Making Sense Of Fake News #1 – Problem Definition
Editor | On 03, Mar 2019
When we were assembling the narrative for the TrenDNA book and the likely triggers of the S-Curve-shifting Crisis the world is inexorably moving towards, all of our analyses concluded that it wasn’t possible to know which of the many emerging contradictions was going to be the one that ended up causing the big shift. All we could see then was that there were a number of interdependent candidates, the fall of any one potentially triggering an impact on all the others. There were multiple ‘dominoes’, in other words, and the fall of the right one would likely be sufficient to topple all the others. What we can now see, thanks in no small part to Steve Bannon, a man who seems to think the Strauss & Howe ‘Generations’ model is a play-book rather than a warning, is that there are indeed many wobbling dominoes, and they’re all positioned close enough together that even a domino that might seem trivial could end up ‘causing’ the fall of all the important ones. In such a scenario, our focus in TrenDNA on the ‘big’ crisis-triggering contradictions laid us vulnerable to missing out on the ‘little’ ones that could end up being bigger than all the others. A classic butterfly-wing-flap-causing-a-hurricane-half-a-world-away situation.
So, here we are eight years after the publication of TrenDNA, still not knowing what all the dominoes look like, or how many of them look set to fall in the coming years. We are, however, somewhat clearer about some of the ‘smaller’ dominoes that may have become bigger in the last few years. One of these is Fake News. And, if you care to take a look at our Book Of The Month recommendation this month, the growing slew of business texts on the ‘weaponisation of Social Media’.
Completely counter to Mark Zuckerberg’s intentions, I’m sure, the ability for people to connect to everyone else almost instantaneously is doing the exact opposite of ‘connecting everyone’. Facebook and its ilk are causing enormous fragmentation of society. And the fact that things can happen instantaneously means there is no damping in the global communication system anymore so the presence of positive feedback loops can very quickly create non-linear effects. And right now, things seem to be unravelling at a rate that feels exponential.
Not that there’s anything a tiny entity like ours can hope to do about such an enormous unravelling problem, we decided anyway that it was a good idea to explore the potentially explosive domino-toppling propensity of the continuing spread of Fake News. Just to see the impact it might have on our enterprise and our ability or otherwise to continue operating in the broader world of innovation.
As well as there being nothing we can do about the problem, it could also be that no-one can do anything about it. If that’s the case, we’d all better hunker-down and prepare ourselves for some turbulent times ahead. Better to know this is the case than not, we think.
As with just about any complex problem, we typically start by formulating a question. We decided to start with, ‘Ideally, the Fake News phenomenon diffuses and disappears (by itself), but…’ And from there, we compiled a list of all the ‘yes, but’ statements we could devise or find out there in the big wide Fake News world. By the time we’d done, we had compiled 30 statements (Table 1):
Table 1: List Of ‘Yes, But’ Statements For Fake News Question
Then, in usual fashion, we use the Perception Mapping ‘leads-to’ analysis to map the relationships between these ‘yes, but’ statements. When we did that, we found ourselves looking at a map with three independent loops, each representing a different ‘downward spiral’ issue relating to the Fake News problem and the contradictions that would need to be resolved in order to achieve a resolution.
Fake News is ultimately subject to the same S-Curve dynamic as any other phenomenon in that it can’t continue forever. Sooner or later it hits a limiting contradiction. Each of the three loops is a contributor to determining what that limiting contradiction is all about.
Here’s the first of the three loops we found. In my mind, now I’ve lived with the image for a few days, I think of this as the ‘Confirmation Bias Polarisation’ loop.
Figure 1: ‘Confirmation Bias Polarisation’ Fake News Downward Spiral
I’d have to say that, when thought about on a global scale, this is a loop that doesn’t hold up much prospect for being solved in a win-win fashion. Fighting innate human nature is the stuff of human evolution, and a creeping, generation-on-generation progress. If we look at how the world has tended to solve ‘us versus them’ problems traditionally, certainly at the global level, it tends to be a very win-lose Cold War style ‘Iron Curtain’. A curtain used to break the loop by making it difficult to see the ‘them’s on the other side. The idea being that while we might continue to denigrate the people on the other side of the curtain, they don’t actually know we’re doing it. Think here at how the Chinese Government has effectively gated the internet access of all of their citizens so that they can speak freely within the country, but the information able to get in and out from the outside world is very tightly controlled. The curtain, even though it is digital rather than iron, is nevertheless increasingly impenetrable. If I had to bet on how this loop plays out in the coming years, I find it difficult to see beyond the spread of this kind of win-lose isolationism.
Let’s have a look at the second loop to see if we can fare any better with that one. This loop is a lot bigger than the first one, but somehow feels more addressable. Walking through the flow of logic, in my mind I’ve come to think of it as the ‘Virality-Beats-(Expert)-Veracity’ loop:
Figure 2: ‘Virality-Beats-(Expert)-Veracity’ Fake News Downward Spiral
Complicated as this downward spiral is, it feels like the one most amenable to a technical solution. One centering around the need to speed up the process of verifying truth. Admittedly, looking at the complete island of perceptions surrounding the Figure 2 downward spiral – Figure 3 – there are a number of connected thorny ‘human’ issues that need to be addressed…
Figure 3: Complete ‘Virality-Beats-(Expert)-Veracity’ Island
…the delusional liberalization of academia and growing tendency to cry ‘bully’ when someone’s opinion is challenged feeling like they top of the list. Still, even these thorny issues can be seen would be diffused if a ‘veracity technology’ was able to highlight the harmful consequences non-truth and identify the fakers in such a way that they’re (self-) incentivized to change their behavior. I don’t feel so worried about the world’s ability to solve this loop, so, on to the third one…
Figure 4 shows this third loop. It’s the simplest of the three. I quickly came to think of it as the State-sponsored Fake News factory. Simple as it looks, it sounds like one that, like the first loop, is nigh on impossible to solve in today’s world. A world dominated by geo-politics and the perceived need to maintain instability in certain key strategic regions of the planet. What the Russian and Macedonian tampering with the 2016 US election, the UK Brexit vote and elections in the Philippines, Brazil and others appears to have revealed is that employing a small army of fake-Facebook authors is a far, far cheaper way to create instability than deploying thousands of expensive actual armies into those regions. Given the compelling instability economics, it is really difficult for me to begin to conceive of how anyone other than the dominant global powers could hope to do anything about this one.
Figure 4: ‘State-Sponsored Fake News Factory’ Fake News Downward Spiral
Never say never, of course, is a common TRIZ expression. There’s no such thing as an unsolvable problem. There are, on the other hand, problems that can very easily be transformed into insoluble ones when we apply sufficient constraints to them. Let’s give ourselves a month or two to incubate on these three loops and see what emerges from the fog. You might like to join us in that process… feel free to write in with your thoughts. This is a domino-toppling problem, and it feels to me like we’re ahead of the game. If only because TRIZ tells us we need to be focusing on the contradictions, and now have a clearer idea what the critical ones are.