Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Vast Miasma of Falsehood

Good journalists, active and retired, were aghast at the revelations in a recent Guardian USA article relating how extremists have tinkered with and tainted the information we get from the internet.

“Awful” . . .”horrible” . . .”frightening,” they said.

With consummate technical expertise, right wingers and worse have been able to game the algorithms of Google and other popular sources of information.  As an aid to searchers, Google, which prides itself on the speed with which it responds to queries, has developed an autofill algorithm.  When you type a word or two, it offers you a sub-menu of possible searches,

The Guardian article disclosed that, for example, if you typed,  “Are Jews . . .” the first choice you saw was “Are Jews evil?”  If you clicked the first choice, you’d see a page of articles asserting that, yes, Jews are indeed evil, historically and genetically.  In another experiment, if you typed “Are women. . .” the sub-menu offered a first choice of, “Are women evil?” According to the article:

 Every one of the 10 results “confirms” that they are, including the top one, from a site called, which is boxed out and highlighted: “Every woman has some degree of prostitute in her. Every woman has a little evil in her… Women don’t love men, they love what they can do for them. It is within reason to say women feel attraction but they cannot love men.”

Looking for information about Hitler?  Don’t Google “Was Hitler bad?”  The top result you’d get would be “10 Reasons Why Hitler Was One of the Good Guys” which asserts that “He never wanted to kill any Jews”; “he cared about conditions for Jews in the work camps”; “he implemented social and cultural reform.” 

The Guardian article examined research by scientists who created a cybermap, showing what happens when searchers share such false information via Twitter, Facebook, etc.  A great, self-regenerating cloud of falsehood is created which, like a vast living organism,  encircles legitimate sources of information (say, the New York Times).  Very quickly this miasma of misinformation blocks truth they way thick jungle overgrowth blocks the sun. 

Immediately after the Guardian article appeared and was itself widely circulated on the Internet, Google fixed the specific algorithms regarding Jews, women, Hitler.  But it did nothing about the systemic problem the article exposed.

I discussed this with several friends, including a retired newspaper and magazine editor of my vintage.  We agreed that we were unqualified to even consider possible solutions to this frightening state of affairs.  We did our work on typewriters, fagawdsake!

My son John, however, has a foot in each camp: as a print journalist he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and in the cyberworld he served as publisher of an online news site.  He suggests:

Google (and Facebook, etc.) should issue simple to understand reports on groups that manipulate its search system and issue daily caveats to all users about blindly trusting its information.

 Next, it should offer users tutorials on how to do research online to determine if information is predicated on fact, opinion, or a defect of character.

The message and tutorial should automatically pop up every time a user visits these sites.

People will say there is no point because most users will ignore the warnings and lesson. Maybe. But some, at least,  would become better educated.

And school children, our next generation of citizens, could be taught an important lesson early.

Technophobe I may be, but these sound like good ideas to me.  One of the experts the Guardian consulted said that Google “can and should do better.”  With paternal pride I suggest this way to begin.