Making Sense Of Fake News #2: Solution Generation
Editor | On 21, Jul 2019
Back in October 2018 (Issue 199), the lead article reported a perception-mapping exercise aimed at coming to terms with the Fake News problem affecting most parts of the world these days. This article represents the promised follow-up to explore some of the potential solutions. No doubt much of this will be naïve. I say this because the Part #1 analysis revealed there were three independent vicious cycles that require to be broken, and two of them seem a long way away from being something that a tiny group of innovators like ourselves might hope to be able to do anything about. So maybe the best we can hope to get out of this exercise are a few pointers on the process. Let’s stick with that idea for the moment and see what happens.
First up a quick recap. The first article was built around a list of thirty perceptions gathered from various parts of the media in answer to the question, ‘Ideally, the Fake News phenomenon diffuses and disappears (by itself), but…’ The list is reproduced here:
The vicious cycle loop we decided was potentially solvable is also reproduced here in Figure 1. It is basically about a virality-beats-veracity story, in which people with less than honest intentions and a little bit of time on their hands get to construct messages which serve to encourage others to be attracted to them. Clickbait would be one of the terms that seem appropriate. ‘Simple lies beating complex truths’ might be another.
People living in the UK are currently living through a textbook example of the problem in the ongoing Brexit debacle. It has become quite clear to all by now that it doesn’t matter what the facts are saying, too many people have been seduced by the ‘taking back control’ meme. No point in asking them to examine whether it is true. Or even what it means. Control of what? We know now that if there are answers to these questions they are largely irrelevant. We often say, ‘people make decisions for two reason, a good one and a real one’. What Brexit now tells us is that even when all the ‘good’ reasons for leaving the EU have been debunked, most people still go with their original ‘real’ (emotion-driven) reasons. All that challenging the nonsensical beliefs now does is to cause further alienation. You’re asking people to not only admit they were wrong, but also to challenge all they have built around their belief system. Call it human nature. Depressing, maybe, but an aspect of the situation that cannot be ignored. And so, back to the ‘addressable’ vicious cycle…
Procedure-wise, what we ought to now do with this map is bring it back together with the original question in order to formulate a conflict pair. Or two. One looking at the tangible side of the problem and the other looking at the intangible elements. Here’s what that looks like when mapped on to the COBRA+ Conflict Abstraction Template (CAT) (Reference 1):
First up, it is worth noting that this list of Inventive Principles carries zero duplication across the four different boxes looked up. This is to say the least unusual. When these situations have occurred in the past, the strategy for moving forward has involved idea-storming through the Principles two times, once for the ‘tangible’ side of the problem and once for the ‘intangible’ side. A partial list of the raw ideas generated is reproduced here in Table 2, mainly to illustrate the mechanics of the process again:
On the tangible side of the story, some of the most immediately deployable solutions are ones that we see increasingly being deployed across the more successful parts of the virtual world, and particularly the Silicon Valley-based companies. One of the most successful of all the veracity-driving solutions are the self-organising user-feedback (Principle 23 and 25) mechanisms in place at enterprises like ebay. Every ebay user gets a feedback rating that tells other buyers and sellers how trustworthy they have been during previous transactions. What this inherently creates is a situation in which everyone has a strong incentive to behave as they would expect others to behave with them. It is in effect a self-organising empathy engine: if someone has a low rating, other people tend not to want to trade with them, and vice-versa. If others see that I have a 100% rating, they are more likely to want to trade with me.
If we put the crucial emotional aspects of the story on one side for a few moments, we might extend this basic idea to incorporate how and what people choose to communicate on Social Media and elsewhere in the public domain, where we might consider combining together all (Principle 40)of the different user-rating feedback scores that we accumulate as we transact with the rest of the world. If a person chooses to publish an untruth this should negatively affect their ‘rating’. Even more so if they do it deliberately. If someone else challenges the untruth this should improve their own rating. If someone re-transmits an untruth, it should downgrade their rating. Again, even more so if they do it knowingly. Knowing that others know that you’re a purveyor of untruths causes a rapid self-correcting feedback mechanism to spread across society. People are now much more likely to think before they click. This in itself can be seen as a good thing, given that one of the Figure 1 issues is the lack of any significant damping in modern communication systems, with ‘news’ spreading around the globe in literally seconds. Slowing things down in order to check something is true doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, given where we are at the moment in our Fake-News-driven world.
