It's Not a Software Problem

Is the difference between information and misinformation something we want to leave in the hands of yet another algorithm?

This is the question I asked after reading this Guardian article where Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, laments that fake news is "killing people's minds". He goes on to say that technology companies should be doing more to tackle this problem and stemming the spread of falsehoods without affecting people's rights to free speech. While I am just as frustrated as anybody else over the excessive quantity of misinformation online, a technological solution to the problem would be the ultimate precursor to a form of censorship the likes of which authoritarian governments salivate for.

I appreciate what technology can and has done for us, but I must question why this particular human flaw needs to be addressed by software and social engineers. Humans have been lying to one another for as long as we've had language, and probably longer still. Children tell us they didn't eat the last cookie in the jar despite the crumbs around their mouth. Companies tell us they appreciate our business on receipts but never through actions. Politicians tell us they can be trusted. Would an algorithm catch these fibs? If so, how would any algorithm know what is accurate versus inaccurate? Somebody would need to be the gatekeeper of "The Truth", while the definition of that very concept varies so wildly from person to person that any form of censorship of an article that is aligned with a person's current beliefs would instantly render the entire system suspect and untrustworthy.

The issues surrounding "fake news", "alternate facts", and outright lies are not recent creations that have caught a populace by surprise. Growing up before the Internet, I remember my father and I laughing at tabloid headlines at the grocery store. Stories so over-the-top that it's a wonder anybody took them seriously. Some of the headlines that stand out the most in memory include:

  • Horse born with human head. Farmer ashamed.
  • Woman abducted by aliens from Saturn
  • City of Atlantis discovered under Brooklyn

If any of these were even remotely accurate, there would be a lot more press coverage and a whole lot of academic papers1. What my father tried to teach me by reading these at the grocer was that you cannot trust everything you read. Some of the best teachers I had while growing up would say the same: it's okay to read, but verify.

This is what people need to do if they are to separate spin from fact. It's not easy, but critical thinking is the only way we can overcome the mountain of misinformation that exists both online and off.


  1. any one of these would result in a lot of follow-up studies