The world wide web is the fastest growing communications medium in human history. From its launch by CERN in December 1990, the web has provided the basis for us all to become part of one global digital community. In the 1990s and into this century we have cherished and supported tech innovators for providing us better access to the information worldwide and shared the optimism in the ability of technology to make the world a better place. There have been huge benefits in migrating our social and economic lives online. Technology has provided an unimaginable expansion of our connectivity. We have praised technology for shortening the distance between new piece of knowledge, idea or experience to one click. However, we have overlooked the need to protect the integrity of the information – a vital commodity in for the healthy functioning our economy and our democracies.
The core incentive for people to connect is to access and exchange information. That information then forms decisions and affects the direction the local, regional and global of cultural, commercial and political events. The quality of that information is the currency that defines today the value of the tech platforms and networks. Despite the quality and integrity of that information being vital to the value of the digital economy its quality and integrity is not safeguarded in the marketplace. The economy of information in the digital marketplace does not in fact promote the quality and integrity. It in fact promotes the opposite.
The leading search engines are programmed to lead traffic, place ads at high-traffic sites and financially lucrative disinformation domains. The finding suggests that while Google supplies more domains with online adverts than its actual market share (GDI index report). These domains include addictinginfo.com, RT.com, twitchy.com, sputniknews.com and zerohedge.com, among others. This means the digital ecosystem monetizes the sources of disinformation and fake news.
By contrast the counter disinformation ecosystem lacks such financial resources and expertise in monetizing fact checked data. A fact produced by the fact checker is unable to significantly penetrate the communities which tend to be exposed most frequently to disinformation content. According to Alto Data Analytics, the penetration rates the EU based fact-checkers achieved in their respective countries in 2019 ranged from 2.2% to 6.5% across the most relevant communities of users (interacting via retweets, replies, or mentions with fact-checkers’ content).
The question is how we can win over the commercially oriented digital markets that clearly do not see monetization gains in supporting facts. The digital news market has accidentally created an ecosystem that increases the value and thus demand for manipulative, misleading and fake information. Driven by revenue stream models and entertainment-oriented consumer behavior – a fact became less profitable than a lie.
We have unconsciously accepted such monetization and failed to establish a universal standard to protect the integrity and value of the fact-based data we store online. Counter disinformation experts have put a vast amount of efforts in tracking hostile narratives, debunking and countering them. Indisputably, fact-checkers do a great job verifying information and uncovering disinformation. Yet they fail at the retail end by not being able to deliver their product to broader audiences online.
It is clear that the economic incentives for creating disinformation has become central to the digital news ecosystem. What is contended here that we now need to create economic incentives which promote facts over lies and enable the market to effectively counter disinformation. It may yet be the tech companies themselves, who have been so criticised for enabling disinformation, who ultimately provide the solution. 2020 is likely to see a rapid growth of accelerators and tech investors ready to support solutions with the global cause of fighting online disinformation.
Three decades ago, tech innovators were united and driven by common vision of making the world a better and more connected place. They still have the skills and capability to upend digital markets to promote enhance global interconnectivity and the promise of the original web launched by incentivising facts over lies and thereby improve the quality of lives of all humanity. Today, those developers may well find new passion sharing the vision of restoring a facts reality where one fact costs more than a lie.
by Anna Bulakh
Director of DisinfoTech