Detecting Fake News

Man I love the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

On the amazing radio program As it Happens, I heard an interview with programmer Daniel Sieradski. I know the content is not available worldwide, so I’ll copy part of the interview transcript for all readers. (CBC if this is a problem, just let me know, and I’ll delete.)

fake-news-colalge
Collage of Daniel Sieradski and Mark Zuckerberg

There’s a lot of fake news out there. And now there’s a new way to detect it.

Many people believe made-up stories masquerading as news influenced the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. But, so far, Facebook has done little to stop such pages from appearing on their site.

“It doesn’t prevent you from viewing fake news. It just gives you information to warn you that you shouldn’t take everything you read on the Internet seriously.”
– Daniel Sieradski, creator of BS Detector

So one tech designer took things into his own hands. Daniel Sieradski is the creator of a plug-in called BS Detector. Here is an edited version of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Dave Seglins.

Dave Seglins: Mr. Sieradski, what was your inspiration for creating this fake news detector?

Daniel Sieradski: It was in response to Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that Facebook couldn’t really handle the problem of fake news without a massive effort requiring the development of an algorithm and all these other things. I was able to work out a solution in just about an hour that showed that that was nonsense and that this issue could be easily addressed, if they really wanted to invest their energy in it.

Seglins: Well, how does this BS Detector work?

Sieradski: Basically, it scans a given web page for the presence of links and then checks the links against a database that has been compiled of fake news sites, satire sites, conspiracy theory sites and so on and then it inserts a warning label adjacent to the link letting the user know that it is not exactly a reliable source of information.

Seglins: But how do you decide which of these sites and links to flag as not reliable? Can you give us some examples?

Sieradski: Well, it seems pretty clear that a site that claims, for example, that the Illuminati murdered Prince, as infowars.com claims, isn’t a reliable news source … When it comes to other sources that may be more newsy, there are a few different criteria that we look at, such as whether the site engages in presenting information that is unsourced as though it is factual, whether they are completely distorting a story by leaving out appropriate context.

Seglins: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said, “We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves, but instead rely on our community and trusted third parties.” Do you feel any discomfort at all being what he calls “an arbiter of truth”?

Sieradski: Well, Zuckerberg is in a position where, if he claims responsibility for the contents on his website, he’s going to make himself open to some kinds of lawsuits that I’m not going to be subject to … This plug-in doesn’t censor any content. It doesn’t prevent you from viewing fake news. It doesn’t stop you from visiting those web sites. It just gives you information to warn you that you shouldn’t take everything you read on the Internet seriously.

Seglins: But, ideally, shouldn’t people themselves be their own BS detectors?

Sieradski: Absolutely, but, unfortunately, media literacy isn’t something that’s gotten a lot of support in the realm of education in the United States in the last 20 years, as we can plainly see … so there has to be some kind of line drawn where we say, “Listen, there is a way that we can approach this that is reasonable and not censorious and not authoritarian, but at the same time promoting media literacy and critical thinking.”

Seglins: Now, I understand that today Facebook moved to actually block this as a plug-in. What did you think when you saw that?

Sieradski: Well, to clarify, they are blocking links to the home page for the plug-in … However, it does seem that I’ve caused them a bit of embarrassment by making this plug-in and calling them out on their statements, so maybe they are punishing me for it.

Seglins: What’s your hope for BS Detector? Are you hoping to profit from this?

Sieradski: No, it’s a free and open-source project … I’m not trying to get anything out of this other than to stop my parents from sending me nonsense articles claiming that they’re true.

The full interview is on the As It Happens site.

Get your own copy of BS Detector.

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2 thoughts on “Detecting Fake News

  1. I’m going to disagree here, John. I mean if someone wants to use such a plugin, fine, but to mandate its use is a very slippery slope.

    “and then checks the links against a database that has been compiled of fake news sites.”

    The passive voice there is the giveaway. As if it were some objective neutral agent. No thanks. Let’s learn to read critically, rather than farming out the responsibility.

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    • Absolutely, Jack. The point is that warning systems are easy to design. Facebook’s claim that it’s unfeasible to do anything at all about fake news is simply false.

      As I’ve written elsewhere (and have plans for some follow-up in the coming weeks) learning to read critically should be a crucial objective of publicly funded education. It isn’t something that’s ever been done particularly well, and there are a number of significant challenges to doing it well in the future.

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