One of the greatest driving forces behind the modern deluge of misinformation and false information is the increasing mediation between the production and consumption of information by digital platforms. This loss of provenance means information arrives to us today without the necessary context that would permit us to evaluate its accuracy and biases, making it easy for false rumors to spread. Today, instead of hearing an author’s own words directly from them, we consume their thoughts through myriad repackagings across the web and social media. Today we consume information without understanding where it came from or the circumstances of its creation. Imagine if every piece of information that we consume online came with a small caption beneath it that summarized where it first came from, whether its current context matches that of its creation, alternative perspectives and a link to a complete report showing the information’s entire trajectory over its digital life. A breaking image or video claiming to depict a violent police attack in progress in Chicago could be quickly debunked by showing that the image has actually appeared on the web for more than five years and when it first appeared was captioned as a protest in Moscow. Such videos tend to spread virally such that by the time they reach our own social media feeds, they have undergone “trust escalation” in which an anonymous video is eventually retweeted by a senior trusted source like a journalist or politician, which lends an ultimate mark of authority and verification to the content. Instead, what if a suspicious video unknowingly tweeted by a journalist contained a notice in its caption that it was originally first posted to a Reddit group a month ago by a user who has a long history of posting deep fake videos? Of course, deep fake authors would likely respond by creating fake social media accounts through which to launch their videos, but here again the context of those accounts and the trajectory those videos take from first appearance until they reach our hands would go a long way towards helping us understand how much to trust them. The digital world has removed both those gatekeepers and the entire concept of provenance, creating a perfect storm that has enabled false information to flourish online.
One of the greatest driving forces behind the modern deluge of misinformation and false information is the increasing mediation between the production and consumption of information by digital platforms. While the great promise of social media was that we could hear directly from those involved in global events, in reality we still listen to the world at a distance, with the great “telephone game” of accidental error and malicious intervention corrupting the marketplace of ideas. This loss of provenance means information arrives to us today without the necessary context that would permit us to evaluate its accuracy and biases, making it easy for false rumors to spread. Yet, that same technology makes it possible to reestablish this provenance, suggesting there may be some fairly straightforward solutions that could dramatically curb certain classes of false information spread online and contextualize others.
The digital world has opened a Pandora’s box of the duality of almost limitless access to information with the removal of provenance from our consumption channels. Today, instead of hearing an author’s own words directly from them, we consume their thoughts through myriad repackagings across the web and social media. Viral memes on social media rewrite their words to fit a contemporary context but make no mention of the changes. Quotations are constantly reattributed to whomever is most trendy at the moment, while our rewritten history becomes so widespread that it replaces truth itself. Rumors become fact, facts are reinterpreted and all connection to the sources of information are severed, permitting them to exist without the burden of context that might weigh them down or contradict their conclusions.
Similarly, imagery and video can be excerpted or recaptioned without modification, repurposing a violent crackdown in Russia a decade ago into an incident of police violence in the US yesterday. The myriad videos emerging from an interaction between a group of teenagers and multiple competing groups of adults can be selectively filtered to produce a set of videos that present a viral narrative that bears little reality to actual events.
Computer-generated “deep fakes” can be released into the wild to organically find their way into the mainstream.
All the while, confirmation bias ensures we don’t think too critically about content that seems highly suspicious, but which reinforces our preexisting beliefs. In other words, our natural tendency to suspend our disbelief when consuming material that agrees with our deeply rooted beliefs means misinformation finds a ready audience.
All of this is possible because information has lost its connection to context and provenance.
Today we consume information without understanding where it came from or the circumstances of its creation.
We see what appears to be a screen capture of a tweet claiming that the Pope has endorsed Donald Trump and don’t bother asking the most important question of all: where did this claim come from and is that tweet real? Instead, we merely treat it as truth and move on.
When even the elite academic and research communities suspend disbelief and freely embrace the idea that a set of anonymous Twitter accounts were created by a secret community of “rogue” government employees, without any evidence, it…