Friday, January 06, 2017

Fake News

Ever since Donald Trump's upset in last November's US presidential elections, there's been an inordinate amount of analysis on the problem of 'fake news'.  The takeaway is that fake news was prevalent in the campaign and even instrumental in Trump's victory (much as it was in our own presidential election last year and even now as an instrument to stifle dissent.)  In this narrative, social media is both the medium and the culprit, particular mention of Facebook, being the eight-hundred-pound gorilla of the Internet.

This past week I've had ample cause to reflect on the 'fake news' problem, one that stems from first-hand experience.  I've always thought of myself as a savvy media consumer and a critical thinker -- but! -- not once but twice this week I fell victim to 'fake news'. My 'fake news' encounter fell outside of the usual political slant.  Now that I realize my error for what it was, it gave me a different angle of looking at the issue.

My first encounter was with news of METHOD-2, purportedly a 13-foot 1.5-ton bipedal robot of South Korean manufacture, taking its first steps.  I first saw the story on Weburbanist, a web site for architecture and industrial design.  There was a fairly long and detailed writeup with several accompanying pictures.  It got me excited!  It was controlled by a human pilot!  All my mecha dreams were starting to come true!

Now I'm a regular reader of Weburbanist so when it comes to matters of design I use them as source and inspiration.  Coming from a site that I consider reputable implicitly judged the METHOD-2 news as true.  This was a story that I simply had to share on my own social media network.  But I also knew that Weburbanist was an aggregator, meaning it sourced its stories from other sites.  Instead of sharing the story with a link to Weburbanist, I went to its source, Phys.org, an aggregator for all things concerning science and technology.  For all intents and purposes, Phys.org looked to be legitimate.

With two corroborating web sites, the story had to be true, right?  So I went ahead and shared the story.  It wasn't until a while later that someone commented on the link I submitted, casting doubt on METHOD-2 as a hoax.  A counter-story from LiveScience, another science aggregator and news site, pointed to METHOD-2's creator, a visual effects specialist who had worked in science fiction movies.

Is METHOD-2 a hoax?  Reviewing the pictures and the footage, it's hard to tell.  If it's a fake, then the computer graphics and the post production are really top notch.  But that's the problem, isn't it?  Special effects have now come to the point where they can simulate reality very closely on the screen.  It's certainly plausible.  The only way to confirm METHOD-2's existence would be an objective third party.

Whether METHOD-2 is real or not, that's really only one part of the 'fake news' problem.  Another part is that even mainstream news sources -- those we trust implicitly -- have not been able to categorically say whether it was or wasn't.  As I write this some three days after I shared the story...I still don't know.  A number of other sites have picked up and rebroadcast the news, among them CNN.  Granted, CNN did take note of the criticisms but it also fielded responses from METHOD-2's designer.  What the news sites haven't done, though, is to actually send a reporter to validate the project.

Finally: me.  I realized that I, too, was part of the problem.  Here was a story that I was only too ready to share to my own network.  I thought I did enough due diligence when, reflecting in hindsight, I did not.  My critical thinking faculties shut down because this was a story I wanted to believe in.  And I was eager to share because (1) it was very easy to do and (2) I felt there was some reputation to be gained in being among the first to share it.