In a world where misinformation has become common place and often times passed off as true, it is necessary to combat the spread of this disease across societies. The onus falls on all equally—whether it is the news creator, the consumer or the social media vehicle that spreads it—to counter this menace. To understand what can be done and how this can be achieved, we speak with Frank van Dalen, partner at WordProof, a company that is creating a new standard for a more reliable and trustworthy internet, with the help of blockchain technology.
Unravel: What are the factors that have contributed to the rise in misinformation online?
Frank van Dalen: Misinformation has always existed throughout human history for the simple reason that sensationalism sells. However, prior to the advent of the internet and social media, its reach was limited. Today, misinformation has the ability to reach millions of people.
Misinformation spreads mainly because we, as humans, are used to trusting other humans as sources of information, according to The Misinformation Age by Cailin O’Connor. The rise of misinformation can also be attributed to active attempts to mislead by numerous groups with an interest in controlling public belief. Over time, these groups have developed effective propaganda techniques aimed at spreading misinformation. The internet itself was never built with trust in mind, but with the aim of connecting people. Thus, misinformation spreads easily over social media networks and through the internet. People recirculate information without fact-checking and oftentimes, because the information reinforces their personal beliefs.
The COVID-19 pandemic which caused lockdowns across Southeast Asia has also resulted in a significant increase in the usage of social media across the region. This increase has resulted in an infodemic – an overabundance of false and misleading information. With people hungry for information and news on COVID-19, they are increasingly turning to social media for the latest updates where misinformation and fake news about the virus abounds. The gaps in information about the virus, given how new it is and how much is still being discovered about it, has also contributed to the spread of misinformation and fake news.
Unravel: According to Gartner, more people in developed economies are going to be consuming more false information than true information by 2022. What explains this?
Mr van Dalen: Social media networks are increasingly being used by people to connect and with the rise in usage of social media networks, these platforms have become an important source for the distribution of misinformation and fake news. With trust in mass media and established institutions in most developed economies declining, and with more people turning to social media as their source of news, it is inevitable that more people will be consuming more false information than true information given the propagation of misinformation on social media. However, while trust in mass media and established institutions are declining for residents in most developed economies, the same does not hold true for Singapore, where it was found that trust in official media sources remain high.
Unravel: What are some of the key dangers of misinformation?
Mr van Dalen: It is not just misinformation that is dangerous but the speed at which misinformation spreads that is particularly dangerous. While the internet and social media has brought about much good, they have also made it that much easier and faster for misinformation to reach millions of people worldwide rapidly. The rapid spread of misinformation and fake news is a major global problem as it can harm social cohesion, public health and safety, and political stability.
On the individual level, we’ve already seen how COVID-19 misinformation has led to serious consequences for some, with the hospitalisation of the 65 year-old retiree who took ivermectin in the belief that it would protect her against the virus. On the national level, misinformation and fake news has the potential to inflame major political events or worsen already negative situations playing out within the nation, as was witnessed in some Southeast Asian countries.
Unravel: Can this be addressed? How so?
Mr van Dalen: On the individual level, for news consumers, fact-checking content they’ve received before recirculating such content is crucial. Publishers and social media platforms can likewise play their part in limiting the spread of fake news and misinformation through the integration of timestamps on their platforms.
With the integration of timestamping, there are also tier levels. The onus then, is on users to refuse to view content below a certain tier level and social media platforms to ensure that content below the specific tier level is less visible and accessible on their platforms. While the integration of timestamping will bring accountability and transparency to consumers, publishers and social media platforms, it cannot completely eradicate misinformation and fake news.
With timestamping, the fight against misinformation is made easier for consumers, publishers and social media networks as it helps to flag content from unreliable sources, thus limiting the spread of misinformation with these parties playing their part in stopping the recirculation of misinformation.
Unravel: Can social media platforms successfully monitor the authenticity of the content shared and distributed on their platforms? Should they?
Mr van Dalen: Even though users may expect and even demand that social media platforms crack down on misinformation, there is little likelihood that these platforms will take definitive actions to remove misinformation and penalise those that share it knowingly. Due to the reach and number of users on these platforms, to do so will take full-time policing of virtually all content on the platform, a tall task for any social media network. However, we are seeing the beginnings of a crackdown on misinformation on social media networks, through enhancements to their misinformation policies.
A great example has been Twitter, which is putting the spotlight on credible information such that they’re more easily found by users. However, the full eradication of misinformation on social media platforms is a near impossible task, given the amount of misinformation that is shared onto these platforms and further shared by the platforms’ users.
Unravel: What are some emerging technologies social media platforms can incorporate to prevent the spread of misinformation on their platforms?
Mr van Dalen: Apart from utilising timestamping built on blockchain, machine learning (ML), for one, has been successfully used by social media giants to remove fake profiles which are one of the most common sources of misinformation. Research is also being conducted by the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, which launched the Reconnaissance of Influence Operations (RIO) program, an artificial intelligence system that was able to detect disinformation accounts with 96% precision.
While technologies such as blockchain and AI can help social media platforms prevent the spread of misinformation, the onus is on these platforms to implement policies to curb the spread of misinformation. Social media platforms’ policies should be updated such that content with low tier levels or a creator with low reputation is prevented from going viral.
Unravel: How can social media and news organisations work together to prevent the spread of misinformation?
Mr van Dalen: Collective action is needed by social media platforms, news organisations and users to prevent the spread of misinformation. The onus is on users to keep the pressure on social media platforms and news organisations to integrate plugins and timestamps onto their platforms to ensure the credibility of content and its creators. The next steps for publishers and social media networks would then be to integrate these timestamps into their search engine algorithms. With a more holistic approach taken through timestamp implementation, we can then ensure that any information that is shared and has the potential to go viral is credible and has transparent sources. This in turn limits the spread of misinformation and increases the layer of trust over the internet.
Other than integration of plugins and timestamps, social media networks can also spotlight credible information like Twitter has done, allowing such information to be easily found. Enhancing the misinformation policies can make all the difference as well, such as by clearly stating a ban on information without a credible source and information that contradicts well-known, established research and sources.
For news organisations, building more third-party fact-checking websites across the region will help to ensure the authenticity of news received. Eradicating misinformation is not a fight meant for any singular party.
Unravel: Can the consumers of content do anything differently?
Mr van Dalen: Content consumers should cultivate a habit of fact-checking before hitting the share button on information they come across on the internet or social media. When fact-checking, they should prioritise platforms and search engines which use technology like timestamps in the blockchain as this technology enforces accountability and transparency on all sides, including that of the content consumer. With timestamps, consumers can also be assured of the credibility and trustworthiness of content they’re viewing and planning on sharing with other content consumers.
Frank van Dalen
Frank is an entrepreneur who is heavily invested in the blockchain and crypto-space. He is a partner of Icoinic Capital, a fast-growing crypto-investment fund with an algorithmic, a DeFi-fund and a Delta-neutral fund. He is also involved in E-canvasser, a data-analyses company using AI technology that reverses the standard aggregated method of big-data analyses. As partner of WordProof and board member of the Trusted Web Foundation he is involved in adding a layer of trust over the internet.