Goodbye 2016, the year of The Boys Who Cried Wolf. Not just a year of ‘fake news’, but something more: a crisis in people’s ability to believe anything.
And in 2017 it’s likely to get worse.
To explain what I mean, you need to go back to 2003, when Salam Pax, the ‘Baghdad Blogger’, was posting updates in the middle of the Iraq War. While some questioned whether he was really based in Iraq, that debate was relatively limited by today’s standards. It was a manageable doubt.
The boys who cried wolf in Aleppo
Cut to Aleppo in 2016 and you see how things have changed. Bana Alabed is perhaps Aleppo’s ‘Baghdad Blogger’: a Twitter account about the experiences of a seven year old Syrian girl, maintained by her mother.
But she is not alone: the number of voices speaking from the ground has proliferated…
…And the numbers of people attempting to ‘debunk’ those voices has proliferated…
…And the numbers of people trying to factcheck the debunkers, or debunk the factcheckers, has proliferated.
Many of the social media accounts are fake. There are fake UGC accounts created to discredit the real ones. There are fake debunking accounts created, to discredit the real ones. And so it carries on, a hall of mirrors.
The person who has genuinely seen a wolf cannot be heard over the hundreds shouting at the same time, many of which are robots crying wolf: automated scripts designed to sow confusion and disbelief.
Correspondent James Longman describes the situation perfectly. I’ve embedded it here. But it’s not just about the information vacuums in a warzone…
The boys who cried wolf — flying Delta
The #boycottdelta stories at the end of this year sum up part of the challenge. Here was raw, live video as someone was kicked off a plane apparently for speaking in another language…
…But the problem is that he’s a YouTube star with a history of prank videos…
Verification is much easier online because you have access to much more information such as metadata and contextual clues.
But Adam Saleh’s video highlights a flip side to this: having access to much more information about the source of the information makes it much more likely that you can find information to discredit that person, regardless of the veracity of the information they are sharing.
Of course the credibility of the source is an important factor in evaluating that information. But we also need to separate the person from the facts of the experience.
This person’s previous air travel-related hoaxes may have nothing to do with those events. But if ever there was a modern fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, this was it. It’s not just the what — but the who — that people struggle to believe.
Gaslighting isn’t just Trump’s game — it’s the modern condition
Donald Trump is of course 2016’s number one boy who cried “wolf”. Assuming he continues to cry wolf in 2017, the situation will become more confused.
On that front, Teen Vogue’s use of the term ‘gaslighting’ was inspired. It may be too late to nominate ‘gaslighting‘ as the word of 2016 (it’s post-post-truth after all), so I’d like to put it forward for 2017 in advance.
‘Gaslighting’ isn’t just a handy term to describe Trump’s tactics, it sums up the modern condition whereby arguments and trends are started by Twitter bots…
…and foreign governments as well as our own add to the confusion.
Just as ‘compassion fatigue’ summed up the mid 1980s, it may be that confusion fatigue begins to characterise the mid-2010s.
The information wars in 2017
And so to 2017.
2003 was a boxing match; 2016 was an information war. And 2017 will see an escalation of hostilities – much of it conducted by automated scripts.
The rise of artificial intelligence in 2016, however, has added scale.
And there’s another problem…
From 2017 the Investigatory Powers Bill will allow state agencies in the UK to hack into suspect’s devices and compel other organisations (including publishers) to assist them. Aside from the privacy issues there is one major issue which has yet to be seriously addressed: the potential for tampering with evidence.
When we cannot trust the integrity of our devices, that’s a fundamental problem.
When communication is digitised and mediated we need to be able to trust the integrity of those mediating systems.
Wars always damage critical infrastructure. The unusual quality of this information war is the way that it is damaging the infrastructure of trust. In defending this infrastructure, journalists and news organisations are turning to AI as well, but the personal connections that we have will become more important than ever.
UPDATE: Jay Rosen breaks down the challenges for the US press in particular here.