Say what you want about Facebook’s apology ad, fresh on the heels of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but it hits on one important point — the internet has a lot of promise and, like the Charlie Brown’s that we all are, we’ve ruined it. It has gotten so bad that in May 2017, the New York Times reported that ‘The Internet is Broken.’
Yes, despite the amazing potential for discourse the internet could foster, we’ve lowered conversation to its most base levels through echo chambers of infotainment and curated social media circles.
The end result has been bad actors taking advantage of what we’ve created, highjacking the news narrative within our echo chambers and amplifying their own agendas. It sounds like a wild conspiracy, yet it’s the reality we’ve come to accept. Even worse are infotainment organizations that tweak the truth just enough to make it plausible and palatable to their base viewers, blanketing false statements in the truth.
And so, like so many of us frustrated with what has become a non-stop effort to figure out the truth, Elon Musk has thrown down the gauntlet with his May 23rd tweet.
While Musk is known for his impossible feats, this one could prove to be his hardest challenge yet. Let’s speculate on what Pravda, or Pravduh as he is currently calling it, could look like and the challenges it may face.
What’s the vision?
Musk appears to be proposing a website/app where internet users can rank the credibility (or what Stephen Colbert used to call “Truthiness”) of each journalist, editor and publication.
It may be no accident that individual articles are left off of this idea. It could hardly be tenable at launch to rank every single piece of produced content online. It is much easier to focus on the creators and publishers of the content at the outset.
Think of Pravduh as a Yelp-type solution where people review those who create and publish content. I imagine it could have a simple thumbs up/thumbs down or possibly a more complex ranking system:
- Truthful with bias
Things are never as simple as true or false when it comes to the news. This is what I see as the five main categories. It would be up to us to classify the purveyors of online content. Long term, I do see articles being added as not every creator of content or publisher specializes in just one thing.
Can I trust what you believe?
Yelp has check-in’s to prove you’ve visited a restaurant or business. Amazon has reviews for verified purchases. Even Waze uses your location to validate what is being reported. Pravduh’s first challenge would be to create a model built on trust without any transactions taking place.
Before trust though, we need to determine what is fake news since there is not a shared definition.
I think of fake news as straight out lies to push an agenda (either Untruthful or Misleading), as was the case with the bizarre Comet Ping Pong news that led to a shooting. Donald Trump has revealed his definition for fake news and it is a conclusion that many of us have made. Negative news or news you disagree with is fake news.
I believe Musk is trying to stem the tide of Untruthful or Misleading news, not infotainment and certainly not news someone disagrees with. Whether you like the right leaning Fox News or the left leaning Huffington Post, in order to participate in Pravduh, you would need to be able to distinguish between ‘Untruthful’ and ‘negative’ to make the actual call.
Harkening back to previous fake content, some of us know there is no Nigerian Prince, but many choose to believe. If that seems unlikely to you, consider the amount of malware and viruses that spread on simple social engineering constructs. Can we ever get past what we simply want to believe?
Trust this ranking system is not an easy thing to build because without a transaction taking place, validity appears to be arbitrarily given by strangers and the problem of strangers is one that needs to be addressed.
Internet reality is built on fiction
Putting aside what your ISP likely knows about you, one of the great things about the internet is the anonymity it affords. We can be whoever we want online, which can empower us to tell amazing truths or publish the most misleading information without consequence.
If our online identities were matched to a real identity, the Pravduh could gain validity because a determination of truth wouldn’t be able to hide behind anonymity.
Behind bad actors are extreme views, which lead to false narratives. Some extremists are obnoxiously proud and vocal, being the worst defenders of the echo chamber. It is a mixed bad whether those creating extremist content hide behind anonymity, but those that share it often don’t. They are proud to let you know their views because it is core to their real identity. I see it mostly on Facebook and Twitter, but you’d be surprised what pops up on LinkedIn.
Adding a digital identity could reduce the number of echo chambers out there, but for those proud or stubborn enough to believe what they want, they already wouldn’t care whether or not what they were peddling was true.
Recently, someone on my Facebook feed started accusing those supporting kneeling NFL players as having “Trump derangement syndrome,” when these players aren’t even protesting the president. Where did his notion come from? He wasn’t posting any news feeds that led him to this conclusion. He was inside the echo chamber and coming to it on his own.
Anonymity is only one fiction propagated online. On the flip side, many of us have created multiple online identities, each for a different purpose. Even though many of us may be innocently using multiple identities (I have at least five — Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Medium and XBox), these sprawling identities determine how we interact with the internet.
For example, for a news article about politics, I would likely use my personal identity (Facebook). For an article about technology, I would use my professional identity (LinkedIn) and so on. Each identity has a particular ‘opinion’ that we curate to the face we want to show the world.
Which face would we use to rank news?
The internet is already doing what Musk is proposing naturally. Our clicks and shares are the credibility we lend to these content creators, backed by advertising revenue and subsequently amplified. If the masses are in control of the validity of those publishing it, how do we get past our own agendas and biases to determine truth?
In the book “Gun, with Occasional Music” by Jonathan Lethem, Detective Conrad Metcalf lives in a world where the police monitor citizens through a Karma system. When you run out of Karma points, you are pretty much untouchable. An online version of this type of system could help build trust, but where would Karma come from in the first place and how do you keep it from being abused?
If you’ve been paying attention to Chinese financial markets, you might have heard about the social credit experiment (Wired Article) taking place. At a high level, think of it like the traditional credit scores in the West, but taking into account certain other items, such as taking care of your parents, being a good driver, etc.
This certainly seems a bit Orwellian, but how do you gain trust without knowing behavior if there is no transaction taking place. As Hu Tao, the credit manager for Zhima Credit attests, “there should be consequences for dishonest behavior.”
Aren’t we really judging each other and the not the news?
Can a tide change the…tide?
Musk’s hope appears to be one based on people being good, which I really believe in (There is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for). Can the same people perpetuating the fake news be trusted to vote on it?
There is something to be said for volume. If 10,000 people marked a content creator as a ‘Misleading’, but 100 marked it as ‘Truthful’, I’d be inclined to believe the 10,000. This doesn’t take down content publishers or stop people from sharing it. After all, Snopes has been around for years, but it isn’t trusted by everyone. I still get email forwards from family members that I have to correct.
In the end, a wave of dissent calling out fake news would serve to reinforce one group and put down others, who will be too stubborn to care.
In the Amazon series, “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams,” there is an episode called “Kill All Others.” This episode shows the dramatic negative effects of going against conformity (I highly recommend it and the original story). If science fiction isn’t your thing, pick up a copy of Ian Bremmer’s book “Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism.”
You can envision how Pravduh could continue to divide us between those that know the truth and those that refuse to believe it because that’s exactly what the existing system is doing!
Is Pravduh Dead on Arrival?
With something as important as protecting free speech while identifying those manipulating it, I can’t imagine Musk will fail. Musk shot a car into space and achieved other insane feats of engineering. I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of what those working on Pravduh are considering. Still, this won’t be as easy as launching another new web service.
When we rank journalists, editors and publishers, we are really ranking each other. Here’s what I believe and here’s what you believe. Clearly, what you believe is wrong and I feel that’s wrong. Without trust in the platform and, equally as important, trust in each other, we won’t get there.
The problem Musk is really trying to solve isn’t how do you fix the internet, politics or technology, but how do you fix humans?
About Matthew Sekol:
Matthew Sekol has built a career on technology, backed by a degree from Penn State in English. With a mix of creativity and a passion for computers, he has a unique perspective on life, business and technology.
If you enjoyed this comment, clap, or tweet it out and tag @MatthewSekol