Various stories have appeared about “fake news” and its possible impact on the US presidential election. Does this mean we can no longer trust what we read online? That word – trust – comes up a lot these days!

It had never occurred to me that Internet news could be anything but honest, verifiable facts and figures – but this is not true. In fact, does anyone believe everything they see, hear and read on the Internet, or even in the most prestigious newspaper or book or on television? A healthy dose of news skepticism can be a good thing.

On the other hand, a recent Wall Street Journal article reports that “most students don’t know when news is fake”. Perhaps this is a skill many people still need to learn.

For me, this is an intriguing topic that goes far beyond source verification or simple fact checking. Is there any such thing as provable truth? How can the quality of information be measured?

Examples of articles (presumably not fake) related to fake news include:

  • How online hoaxes and fake news played a role in the election;
  • Google does a better job with fake news than Facebook, but there’s a big loophole it hasn’t fixed;
  • Facebook’s Fake News Crackdown: It’s Complicated;
  • Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook’s fake news: we’re working on it; and
  • Facebook and Google to stop ads from appearing on fake news sites.

The immediate question is whether fake news on, or referenced by, Facebook actually influenced or even changed the results of the election. Since anyone can publish news, the more complicated question is how you can have reasonable standards of quality and integrity that public information can be held to.

What is news?

We all know what news is, right? It should be easy to define it but it’s not always that straightforward. Not all information on the Internet can be called news, and not everything that is referred to as news is valid information.

The news can be characterized (ideally) as being timely, factual, accurate and credible. It should not be an opinion or conjecture (although perhaps opinions can be associated with a news item). However, it’s not always easy to distinguish between fact and opinion, and the meaning of something can be changed by taking facts out of context. Also, what may be correct at a point in time could subsequently be proved wrong. Information should only be treated as news if the source is trusted.

Sometimes this can be difficult when the source “bends the facts,” especially if the result seems feasible. The old saying that truth is in the eye of the beholder may apply online more than ever before. Perhaps this explains why video news often seems more believable than the written word.

Photoshopping is, of course, a whole other discussion.

Can you tell what’s fake?

This article demonstrates the fake news problem and how it’s not just the news – it’s ads as well. Fake ads might be even more of a problem, especially if they re-direct people to unsafe websites.

Often the information that is presented could also be outdated –  how often do you see reports and whitepapers that have no date included?

So, how can you distinguish fake news from valid, useful news? Some possibilities are:

  • The news is posted by reputable authors or well-known sources such as the Globe and Mail in Toronto;
  • There is no re-direction to unusual or unsafe websites, and the news is not in the form of an ad;
  • A reasonable date is included along with reference URLs and indications of any updates; and
  • A Google search would yield multiple reports that corroborate the news item.

However, I believe the best approach is to authenticate the news item, to include a reputation score for the author (like an online selling reputation), and to manage trust for the package of data (i.e., the news item itself and its associated metadata).

Trustworthy news and news sources may prove to be another application of Blockchain technology.

Is fact checking an A.I. killer app?

What do you need to ensure you are reading news that is real and of high quality?

Here’s a few ideas:

  • The news source must have a strong reputation for delivering high-quality information, for fact checking and for data management, all of which could be validated using Blockchain technologies;
  • The author of the news item should also have a reputation for honest and fair reporting and be known for a balanced approach that isn’t designed to be sensational, again possibly ranked using Blockchain for reputation tracking; and
  • A certification could rate the news based on the level of fact checking and validation that was undertaken, ranging from unchecked to first hand witness, and could enforce copyrights.

Artificial intelligence systems could certainly help with identifying the likelihood of being fake and by checking credentials.

A different spin

For some people faking the news has provided an opportunity to make some easy money.

I am not sure I could become a professional liar but that’s only what I think, and I’ve never tried it. By the way, how would you know if this were a fake blog?