Extrapolate this kind of self-organising feedback system to its conclusion and what you end up with something not dis-similar to the ‘Social Credit’ System gradually taking hold in China – Figure 4. The system, it seems, is gradually taking on all aspects of life, judging citizens’ behaviour and trustworthiness. Caught jaywalking, don’t pay a court bill, play your music too loud on the train — you could lose certain rights, such as booking a flight or train ticket.
If this all sounds a bit too much like an episode of Black Mirror, the truth is probably worse. And if it sounds like ‘Communism gone mad’, remember that the exact same thing is happening in the West. Except that it is private corporations that are deciding whether or not to punish individuals for their quirks and indiscretions. We’re all voluntarily buying into systems that encourage compliant behavior. Good for social responsibility, but not so good for individual freedom. All things like Social Credit systems do – State run or private corporation run – is ultimately shift the high level me-versus-we contradiction to the other end of the pendulum. Sure, it tangibly ‘solves’ the Fake News issue, but it does so at the expense of individual freedom.
Maybe, thinking of the situation as one in which society needs to swing in the direction of social responsibility in order to compensate for the abuses of ‘too much’ individual freedom (i.e. too many individuals have taken it upon themselves to deliberately screw up the natural social harmony) is the right strategy? Maybe we have to live with a world in which the collective responsibility has to become ‘excessive’ for a period of time is the right thing to do. Maybe, when everyone realizes that it is excessive, we collectively decide to allow the pendulum to start swinging back in the other direction? Maybe. But we here at Systematic Innovation Ltd are supposed to be in the contradiction-solving business, and swinging pendulums is the very definition of not solving contradictions.
If we want to genuinely innovate it means moving the pendulum to a higher level. We need, in other words, to find a ‘Third Way’:
This is, I believe, where we begin to bring in the intangible, emotion-driven side of the contradiction story, and examine some of the Inventive Principles recommended for tackling the ‘soft’ side of our contradiction.
To think through some of these Principles it is perhaps worth digging a little deeper into what we find so instinctively disturbing about the dystopian Black Mirror version of things like Social Credit systems. Does such a system make us feel more Autonomous? No. Does it instill a greater sense of Belonging? Probably, yes. Does it make us feel more Competent? Probably not. Does it make life more Meaningful? Probably not.
Already, things don’t look good from an intangibles perspective. When I decide to become an ebay user I automatically lose some Autonomy because I have no option but to sign up to their feedback rating system. My Autonomy comes in that I have the freedom at any point to delete my account and take my business elsewhere. I move my own pendulum. But, again, if I choose to delete my account, pendulum-swinging is all I have done. I’m free, but I don’t get to partake of the thrill of the last-second sniping bid for a bargain.
But, maybe the societal version of the problem is not the same as a simple opt-in/opt-out decision? It may not be appropriate to extrapolate from the micro-scale to the macro. Maybe that’s where we have to see the pendulum-lifting Third Way solution? Maybe, (Principle 3) some people have to opt in?
The moment I had this thought, I was reminded about the Isabel Hardmen book, ‘Why We Get The Wrong Politicians’ that the seemingly interminable Brexit fiasco prompted me to read. The book’s primary thesis is that we get the ‘wrong’ politicians because the current system (unwittingly – complex systems and emergent behavior) attracts too many well-off, venal, ego-maniacs with a strong propensity to look after their own interests over those of the society they’ve been elected to govern. Because these politicians voluntarily opt for a public life, they are the ones (Principles 9 and 13) who should be obliged to sign up for Social Credit type scrutiny?
This would immediately set up another powerful self-organising system that encourages only those people that aren’t well-off, venal, ego-maniacs from entering politics. By standing for election, you sign up for a system that allows the electorate to see how truthful and society-minded you actually are. Every time you’re on the television being interviewed, a second-by-second ‘truthometer’ shows the viewer when you are telling the truth; whether you know what you’re talking about or not.
I can see problems with the system, but that’s because I know there’s always a ‘next’ contradiction to solve. At the same time, I think this kind of system would genuinely raise the pendulum and deliver a Third Way solution. When Joe Average dishes out Fake News, the importance and the consequences are very low. When people like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis, Dominic Raab, Liam Fox, Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Jacob Rees-Mogg do it, it has the power to destroy the wellbeing of millions of lives. They are the ones we need a self-organising mechanism to identify and make visible to the public. Anyone can stand for re-election, and anyone can choose to vote for a liar. That’s what self-organising should be all about: everyone gets all the freedom they desire, and the system as a whole now inherently moves in the direction of truth and meaning.
- Mann, D.L., ‘Business Matrix 3.0’, IFR Press, 2018.
- Hardman, I., ‘Why We Get The Wrong Politicians’, Atlantic Books, 2018.