“I read it on the internet” has become a phrase which often generates mockery and epitomises gullibility or naivety about the online world. In the 1950s science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon proclaimed that “ninety percent of everything is crud” which came to be known as Sturgeon’s Law. One can only speculate as to how Sturgeon may have adapted the percentage value of his law had he lived in the age of cat memes and online trolls.

Although awareness of the phenomenon of “fake news” has only gathered momentum since Trump started issuing proclamations on the veracity of mainstream media, separating the wheat from the chaff of online content has been a challenge ever since Joe Bloggs was given the power to blog. Social media has not only amplified the reach of anyone who wants to express their own version of the truth – without the editorial constraints of journalism (such as basic fact checking) – but it has also provided a commercial incentive, apropos surveillance capitalism, to create yet more content to be consumed by a willing audience.

Paul Bernal argued in the January 2019 issue of this Newsletter that the very eco-system of much of today’s internet, fuelled by the collection of personal data, which generates such huge profits for Silicon Valley – and its reliance on content creation by third parties to gain an audience and subsequent advertising revenue – indirectly encourages false information to be propagated online and perpetuates the fake news cycle. Ironically, the very structure upon which their businesses are based is causing headaches for the major internet platforms, along with their biggest clients. For example, a recent study by activist group Avaaz found that over 100 top brands had adverts running alongside YouTube videos which were actively promoting false information about climate change.

Although many of the social media companies claim to be taking steps to combat the proliferation of fake news, as part of overall efforts to moderate content, they still have a long way to go. Facebook announced plans to clamp down on political misinformation ahead of the UK’s 2019 general election, but these were criticised as being profoundly inadequate, due both to a paltry number of fact checkers and because, under Facebook’s own rules, adverts from politicians or political parties are not eligible for fact checking. And although Twitter banned political advertising altogether, CEO Jack Dorsey was unable to prevent the Conservatives from rebranding one of their accounts to give the impression that it was a fact checking service!

Independent fact checking sites have sprung up in an effort to fill the truth void. Snopes describes itself as “the oldest and largest fact-checking site online, widely regarded by journalists, folklorists, and readers as an invaluable research companion.”

However, it’s not just fake news and false information which tarnishes trust on the internet. Trust in the governance of the very foundations of the internet is at threat. Until now, the .org top level domain, which denotes websites of non-profit making organisations, has been managed, in turn, by a non-profit American organisation called the Internet Society (ISOC) via its subsidiary, Public Interest Registry (PIR). But in November 2019 ISOC announced that it was selling PIR to private equity firm Ethos Capital, to the consternation of NGOs and internet activists who are concerned about growing monetisation of the structure of the internet, with consequent damage to principles such as net neutrality.

How to establish trust online

It could be argued that establishing trust is just as difficult offline as it is online. Fraudsters and charlatans have always existed, so a healthy dose of cynicism has always been a helpful tool in navigating everyday life. The problem is that the internet has created a huge industry geared towards psychological manipulation – whether this is just about targeted ads or, as with Cambridge Analytica, for political purposes. “Click farms” employ thousands of people around the world who create multiple anonymous social media accounts and generate fake likes on Facebook and misleading product reviews on Amazon. As libraries shut down – and the ones which still exist are dominated by computer terminals – people are now largely reliant upon the internet as a source for information. While governments and tech companies try and find ways of weeding out fake news and establishing trust online, there are a few measures individuals can take to reduce the likelihood of being fed misinformation:

Website. Where does the information appear? If you’re reading an established news website such as the BBC or Guardian, or conducting research on a government or NHS portal, then you can rest assured that the information is probably accurate and has been checked by editors etc. One of the problems is that many people searching for information now don’t even open a website – they rely on featured snippets which appear at the top of the Google results page.

Sources. Information on random websites should always be checked against original sources. Spurious claims are often made on the back of scientific studies – and it’s often worth searching for the original research paper and reading the abstract.

Cross-checking. Does a piece of political news seem biased? It’s always a good idea to look for alternative sources of the same news, especially in publications which may have a different political leaning. The same goes for any information; cross-check as much as possible to establish the real facts.

Social media. It’s a sobering thought that half of adults in the UK rely on social media as a source of news. Many people now simply glance at the headlines in their feeds and share these with others without even reading the articles – and, what’s worse, they are more inclined to share fake news than real news! Anything gleaned from social media must be checked against established sources of information.

Reviews. As mentioned above, many reviews are now fake, generated by link farms. Look for write-ups by professional independent reviewers (eg those commissioned by established publications) or simply rely on good old word of mouth.

The issue of online anonymity which has been mentioned above, along with the related subject of encryption, both of which are double edged swords, add to the dilemma of how to establish trust on the internet without clamping down on freedom of speech or eroding privacy and security. These questions will be considered in the next two articles in this issue: Encryption: security v privacy and Online anonymity: the debate so far.

Further reading

Internet Newsletter for Lawyers, Paul Bernal: Why privacy is the key to Facebook’s fake news problem

Internet Newsletter for Lawyers, Alex Heshmaty: What is Net Neutrality?

The Guardian: How low-paid workers at “click farms” create appearance of online popularity

Ofcom: News consumption in the UK

Alex Heshmaty is a legal copywriter and journalist with a particular interest in legal technology. He runs Legal Words, a copywriting agency in Bristol. Email alex@legalwords.co.uk. Twitter @alexheshmaty.

Image: Public Domain CC0.

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