering a “drop in the bucket” of the misinformation posted on the platform. Tech companies may never be able to competently get on top of this issue. Elon Musk has decimated X's trust and security teams, while Meta Platforms Inc. has admitted it is leaning away from caring about news content and Google-parent Alphabet Inc. is firing employees involved in news curation.
This is all happening before we're fully experiencing the effects of AI, a new frontier in digital fakery. While the use of deepfakes in the Israel conflict has been minimal, the sophistication is increasing. Proposed measures that demand watermarking or clear disclosures on AI generated material seems toothless, as only the good actors will follow such orders. Tools that purport to detect when an image or video has been created using AI are flawed and will likely become less effective as generative capabilities improve. Tech news site 404 Media reported how one AI image detector erroneously declared a real image — the charred remains of a child — as being an AI-constructed fake. This was seized upon as proof of disinformation, when it was not.
Renée DiResta, a researcher with the Stanford Internet Observatory, call this the “Age of Unreality” — where, regardless of the facts, the existence of AI alone undermines the trust we have in what we see and hear. A 2018 California Law Review paper warned this was coming: 'Put simply, a skeptical public will be primed to doubt the authenticity of real audio and video evidence. This skepticism can be invoked just as well against authentic as against adulterated content.”
Navigating this world of informational uncertainty, as the researchers termed it, will become exhausting. For many of us, it already is.
But there is a good place to find trusted news online: actual news websites. What's encouraging is that the portion of readers going to news websites directly — rather than finding articles on social media, or through search engines — has been steadily growing since the pandemic, according to data from Similarweb. There's many potential reasons for this, but don't discount that readers are perhaps finding comfort and clarity by going to directly to those that have been doing this work for decades, and in some cases for over a century. “There are plenty of people who want to put their trust back into something,” said professor Sarah Roberts of UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. “This might be a moment where” news organizations “can reassert their authority (and) their expertise.”
To be sure, times of conflict highlight the imperfections of the news-gathering process in the fog of war. News organizations, particularly in recent years, have lost a lot of goodwill from readers, including by lowering standards and wading into “clickbait” headlines and stories. Trust is earned slowly and at great expense. Capitalizing on the next wave of social media manipulation will require news organizations to invest more time in explaining to readers how they've done their work. The era of news organizations being able to merely declare facts is passing. So-called Open Source Intelligence operations, like the esteemed Bellingcat, are the model.
The internet was a threat that the news industry underestimated. Artificial intelligence is another disruption of similar scale. But while the internet served to cheapen the news, AI will do the opposite. Never before will the value of honest news gathering have been more obvious.
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