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Climate Change and Fake News

by Paulo Dalla Nora Macedo

January 19, 2021

Photo of a beech forest, a symbol of what is threatened by fake news.To tackle climate change, we first have to flatten the fake news curve.

I have spent the past two years studying the phenomenon of fake news to understand it better. During this period, I had the opportunity to do the Igniting Innovation for Impact program, a joint programme from CKGSB and Møller Institute, Churchill College in the University of Cambridge. The course brought me the change to reflect on how innovation can be directed for the common good.

Fake news are fabricated to bend the public narrative in a calculated way, usually for political purposes. My focus has been on deciphering its mechanism and, especially, understanding how to combat it. Only after controlling disinformation will we be able to tackle the existential threat that we face: climate change. Without taking back the public narrative, institutions can’t mobilize the political support for this complex and demanding task.

In this text, I focus on the three most important points of my diagnosis and three recommendations for action. My dedication to this topic is due to my belief that fake news interdicts the democratic debate, as it hijacks discussions and misinforms citizens according to the interests of whomever it serves. If we do nothing to combat fake news today, the debate conditions will deteriorate so much that rationality will not prevail. When it comes to climate change, we do not have time to spare.

The first lesson I learned is that the logic of social networks, with their ability to disseminate disinformation and their algorithms, makes the phenomenon of fake news a problem on a scale we’ve never experienced before.

Similarly, there have always been catalog-selling companies, and none of them has ever come close to a tiny part of Amazon’s market value, importance, and dominance. Data intelligence technology has made Amazon’s business exponentially more powerful. We have the same phenomenon with fake news. You can’t compare the Sears catalog fifty years ago to Amazon, nor the fake news from print newspapers of yesteryear to today’s digital media. Anyone who claims that transformation technology has brought efficiency and scale to business also recognizes that it has done the same for fake news.

The second point is that we should not debate whether the individual publications are fake. It makes more sense to look at the publication vehicle itself. Media outlets that do not have a process to verify information are not formally constituted and do not produce material signed by reporters, should not distribute material as if they were journalistic companies.

How important is this classification? It separates the schemes created to generate fake news from errors or even poorly made material from legitimate vehicles. Mainstream media makes mistakes in stories but does not intentionally produce fake news. Fake news is created by someone who knows that the information is false, without checking, without signing a real name, and without even correcting the mistake when it is pointed out.

Let’s think about the pharmaceutical industry: on several occasions, regulated laboratories have produced drugs with severe and unforeseen side effects, but they did not do it on purpose or because of their business model because these errors can financially harm them. However, there are several examples of clandestine laboratories that produce harmful formulas without any concern for side effects because their business model is precisely to sell illusions without concern for reputation or regulation.

Lastly and crucially, it’s essential to realize that platforms profit immensely, both directly and indirectly, from the fake news industry and from the traffic it generates; the millions of robots in the manipulation system are a crucial part of traffic generation.

These realizations led me to the following conclusion: the debate of how to ‘learn’ to use social networks in favor of a constructive discussion is, in essence, useless. There will be no topic that gains the same attention in the debate as these themes manufactured and manipulated by digital militias— as they play with the brain’s reptilian impulses, without any concern for consequences or responsibility. No democratic force can legitimately play this game. We have to think of another form of combat. Otherwise, we will be beaten every time in the attention span and emotion mobilization.

Having analyzed the mechanisms and the impossibility of fighting in the same rules as the current game, I list three suggestions of paths that need a change in the legislation. I argue that the fight should be done in leveling the playfield. It is not about ‘learning’ the impossible to be done within institutional limits.

These are my suggestions:

First, platforms need to take more responsibility. For example, robots and profiles identified as not belonging to real people and/or companies must be blocked. For a company, institution, or public entities to use robots, for example, to serve the public, they must register on some public databases and inform what the robot will do and who is the responsible entity. So, unregistered robots should be blocked.

The second suggestion is that news should have a distinct, clear, visual identification. Let’s imagine a specific blue tag. I refer to those published by media outlets that follow the second item of the diagnosis criteria. Only these companies could be targeted as press companies for advertisers. Whoever does not have this certification would not have their ‘blue posts’ and could not enter the communication vehicle list to receive traffic from paid ads.

Whoever wants to advertise anyway would have to assume that they are advertising on something that is not considered a validated press vehicle, just as the algorithms need to identify and lower these entities’ material distribution priority. And then comes the crucial question: Who would certify media outlets? It cannot be governments or the platform itself. Alternatively, a committee composed of the press associations, academics, and legal associations of each country could issue certifications.

That is just one idea of the concept. Essentially, without this stamp, a company will not have a blue post or receive revenue from ad traffic, just as the pharmaceutical industry requires ‘stamps’ for selling drugs. Failure to comply with any of these legal obligations would result in fines and legal liability for the people, platforms, and companies involved.

Suppose the uncompromising position of defending the unregulated internet’s virtuosity keeps us inactive. Inflexibility and arrogant rigor are reserved for dilettantes. In this scenario, those who want ultimately to control the whole public process will eventually have that power.

Finally, to ensure that they are not stimulating hate speech or extremist positions, the platforms must open their traffic generation algorithms for validation by the academy or some consortium of recognized world universities. Platforms should ensure that the mapped profiles, which disseminate news from non-certified vehicles, are penalized by the algorithms. Certification is a common practice in other markets. Pharmaceutical companies open their formulas — worth billions — to have patents and tests released. In the long run, this process protects the platforms from being captured by the very forces they are stimulating today.

In my analysis, these are the three fundamental points that require efforts by national legislation and some agreement among multilateral bodies worldwide.

Some people will indeed see several weaknesses in these points, and some injustices will indeed be committed in this accreditation. Still, I posit that it’s better to make an error and temporarily bar some legitimate communication companies, then allow adjustments, than to allow thousands of illegitimate companies to spread fake news. If left unchecked, the Fake News mechanism will eventually devour even the opportunists who today implement it as their modus operandi.

The US President and Congress would undoubtedly have to spearhead this new paradigm of rules. Today, they are the only forces with the firepower needed to engage with the platforms and lead a worldwide coalition. That is why it is not hyperbolic to say that the new American administration could be the most important of my generation.

America’s Day of Shame is the ultimate proof that silence is collaboration in this case, as many prominent tech leaders are discovering. Maybe too later.

*Paulo Dalla Nora Macedo is an entrepreneur in Brazil dedicated to civic initiatives to promote non-partisan political dialogue.

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